If you had to choose between becoming an engineer or a doctor, what would you choose?

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This question was posted on Quora and was answered by Liang-Hai Sie
Both our daughter and I myself had faced this choice, 10 and 50 years ago.

Becoming a doctor:

  • after high school, it takes between 9 to 13 years before one can practice on his/her own, if you need to take out a student loan, you will spent the first 10 years after finishing residency paying off your debt so you can start living after being 40-45 years old.
  • The working week is long, your profession will impact heavily on your private life, without a supportive partner you couldn’t have a happy family life.
  • in many parts of the world finding a job wouldn’t be a problem (it is now in The Netherlands), and the pay often is quite OK, when compared to engineers, but will vary widely depending of your specialty.

source: Medscape: Medscape Access

Becoming an engineer:

  • It takes “just” 5 years after high school to graduate, after that engineers will go on educating/training themselves on the job, but have a decent paying job, unlike the underpaid resident doctors in training for medical specialist often making ± $ 60,000 a year.
  • In many countries income would be lower than a doctor’s, but social life would be better because of the more civilized working hours.
  • according to Engineering Salaries on the Rise – ASME in the US engineers make an average income of $ 103,400.- including bonuses.
  • people’s skill are also very much needed if one aims for a management position.

When I was at high school, I always thought I would become an engineer, but just before graduation decided that was too hard to do, studying medicine seemed to be better suited to me, my father, my uncle, my older siblings and cousins either were docs or were doing med school, and not complaining, so I decided to become a doctor, and never regretted it.

When 10+ years ago our daughter was to graduate from high school, having chosen a very versatile “study profile” making it possible for her to do both med school and engineering, the thought that it took between 9 up to 13 years after high school before she could practice independently, contrasting with a “mere” 5 years doing engineering, made her chose to do biomedical technology over medicine, what she “always” had wanted to do. No financing problems here since tuition was just around € 1,650 yearly and everybody got a government sponsored scholarship, after a few years a loan with just 2,5% interest if you took >1 year longer to graduate, or transferred to another faculty.
After 1,5 year she became disappointed at not working with people which she felt was so important for her life, just a lot of mathematical formula’s, so she stopped doing engineering, not knowing what next to do with herself, then almost 20 yo. After a lot of doubts her old interest (medicine) surfaced again, this time being a bit older better equipped to see the consequences, she decided it was to be either med school or psychology.
So she interviewed a psychiatrist uncle, his psychologist wife, one of my female partners, married with a child, on how they experienced their private and professional life, and with the last lady doc how she arranged her household and child care with both parents working as medical specialists, also our head of psychology department at that time the Secretary of the Dutch Psychologist’s Union.
At the end she chose med school.
She became a lot happier after being admitted to med school.
Now she’s an MD Ph.D candidate, very happy with her research job, but having great uncertainty what to do next this fall after finishing her Ph.D, since at present it’s very difficult for young medical specialists to find suitable openings, at present around 50 young surgeons have no paid jobs, just working at the hospital where they did their last residency without pay so not to lose their dexterity and certification. Others do locums. In the specialism she wanted to do clinical genetics the University had to let people go due to budget cuts, sometimes after a 10 year tenure… Very unsettling, especially since these highly specialized docs aren’t equipped to do other medical work without first doing retraining. Imagine this happening to you at around 45 yo.
EDIT: we now have 168 young medical specialist on Social Welfare out of a total of 670 jobless medical doctors (spring 2015)

Wishing you all the wisdom in your choice.

EDIT 2016: our daughter who after attaining her Ph.D worked as a post doctoral researcher, at the same time supervising two junior would be Ph.D students, could live with the publication pressure they all had to deal with, so left academis on the brink of a burn out, took 10 months to recover, and now has started a new life as a Information Analyst bridging the divide between clinical docs and ICT. At present she’s very happy at her new job, being able to make enough money while working 4 day weeks, no longer under such pressure as in academia.

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