Medicine has always been a highly-respected career choice.
Its prestige is reflected in its popularity: InvestIN’s doctor programmes are by far the most popular and medicine has become one of the most sought-after degree choices in the country.
According to the BBC, a record number of students (23,710) applied to study medicine in 2020, a 6% increase on the previous year.
If you’re up for the challenge, it can be a rewarding career path. But even beyond the fierce competition, there are many factors to consider before you commit to it.
To get an idea of what the day-to-day job entails, we sat down with Dr Manik Kohli, a speciality registrar in sexual health and HIV medicine and an Academic Clinical Fellow at UCL Institute for Global Health. Like many healthcare professionals, Dr Kohli’s working life has changed drastically with the arrival of Covid-19, and he has spent the pandemic caring for Coronavirus patients on various hospital wards.
His collective experience makes him an invaluable source of knowledge for anyone trying to decide if a career in medicine is right for them.
Hectic and high-responsibility it may be, but if you want a stimulating career in which no two days look the same, this may be the path for you…
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What does a typical day in your working life look like?
I’ll break it down into the 2 distinct roles I’ve had in the past couple of years: my current job and my normal job working in sexual health and HIV medicine.
I’m part clinical and part research.
Today, for example [a clinical day], I was seeing walk-in patients and pre-booked appointments at the sexual health clinic. These might be people coming in with symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection, it might be for contraception needs… anything to do with sexual and reproductive health.
Sometimes I get some admin time in the afternoon and sometimes I’ll be in the clinic all day (occasionally evenings, too). I also do telephone sexual health clinics.
On my academic research days, it varies. I may be seeing patients enrolled in clinical trials ([perhaps] relating to HIV, viral hepatitis or STIs), or I might work on a project of my own.
But that’s not what I’ve done for most of the last year.
As someone who works in an infection-related specialty, I was redeployed with Covid. I’ve had various different roles: looking after Covid patients in a general ward (not intensive care) and looking after patients who are in the equivalent of a high dependency unit that requires additional support to breathe, for example.
Those days vary quite a lot. I’ve been back to doing night shifts and long weekend shifts; it’s been very different to my day job.
What first inspired you to consider medicine?
It was for all the typical reasons people think about: I enjoyed sciences, I didn’t want a job where I sat at a desk all day etc.
I do sit at a desk sometimes, of course, I have to send emails, but I spend a lot of my days talking to people: patients, relatives, colleagues... I really enjoy the interpersonal communication and the relationships you build in this job.
I think the other thing was job security. As much as medicine is often seen as a prestigious, highly-regarded profession, it’s also just a secure job. People always need doctors.
That first year of being a doctor was both absolutely terrifying and really fun.
What’s the best thing about being a doctor?
That’s a good question.
What I love about my job is the variety.
In my current role I’m doing research stuff, academic stuff, clinical trials, seeing patients, virtual consultations, etc.
But there’s also a lot of variety within my specialty. Sometimes it’s dealing with people with infections, sometimes it’s working with a vulnerable population (whether that’s people with mental health problems or people who inject drugs), and then there’s the public health aspect of it, too.
Every day is totally different; that’s what I really enjoy. I’ll turn up to work and be like ‘well, anything can happen today’, particularly when I’m working on the wards.
What’s the hardest thing?
There are lots of things that are challenging.
I enjoy my job and I wouldn’t change what I do, but there are definitely downsides, the obvious one being the working pattern.
You do work a lot of hours and you often have to do night shifts and weekends. As you become more senior, depending on what specialty you choose, that can vary.
Another aspect that’s difficult is having to look after patients at what might be the most difficult time of their life.
Whether that’s explaining to someone that their diagnosis is life-limiting or terminal or breaking bad news to someone whose relative has died… that whole thing has an emotional toll on you as an individual.
But equally, being able to help people at times like that is really rewarding.
Someone once said to me: when you’re communicating [bad news] to a patient or their relatives, it might be a five-minute conversation for you. But for them, it’s an interaction that could impact them for the rest of their lives. What they will remember is the people and the care that they or their [loved one] received right [when they needed it most]. You always have to be really mindful of that.
What has been your biggest achievement since starting your career in medicine?
I don’t like to labour this point too much because I don’t want people at the start of their journey to worry about it, but applying for medicine can be very competitive, certainly if you want to get a job in London.
But actually, I’ve found that, through rejection (i.e. not getting jobs I thought I wanted), I’ve ended up in a job that I love.
So I think my biggest achievement is that I’ve ended up exactly where I wanted to be, despite some headwinds.
If you’re wanting to go into medicine, don’t let preconceptions about the profession put you off, particularly the idea that you’re not smart enough.
Are there different pathways or specialisms aspiring doctors can choose, and if so, what are they?
There are lots of different routes you can take, but there’s no rush to pick a specialism.
Often, before someone has gone through medical school (or even applied!) they will start worrying about what direction they should go in.
And there will always be a small, but loud, minority who know that they want to be a paediatrician, a surgeon or a cardiologist, for example. They’ll be the ones running the cardiology society at medical school and getting involved in all this extra stuff.
I didn’t do any of that. I just had a great time at medical school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew I’d figure it out later.
My advice is to always keep an open mind. You don’t really know what the job is like until you start doing it. I have many friends who thought they wanted to do something all the way through medical school, started working in that specialty, realised they hated it and then started doing something else. That was fine!
How did you find your first 12 months in the field?
When I graduated from medical school I moved to London for my first job.
That first year of being a doctor was both absolutely terrifying and really fun.
It was great to be an independent adult and to be able to practise medicine on my own (though of course you’re not really on your own, you’re on a team and you have lots of senior support).
But I also remember how terrified I was before my first set of night shifts. I’ve [got memories] of friends saying ‘oh god, it was awful, so busy, there were so many things I didn’t know how to do’, all that kind of stuff.
What’s funny is, I don’t remember at what point I stopped feeling that internal stress about it. At some point, it just vanished. Now that I think about it it makes me smile; I guess that just comes with experience.
What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?
Pandemic notwithstanding, music has always been something I’ve been interested in.
At school, I used to sing and play piano, the drums and percussion. I stopped doing anything musical for a while at medical school, partly, I’ll be honest, out of laziness, but when I started working I joined a choir. I haven’t been able to do that for a while obviously, but hopefully, when things are normal I’ll be able to go back to that.
I do that for myself because I enjoy doing it. It’s often only when you’re older that you realise you need that kind of outlet. You need to make sure you have a good work-life balance so you don’t burn out.
I actually always talk about the fact that I sing in a choir in job interviews, as evidence of the skills it has provided me with and also of the fact that work-life balance and burnout are things that I’m acutely aware of and actively try to prevent.
Do you have any advice for young people thinking about pursuing a career in medicine?
Firstly, if you want to go into medicine, don’t let preconceptions about the profession put you off, particularly the idea that you’re not smart enough. I know this can be hard not to do when comparing yourself to the people around you who are also applying.
Secondly, extracurriculars can be really beneficial when you’re applying to university, but doing something you’re passionate about is also really important. You have to be able to talk about it. Anyone can come up with a list of what they think they should be doing, but true interest in what you do in your spare time really shows, you can’t fake it.
Lastly, on a more practical level, I would recommend keeping a diary of what you’re doing with your time before you apply to medical school. If you go to a swimming club, for example, and something particularly challenging happens at practise one week, make a note of what it was, what you learnt from it and what skills you used to overcome it.
Check out our guide to employability skills for more on this.
At some point, when you’re writing a personal statement, you can look at that and think ‘okay, I can link this to leadership, this to teamwork etc.’. Whether it’s something you did as a one-off, like a charity event, or something you do every week, it will be really useful to have a record of it when you get down to applying.
Don't' miss our guide to medical school interview questions. It's packed with tips and examples to help your prepare.