Please Don’t Hate the Pre-Meds

In an op-ed in today’s Daily, junior Shahryar Kamal Malik takes issue with Stanford students’ vilification of their peers who hope to work in investment banking or consulting. Mr. Malik argues that this antipathy has developed, at least in part, because of our deep desire to be perceived as “authentic” and “different:”

Stanford students, like college students anywhere else, like to be reassured that they are diverse creatures or rather, clear outliers in the pack. At first I was naively surprised to see Stanford students using buzz words such as “sustainability” or “development” (arguably the most ambiguous words for expressing career interests) and attracting envy and respect from their peers. Apparently doing anything at all, besides the cliché of finance or consulting, of course, could potentially convey an authenticity of character.

There are, of course, a lot of questions to be asked about this phenomenon, which I’ve encountered on campus numerous times. Is Mr. Malik correct in deeming our aversion to settled career paths “part of an emerging trend of… intellectual elitism,” or does this attitude simply reflect our deeply-seated preference for careers which allow us to engage in semi-direct public service? To what extent does this attitude foster economically useful entrepreneurship, and to what extent does it simply breed unfounded contempt for highly useful occupations? Has the Stanford community defined public service too narrowly (and forgotten where quite a bit of the funding for service organizations comes from), or are we correct to focus on careers that contribute more directly to the public good? These are good topics for discussion, and I appreciate Mr. Malik’s contribution to the conversation. I might take them up on this blog later on in the month, or perhaps in a column next quarter. But for now, I have a more personal ax to grind. Here’s another quote from Mr. Malik’s op-ed:

Not surprisingly, the years preceding the financial crisis witnessed pre-medical and pre-law students facing similar antipathy.

Now, I don’t like to complain about being pre-med too much (which isn’t to say that I don’t complain about it). But I’m kind of tired of hearing about how awful we are as a class of people. I get it all the time. Pre-meds are soulless automatons who rush from requirement to requirement without ever engaging with an idea. They’re intellectual cowards who can’t imagine life outside of their little pre-determined career flowchart. They wreck the grade curve for real students who care about learning and not just memorizing minutiae. If they *really *cared about helping humanity, they would work on climate change/global poverty/racial justice/insert your favorite issue here. For crying out loud, even the admissions rep at UPenn Med School felt obliged to include a bit in her presentation about how they weren’t looking for “traditional pre-meds.” It’s frankly a little bit disheartening.

What really irritates me is that being a pre-med simply means that I’ve figured out- within certain rough outlines- what I want to do with my life. I’ve determined that the best career for me, the one in which I will be able to do personally fulfilling and socially useful work while putting all of my natural talents to good use, is one in medicine. That conclusion comes with certain practical consequences. You can’t be a doctor unless you go to medical school, and you can’t get in to medical school unless you fulfill certain very specific requirements. In order to pursue the life path which I have chosen (after personal reflection and various experiences), I must complete a very specific list of tasks. You can’t ask me not to care about checking things off that list without also (at least implicitly) asking me not to care about being a doctor.

I should also add that it is very possible to still do intellectually stimulating, spiritually uplifting, and publicly useful things while checking off all of those little boxes. My fellow pre-meds and I are legitimately interested in microbiology, neuronal development, developmental pathways, cellular compartmentalization, and the million and one other things we study. The mere fact that I’m getting credit on a resume for doing public service work at a free clinic doesn’t mean that I’m not doing it because I care about giving under-served populations access to good health care. And that whole grade-curve / memorization thing? Here’s a solid fact: my ability to perform well in my chosen profession depends largely on my ability to memorize a lot of facts (such as the proper treatment for bacterial meningitis, to pull an example out of thin air). It would behoove me to get used to that. And I simply don’t buy the idea that any Stanford student ought to adjust his or her academic habits in order to avoid setting a high standard for a class.

Mr. Malik is correct, I think, in blaming some of this attitude on an aversion to “pre-defined career paths,” and a common desire to “convey an authenticity of character.” Now, I’ll freely acknowledge that we pre-meds, pre-law students, and i-banking hopefuls (as well as pretty much every techy major on this campus) have- on many occasions- brought hatred down on our own heads by acting superior to those whose interests and talents lead them down non-traditional career paths. But what I’d really like to argue is that that our “career path” is not what makes a fulfilling, useful, meaningful, and productive life possible. There is no shame in deciding to stick to the beaten path- but nor is there any shame in choosing to leave it, as long as the decision is made for the right reasons. NGO activists, non-profit managers, startup founders, members of the TFA corps, and community organizers do amazing things for our society; so do doctors, lawyers, programmers… and yes, even bankers and consultants. “Authenticity of character” is not incompatible with a “pre-defined career path.” If we begin to think otherwise, we cease to care about authenticity and start to idolize hipsterism and quirkiness.

So please, let’s all do some thinking about our assumptions about the relative value of certain careers. Bridge the chasm that separates pre-professional students from the rest of the student body, cross the techy-fuzzy divide, and take the time to understand why people have made their career choices. And next time you run into a pre-med, please be nice!

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