How Do You Decide which Program to Pursue?
If you think you are interested in a career in the health sciences, but are not sure of what kind of career, there are a number of factors to consider.
Are you interested in direct patient care?
Nurses are the health-care professionals who probably have the highest degree of direct patient contact. (Nurses — actually all health professionals — can also enter fields like administration and education, in which there may be little or no patient contact.) Physical therapists, occupational therapists, prosthetists, physician assistants, medical doctors, and dentists also have a lot of patient contact. Most medical technologists work in hospital laboratories and have little patient contact. Environmental health specialists are seldom involved in the delivery of health care, and public health specialists usually work in more administrative positions.
Do you enjoy challenging math and science courses, and perform well in them?
Medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy require two or three years of difficult college coursework, including calculus, a year of general chemistry, and a year of organic chemistry. Medicine and dentistry also require biochemistry, making a total of three college years of chemistry. Medical technology and environmental health require many of the same courses. UW's physical therapy program will accept a shorter chemistry sequence, but most pre-PT students complete the longer chemistry sequence because they plan to apply to more than one PT program, and the longer chemistry sequence is commonly required by the PT programs at other colleges. And you must achieve high grades to be competitive for admission to most of these programs, particularly medicine, pharmacy, and physical therapy.
How much time are you willing to invest in preparing for a health career?
Bachelor-degree programs take at least four years to complete. If you don't start the program prerequisites in your freshman year and complete them in your sophomore year, a program might take five or six years to complete. The master's programs generally take two years to complete, after you have completed a bachelor's degree. Pharmacy is a six-year program: two years of science prerequisites (including two years of chemistry), and four years of professional coursework. Dental school is four years, generally after you have completed a bachelor's degree, and if you are interested in a dental specialty you might be required to complete several years of additional training. Medical school is also four years, followed by a residency of anywhere from two years to ten or more years, depending on your specialty.
If you are looking for a health profession with a shorter training program, consider the one- and two-year programs offered by community colleges.
Have you had any experience delivering health care, or working in a health-care setting?
One of the best ways to decide where you might fit into the health-care field is to gain some experience working in a health-care setting, either as a volunteer or as a paid employee. Volunteer experience is readily available; most large hospitals have a volunteer coordinator. You can also volunteer at many clinics and nursing homes. Some students make arrangements to be an observer at a private practice. Other related volunteer experiences can also help you make decisions about your future, such as work in classrooms, homeless shelters, consumer advocacy groups, etc.
Have you considered other alternatives in health care?
There are many other health professions in addition to the ones offered by the UW. A librarian can help you locate books about health careers, or look in the self-help section of a bookstore.
Community colleges offer one- and two-year training programs in a variety of health fields. Some of these have excellent job opportunities. UW Professional & Continuing Education offers evening certificate programs in gerontology and health information administration.
What if pre-health isn't for you?
You've spent one or two quarters or one or two years taking prerequisites for your health care program, you've been volunteering in a health care facility, and somehow it doesn't feel like a good fit for you. Maybe your grades arenít as strong as you know they need to be. Maybe you find that the science isnít that interesting to you. Or maybe you've found that you really doní't like being around sick people. Now what?
First of all, don't get down on yourself. You are fortunate to realize that health care isn't where you should be before you actually invest four to eight years of preparation. We all know people who have been in careers they've hated but don'ít feel they can give them up because they invested so much time and money preparing for that "dream career." Second, know that you have unique strengths and gifts to share and there are many ways to do that. If you went toward health care because you desire to serve people, consider how else you might meet that goal — teaching, counseling, helping the under-served, creating and participating in mentoring and leadership programs —and many more. Your strength and commitment doesnít change, just your route.
If you are in the position of searching out a new major, start with your strengths. What are you good at, what interests you? The best major is the one that you enjoy, do well in, and that holds your interest. Health care programs lead directly to specific careers but most majors don't. Remember that your health care, community service, and leadership skills are not just highly valued for health care. They will be equally valued in all parts of the work world. You have a range of transferable skills that you can use in many ways, in many majors, and in many careers.
Finally, after reflecting on some of these things, talk to an adviser or a career counselor to plot out your next steps. Remember, in the general population people change careers at least four times in their lives. Consider this your first career change — not the end of the world.