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How Do I Decide Which Program to Pursue?

Making the decision to pursue health science education is a deeply personal one. It involves assessing your strengths, interests, and values. You may have a strong desire to serve humanity, a hope for a well-paying career, or a passion for science or any combination of characteristics that are unique to you. Students often feel pressure from family or peers to go into a health career, or may be influenced by media.

Each student owns his or her process for decision making about a future in the health world. It must be self-reflective and experiential, and not merely one long checklist of activities, courses, and test scores to take care of.

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.


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.

Volunteering allows you to observe people who are health care providers and to connect with health care clients. Many health care programs require their applicants to document volunteer or paid experience in health care for admission. Community service and teaching or tutoring are valuable ways to learn more about leadership and diversity, and clarify personal values, assumptions, and responsibilities.

Step 1: Think about what you want to do

  • Is there a particular issue, topic, population you want to be involved with?
  • What type of environment would you prefer? Most of your volunteer work will be done locally, but think about the opportunity to volunteer on a global scale.
  • How much time do you have to volunteer?
  • How will you get to your volunteer site?
  • How could this experience contribute to what you're learning in the classroom and to your personal and career goals?
  • Are you considering an international volunteering experience? If so, be sure to review the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) Guidelines for Premedical and Medical Students Providing Patient Care During Clinical Experiences Abroad

Step 2: Find the facility that works best for you

There are many excellent facilities in the Seattle Metro area and you should explore as many options as possible before making a decision. Health care facilities might include a medical center or large hospital, community clinic, family planning center, hospice, or long-term care facility. Community service sites are everywhere. Look at food banks, shelters, after-school programs, support groups for people with illnesses (like the Lifelong AIDS Alliance or The American Cancer Society) or disabilities. Schools, summer camps, recreation programs, and youth groups can give you teaching and leadership experience.

University of Washington pre-health students have created an online resource of recommended health-related volunteer opportunties: 

The University of Washington's Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center can connect you to internships, service learning, tutoring, and volunteer opportunities.

The Pipeline Project provides tutoring and mentoring to elementary, middle and high school students in our area. Jumpstart, an early childhood education group, works with UW students to provide mentors for low-income preschool children in order to build their language skills.

The King County portal of links to health services provided by King County government has listings of area hospitals and clinics. The Yellow Pages have quite a few listings under Clinics, Hospitals, and Nursing Care. United Way of King County has an extensive list of volunteer opportunities.

Step 3: Find out what they expect from you

Contact the facility or organization you're interested in. Many places have web sites that will tell you how to contact them and what they are looking for. If you don't have that information, call the facility and ask to be connected to the volunteer coordinator. Before you make a commitment you should visit the facility and talk to the coordinator about expectations for volunteers. A well-prepared volunteer applicant will present a printed goal statement and resume of previous work and volunteer experience and dress and act professionally.

Step 4: Understand the limitations of volunteering

  • Most health care facilities start volunteers out doing things like pushing patients in wheelchairs to X-Ray or the lab, delivering flowers, taking specimens to the lab, helping patients with meals, or doing routine office work. Ask what jobs are available.
  • If you have a choice, ask for a job that allows you to observe the interaction of health care professionals with patients rather than an office assignment where you will have little patient contact.
  • You should never be asked to do something that requires special training; nor should you ever assume that you are able do more than you've been asked to do.
  • Often you'll find that you'll be allowed to do and see more after you've been at the site for a few months and demonstrated that you are trustworthy and reliable.

Step 5: Make it matter

At its best, volunteering is an opportunity for you to explore and evaluate a career area as well as experience the world in a new way. You can seek out volunteer sites that will connect you to people and situations that may be new to you. Volunteering is a way to develop your innate compassion and caring for others.

There are several ways to build on your volunteer experience.

  • Create a portfolio to document your learning. Keep examples of the volunteer work you do, such as a log of your hours and a description of what you did, reports or projects you completed, photos of students you've tutored.
  • Keep a journal where you record your experiences and insights. This helps you think critically about what you're observing and experiencing.  

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 the health sciences aren't right 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 aren’t as strong as you know they need to be. Maybe you find that the science isn’t that interesting to you. Or maybe you've found that you really don'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'’t 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 doesn’t 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.