Thursday, February 28, 2013

Interview: XE, an organic chemist turned medical doctor

XE is a former Ph.D. organic chemist and chemistry professor who became a physician; XE contacted me after reading about my thoughts about becoming a physician. This e-mail interview was formatted only.

Chemjobber: How much education did you need to get "current grades" for medical school applications?

XE: Luckily most of the requirements to get admitted to med school had been accomplished obtaining my B.S. in Chemistry (obtained over ten years before I applied).  Different med schools have different specific prerequisite course requirements.  I took a few biology courses in my spare time to fulfill them after I had been admitted.  I needed to take the MCAT exam as well for my application.

From your first day as a med student to your first day as a non-trainee (i.e. attending physician), how long was the process? 

XE: 8 years (4 med school plus 4 residency in dermatology).  Residency varies from three years after graduation (internal med, pediatrics, family medicine) up to seven (neurological surgery).  I did not do a fellowship, which would have added to that total.

What advantages/disadvantages do you see about a chemist attempting to become a physician? 

XE: I would separate this question into 1.  Advantages getting admitted to med school; and 2. Advantages practicing medicine.
  • The Ph.D. degree is an advantage gaining admittance, in my opinion.  Admission committees interpret the Ph.D. as a sign the applicant is intelligent, hard working, persistent, and unlikely to be entering medicine solely to make money.  I also found that being a chemist was helpful in preparing my memory.  Much of med school is memorization and recall of large volumes of facts, a skill at which organic chemists in particular seem adept (e.g. named reactions, structures, etc.)
  • My chemistry background finds daily application in practice as well.  Being familiar with chemicals helps understand poisoning, acid-base chemistry and partial pressures of blood gases, and solubility of uric acid (e.g. gout), for example.  Knowing natural product chemistry comes in handy reassuring chemophobic patients that many of the feared pharmaceuticals I prescribe are actually “natural” in origin (e.g. antibiotics, cardiac medicines, etc)
Do you see the future of medicine in the US as a positive or a negative one? 

XE: I assume you mean the future of a career in medicine in the US.  In general US medicine has to restrain cost, whose current rate of growth is unsustainable.  Different disciplines will be impacted differently over the next 10 years (specialists negatively, and primary care positively, in my opinion).  The outlook for physicians is still fairly positive, because physicians see the patient and have the most control over utilization, i.e. prescribe drugs and order tests.  And the supply of new physicians, determined by the total number of residency slots per year, has not changed in over 20 years, and is unlikely to change much in the future.

Switching from chemistry to medicine after the Ph.D. and postdoc is somewhat of a career gamble, due to the long period of training and opportunity cost.  It has worked out for me, as well as others (e.g.  It is critical that someone contemplating this move be sure they can be happy interacting with a wide range of people on a regular basis (less so if you become a pathologist or radiologist).

[Chemjobber here again] Thank you to XE for the very educational interview!


  1. 8 years after a PhD and post-doc. That's an awful lot of Ramen noodles...

    I have a former colleague who left industry to pursue his MD as well. That's a pretty heavy commitment, both in time and in finances. Kudos to those who take that leap.

  2. I guess I don't understand the process well here. But at what point do you stop paying tuition (or covering via scholarship) and start getting paid?

    It would certainly be a hard decision for most practicing chemists. The end goal is attractive - from a "what work you do" sense (I care less about the financial rewards). But you have to put food on the table. It would be a brave decision for someone who could well be mid thirties or later in life. Kusod to those who have.

    1. I think you stop paying tuition after you graduate from medical school (doesn't mean you're not paying off student loans, though...)

    2. Residents are typically paid $40-50k, not so different than a post-doc. You pay for med school, of course, and ring up living expenses over that time as well. That, combined with interest accumulated over the residency, is where doctor's huge debt comes from.

      Borrow 30k for undergrad, 150k for med school, 30k more interest while a adds up.

  3. Wow, Zewert had a Master's from Yale at age 20 and a PhD from Caltech by 23... I guess it didn't take a guy that bright very long to realize he was not in the most lucrative line of work

    1. And now he gets to work on plastic surgery. I can't figure out who came out better........

  4. XE's views of the medical profession are spot on. While XE could perhaps be a very adept doctor, he could probably get help on other things which are not related to medicine, such as administration, for example. Doctors may have little time to go over these things, so getting someone to handle the other stuff helps save time, so you can give the patients your undivided attention.

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