Saturday, 21 January 2012

"Why Didn't You Become A Doctor?"

Students are curious creatures. They ask a lot of questions. Many of them are personal. I answer questions about why I don't have children, because I like to show them that it's possible to have a happy and complete life without having children (many of them say they didn't realise that not procreating was an option). I tell them what university is like, including the fact that I partied a lot and nearly failed at the end of my first year. Some things are out of bounds - I refuse to answer questions about sex or drugs.

For all that though, there is one question I hate receiving, and someone from every single class I teach asks me every single year. Sometimes twice. "Why didn't you become a doctor, miss?" I loathe it. It makes me feel utterly inadequate, and I feel quite hurt by it, though I know that isn't the intention. It seems to be quite common, though usually directed at nurses, according to some of the 120,000 hits for the phrase - I bet it makes them feel like shit too.

The truth is that it never figured in my plan. From a very early age it was dinosaurs that I obsessed over. I always wanted to be a palaeontologist. I had a variety of science-themed toys growing up, including a Fisher-Price doctor's kit, but also a Salter's chemistry set, an electronics kit and a microscope. Grandpa was a GP, and I loved his study, complete with a skeleton, sphygmomanometer, and loads of textbooks. His three children all went into the medical profession - my uncle became a consultant radiologist, my aunt a theatre sister, and my mother a radiographer. It was all very interesting, but it wasn't for me.

I could have become a PhD doctor rather than a medical doctor. I tried it twice. The first one didn't work out. The second time coincided with the worst personal ordeal of my life, the start of my teaching career and the beginning of my PGCE - something had to give and it was the PhD. It has been suggested more than once that I am not intellectually capable of postgraduate study, and that's probably true.

So having "failed in the real world", I am a lecturer in an FE college. Don't get me wrong - I think my job is amazing. I get to spend my days helping students to feel as enthusiastic and passionate about science as I am. I am, for some of them, the only adult who shows an obvious interest in them and their well-being. In retrospect, if I had done a PGCE immediately after graduation rather than seven years later, I could have saved myself a lot of heartache, stopped myself from getting so much into debt, and Paul and I would probably own a house by now. I am proud of my job - I'd do it until I drop dead. My parents are proud of me. My husband is proud of me.

But the thing that is implied by "Why didn't you become a doctor?" is that being a doctor is the ultimate career. It doesn't matter that I have the chance to provide the biological foundation for 30 years' worth of medical students - doctors are better than teachers. Teaching is taking a bit of a pounding at the moment by the government, the media and the general public. It seems it has a similar reputation among my students. They share the same thoughts as the lawyer in Taylor Mali's "What Teachers Make" - what's a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?

Most of these kids are from families who all want their children to become doctors or engineers. So they've just grown up with the view that if they're good at biology they become doctors, and if they're good at physics or maths they become engineers. Because I'm good at biology (hey, I'm the teacher!), then I should have become a doctor. Their question is asked innocently, but the implication is still there, that in some way my career choice is a consolation prize to becoming a doctor. I got into Cambridge University - I probably could have got into a medical school somewhere. If that had been what I wanted.

Students who want to have children are able to understand why some people may not want to have their own children. So why the lack of empathy for someone who genuinely never wanted to be a doctor? Why imply that I'm defective?


  1. Interesting post. I wonder however, is the doctor question that different from the baby question in the eyes of your students? Do they ask you it because they don't want to be doctors but they are told they are smart so should (want to) be a doctor? Perhaps they don't have a good reason for it and hope you might have one? I think society presumes that smart = doctor of some sort and can't cope with variety (this is a similar assumption in my head to couple = children)
    This society needs to sort its attitude towards teachers...a teacher has far more influence than a doctor(medic) ever does, and definitely far more than the academic sort. Being a teacher is one of the most important careers out there and should be recognised and rewarded.

  2. I have an immense amount of admiration for teachers. It's difficult enough teaching in a University, let alone a school or FE college! It is just a pity that much of society doesn't recognise and acknowledge teachers for the great job they do, and unfortunately this attitude rubs off on the students we are teaching.

    One of my current concerns is increasing discipline problems in the classes I teach, and I wondered if you were seeing anything similar? I mentioned this to a teacher from a local school, who pointed out the sanctions they have at their disposal, which we don't have. After all, our students are adults, even though they don't always behave that way!

  3. That's an interesting possibility, KJHaxton - they do have an idea that being a doctor is the ultimate job to have (though an insight into their mindset on Monday showed me it was mostly "this is a science job that will allow me to have lots of money". Maybe I need to push some of the more lucrative science jobs (assuming there still are some!).

    Rob, I definitely see discipline issues as students are acquiring a greater sense that they are entitled to certain things (e.g. they demand to be treated with respect before respecting others, the rules of the class or their teacher). Having had a nasty run-in with some mature students today, I'm tempted to say there's probably going to be a big problem in universities in general soon - they don't see themselves as students; they're customers. We don't have the same sort of sanctions, and honestly our entire disciplinary system is toothless unless physical assault actually takes place.

    Thank you both for your support of teachers - of course you are (among your many other roles) teachers too, and it would be nice for society to acknowledge the vital role of university teaching!

  4. I think we have all be in a high school or college class where we felt like a particular teacher had never stepped out into the real world before, and didn't seem to care much about their students or their subject.
    Unfortunately, bad teachers can have a lot of influence on young minds. You obviously care about your students, and about biology, so you must remember that the tv spots aren't really aimed at you personally, but bad teaching in general.
    I remember that many of the people I looked up to when young were those wonderful teachers i did have from time to time, and the reason I love science and history to this day.
    Also, everybody is much ruder these days then when I grew up, and sometimes I think people really do not understand how much they hurt people with their careless remarks. I am constantly fustrated that so many people act as if there is something wrong with you if you have a mind and try to use it. They always act like you are boring them or weird. Have to take that with a grain of salt, and remember ignorance is bliss.
    Many of us are glad there are still teachers like you, thank you very much. Have a great day!

  5. I was looking (in my laziness) for a decent argument as to why someone with a bioscience background should do something other than Medicine after I got asked this on Facebook. Google took me here, which I guess is kinda cool.

    Medical practice has its ups and downs. You already know why I packed in the nursing; more or less, anyway. Those that can do it I say fair play to 'em, but there's stuff to be discovered beyond medicine.

    I make the odd "catch" here and there, even though I'm out of practice. It's still a buzz. The mind fizzes all day after a catch; like I've taken the purest, sweetest MDMA or something. But I don't need that life, that stress, the knowledge that I'll retire in my fifties with a knackered back.

    As for yourself: if a doctor saves a thousand lives in a career, and you give a thousand young doctors their start, then essentially you've saved a million lives; albeit in the manner of the Quantum Weather Butterfly.


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