Many physicians will tell you their path to medicine began in their youth. But for others, a career as a doctor was a later-in-life decision, a change of plans, a new challenge — for whatever reason, career number two.

Indeed, recent years have seen an increase in first-year medical residents over the age of 29 in the U.S. and Canada, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. As the number of first-year medical residents has increased overall, the percentage of first-year residents over age 29 also increased — from 35 percent of the total to 35.2 percent from 2012 to 2016. That amounts to about 360 more medical trainees who made the later-in-life switch.

“These are people who may have been interested in medicine, but for whatever reason chose not to pursue it, and later decided that now is the time,” said Geoffrey Young, who oversees student affairs for AAMC. For some, the years in between were “gap years,” or working just to rebuild savings. But in other cases, people have built a robust career before even applying to medical school.

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Dr. Deirdre Mattina took that route. She pursued a degree in dance while taking premed classes at Cornell. “I’ve always really liked science,” she explained. “So I was switching between dance and premed.”

She graduated in 1999. But instead of going to medical school, she ended up joining the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Despite the physical demands, Mattina loved performing and traveling.

“Then 9/11 happened,” she said. “And a lot of things just became a lot less important.” Mattina began to focus less on a dance career and more on contributing to society as a physician. She got a taste of it when she volunteered at a clinic in Ghana. She spent two more years with the Rockettes while applying to medical schools, graduating from the University of Michigan in 2007. Now a cardiologist, she directs the Women’s Heart Center at Henry Ford Heart and Vascular Institute in Detroit.

Rockette
Deirdre Mattina (right) and fellow Radio City Rockette Jennifer Newman outside the Fox Theatre in Detroit in 2001. Courtesy Deirdre Mattina

Dr. Elizabeth Swenor had longed to be a physician since childhood. But in the 1980s, she was instead teaching fifth- and sixth-graders in a rural Michigan school district.

“I come from a family of educators,” she said. “So going into teaching was just what you did.”

And she was good at it, even getting statewide recognition as teacher of the year. But her dream job nagged at her, even as she had earned a master’s degree and planned to become a school principal, as her father had done. “But then I thought, ‘No. I absolutely know what it is I’m supposed to do, and it isn’t this,’” she said.

It was still an emotionally wrenching decision, but she credits her parents’ supporting her career change at age 32.

“My mom wrote my resignation letter, I signed it, and my dad mailed it,” Swenor recalled. “Then I sold my house and moved in with my parents while I went to medical school.”

For emergency-room physician Dr. Dafydd “Dave” Williams, medicine was more like a first and third career — a steady job he returned to after his dream career. Williams trained as an emergency physician and practiced for a few years before joining the Canadian Space Agency in 1992. “I had wanted to be an astronaut since I was a little boy,” he said.

Williams was an astronaut for over 25 years. He went on two space flights, including traveling to the International Space Station in 2007, as a mission specialist on the space shuttle Endeavor.

After retiring from the space agency in 2008, Williams returned to medicine — “once a physician, always a physician,” he said.

Unique perspective

Many second-career physicians say their prior career continues to inform how they practice medicine.

For instance, after Dr. Clayton Cowl graduated premed with a minor in journalism, he worked as a reporter while studying for his graduate degree. “I covered science, but I also covered horse-show jumping,” he said. “And I would be studying between stories.”

He later went to medical school at Northwestern University. Now a pulmonologist at the Mayo Clinic, Cowl said that his background as a reporter helps his medical career.

“Interviewing skills are extremely important medical skills, and not really emphasized enough in medicine,” he said. “I think that as a reporter, you really have to listen to get the story. Doctors don’t do that as much or as well.”

Mattina, the former dancer, said her earlier career taught her the discipline needed as a doctor.

“Today I work 10 hours a day, and when I go home there are more journals to read. [With the Rockettes] we were rehearsing eight hours a day, six days a week. And it’s synchronized dancing, so you’re working as a team, which you have to do with your medical colleagues,” she said.

For her part, Swenor — who’s now practicing osteopathic medicine in Michigan — said she is still very much a teacher.

“When you’re developing lesson plans, you take into account the fact that everyone learns differently,” she said. “I try to address that with my patients. And I give them homework. Things like food journals and sleep journals, but I also give them things to read. And they have to be ready to have a discussion about it when they come back.”

A career gap

Some doctors are especially aware of differences between their old and current jobs that go beyond the obvious.

For Williams, the former astronaut, it’s the counterintuitively lower stakes of space flight. “Fallibility is the scary part of being a physician,” Williams said. “In space, it’s a ‘zero fault tolerance’ situation — we have to make sure that there are no errors, or that errors that do occur don’t have mission impact.

“And patients would like us to have zero fault tolerance in their treatment. … [But] with a shuttle mission, if something goes wrong, you can try again tomorrow. You can’t always do that with a patient.”

For others, there are simple regrets. “I really love to dance, and I miss it,” said Mattina. “But there’s not a lot of dancing in cardiology.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of medical residents age 29 and over. The article has been updated. 

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  • I relly enjoyed this article. So interesting to hear how life’s paths change and how very fortunate we are to have those that ended up dedicating themselves to the welfare and care of others! We appreciate you!!!

  • I am one of those who did not start medical school until I was after 30. I used to linger in physician-only websites, but was put off by the constant complaining of my colleagues regarding work hours, pay, decreasing autonomy, etc. I wonder how many of them have ever had a job requiring them to get up at 4am 6-7 days a week at minimum wage without paid vacation. I think years of work in other careers before medical school lets me keep things in perspective, in touch with my many blue collar patients.

  • When you are young, full of ideals and … foolish. You follow your “heart” and do what inspires/fulfill you. Later, you realize that life lead you to a dead end and struggle to make ends meet, while being a doctor will assure you a brilliant and awfully well paid future. It is called: with age comes wisdom.

    • Not all doctors make that career change for a paycheck and to have a good life. They choose this career, so others can have good lives.

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