Should I Go to Medical School or Nursing School?

Another way to phrase this question is: “Should I become a doctor or nurse?”

This is a difficult question to answer since there are many reasons why students might want to switch between fields. The best way to make a decision on this is to look at the advantages and disadvantages of each choice.

Nursing School Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Hourly wages for nurses range from $20/hr to $75/hr depending on the geographic area and market conditions.
  • Requires a ton of prerequisite courses. The science lab courses are difficult, but they are not at the same level of rigor as the science courses accepted for medical school.
  • Getting a license takes between 1-5 years depending on the amount of prerequisite courses completed. Those with baccalaureate degrees can become a practicing nurse with an RN  in as little as twelve months after completing prerequisites.
  • Demand for spots in nursing school is very high. There are many places with sub 20% acceptance rates.
  • Private for-profit nursing schools are available that only require a high school diploma or GED.
  • Eligibility to take the NCLEX-RN can be gained from a hospital diploma program, ADN, BSN, or MSN. It’s the same registered nursing license no matter where you go.
  • Cost varies widely from $3,000 to over $100,000. There are many community colleges that offer cheap nursing education, but they also have very long wait lists or high GPA requirements.
  • There is a shortage of nursing jobs right now in many parts of the country.  The profession is more recession resistant than recession proof. There is hope that this may change due to the Obama Healthcare Reform law.
  • Because of the shortage of nursing jobs, there has been more of a push to require a baccalaureate nursing degree as an entry level requirement.

Medical School Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Median salary for doctors in most specialties is between $140k and $200k. A few specialties can make double or triple (eg. plastic surgery, neurosurgery, etc.).
  • Prerequisite courses are more difficult than nursing prerequisites.  Courses generally required are biology, chemistry, calculus, and physics. Do not take the nursing school prerequisite versions of this course.
  • No specific major is required for pre-med studies during the undergraduate years.
  • Applicants must study intensely for the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) and score high  to gain admission.
  • It is not unusual for students to apply to 50+ schools since competition for seats in medical school is intense. Getting medical school admissions to more than one school is a huge accomplishment.
  • Medical school is expensive, even at public universities. It is not unusual to rack up medical school debt of over $300,000.
  • Medical school is four years long.
  • Another three to five years are required in residency. For surgeons, the residency period may be as long as eight or nine years. Only after completion of residency, fellowship, and a final exam can a doctor be board certified in his specialty.
  • Pay during residency is very poor ($45k starting, small raises every year). Considering the hours that are put in, the effective hourly rate is often below minimum wage.
  • Due to new guidelines on student loans, many residents will have to begin repayment during residency. If a student manages to get a deferment, the interest will still accrue on unsubsidized loans.
  • There is sufficient demand for medical doctors that they don’t need to worry about unemployment in any part of the country.

You can get into the job market very fast or very cheap with a nursing program, but the employment prospects are not as good as the employment prospects of a medical doctor. Those who choose medical school will go through a very long and expensive process to become a doctor, but doctors currently don’t have to worry about unemployment.

If you are a nursing school graduate who wishes to become a doctor, you will need to honest explain why you originally decided on nursing and what made you change your mind. If you cannot come up with a good answer for this, you may not be able to gain admission anywhere even with a great GPA and MCAT score.