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Is Medicine harder than STEM?

  1. Aug 21, 2015 #1
    Hello all, this isn't meant to be a scientific post, just a conversation. I was wondering what people think, in their opinion. As a former premed I run across a huge amount of medical students and hopefuls who looked down on other professions including STEM Ph.Ds (yes, I didn't make that up) Of course, exceptions abound and I've come across some very sweet, selfless and humble people but there is a tendency in that community to overall consider themselves above all other degrees.

    For example, on premed and med student forums a favorite pastime is to attack the intelligence of nurses, EMTs and other healthcare professionals. I've tried unsuccessfully to point out that a medical education takes 10 to 16+ years (depending on specialty and sub-specialty) but a registered nurse education takes only two, so the choice isn't comparable in terms of time and money spent getting the degree. It's not just a matter of the nursing curriculum being easier, it's that for someone who needs to enter the workforce quickly (say they have dependents, whether kids or parents) it's often the best (and smartest!) option. There's also that it's not possible to hold a job while at med school and for someone who does not have someone to support them, it's much more feasible to take nursing classes at their own pace with the option of eventually getting a Master's (which pays pretty damn well at just over 100k for nurse practitioners).

    It always made me sad when I saw all that meanness directed at other healthcare personnel. But what takes the cake for me are the claims that pretty much every other doctoral degree is inferior and no match intellectually. I have seen some of these folks posit that Ph.D Biochemists, Geneticists and Biomedical Engineers were not as smart as them or else they would have "gone to medical school." I have even seen some claim that Engineers and Physicists are not in their league but I'm not sure whether this was serious or they were joking (I hope the latter!).

    I've tried to reason with them about that too, arguing that some people (especially biochemists and other biology Ph.Ds) may not want medicine. They don't want contact with bodily fluids, they don't want to deal with patients, they don't want to deal with disease and death on a personal level, preferring to work toward cures and develop treatments on a larger scale.

    Granted, I've considered medicine until recently and was accepted at a school that was so ridiculously expensive my family and I decided I would choose engineering instead (where I live these are all undergrad like the MBBS in Australia). But even if I ended up accepting the spot at the med school, this would still be my opinion. I would just try to associate with people that feel the most genuine which I'm not saying they don't exist in medicine, they do. And of course, never at any point during my interest in medical school did I ever consider my potential profession to be intellectually superior to most STEM professions, that's just very odd to me.

    I'm actually a bit worried about Engineering school (whether I'll be able to cut it) which did not occur to me in relation to Medical school. Medical school involves lots of memorization of disease patterns and presentations. Engineering IMO is a little bit more intimidating on an intellectual level. I'm not saying that a physician's intellect isn't important (we all want a doctor with superior intellect to take care of us!) I'm just saying that the curriculum itself is just not intimidating to someone of normal to high intelligence, whereas something like physics can be.

    Last edited: Aug 21, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 21, 2015 #2
    Are cats or dogs better? The answer is: it depends on the person.

    Medical school, from what I know, typically involves memorizing large amounts of already known data. Ph.D programs are designed to allow the students to produce new research in a field. Let's not forget, doctors take 4 years of medical school and a few years of residency. Physics Ph.Ds, on the other hand, have about 4-6 years of grad school, and a few years of postdocs. Medical school is probably a bit more schedule-oriented than graduate school (I've heard more free time exists in graduate school), but med students aren't producing novel research. Some people find research easy, and others fine it difficult. It just depends on the person.

    Some people also find more abstraction difficult. Someone who hates highly abstract work would find a math Ph.D all but insurmountable, but someone who hates lots of memorization would probably fail medical school.

    And of course, I'll say this tongue-in-cheek as an engineering major: the average doctor might make more than the average engineer, but the richest engineers dominate the richest doctors.
  4. Aug 21, 2015 #3


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    My first thought is that no field has a monopoly on self-aggrandizement.

    My second thought is that med students just don't have enough contact with physicists and mathematicians so the med students can be put in their proper place... :-p
  5. Aug 21, 2015 #4
    I imagine every discipline has (insecure) people who look down on other disciplines:

    1. Mathematicians looking down on physicists because they're not rigorous
    2. Physicists looking down on mathematicians because they have no applications
    3. Physicists looking down on engineers because they don't understand the true underlying concepts
    4. Engineers looking down on physics for dealing with impractical realms
    5. All of the above looking down on biologists because biologists barely use any math

    It's important to recognize that all disciplines have made important strides that help each other. Without mathematicians, the physicists couldn't have discovered the laws that engineers use to design the medical devices that doctors use to treat their patients.
  6. Aug 21, 2015 #5


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    Any animal body is much more complex than all of math and physics which makes medicine both harder and simpler than STEM
  7. Aug 21, 2015 #6
    [citation needed]
  8. Aug 22, 2015 #7


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    Did not think the point was controversial, but here is one source

  9. Aug 22, 2015 #8
    No, Math and Physics is harder.

    For the reasons mentioned. One is abstract the other is tangible.
  10. Aug 22, 2015 #9
    Both are needed for society to function. Now let's discuss psychology majors. Psychology and Philosophy majors lol.
  11. Aug 22, 2015 #10
    But seriously pre-rec or even med students attitudes regarding math and even physics can be contributed to:

    1. Most of these students take calculus 2 as there final math course.
    2. Most students have calculus AP/BC credit from highschool, so they may not take any more math courses, maybe a general stats or math methods.
    3.These math classes are taught in a plug and chug fashion. Where students look at the solution manual and memorize the problems.

    The same can be applied to these students experience with physics courses.

    I am sure these kids skewed beliefs would change, if they are forced to take a proof oriented Linear Algebra Course.
    Kids may commit suicide in a number theory course.
  12. Aug 22, 2015 #11
    Is Medicine harder than STEM?

    Repaying the loans certainly will be.
  13. Aug 22, 2015 #12


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    I wouldn't worry too much about the opinions of students who haven't actually completed (or even gotten into) their programs yet.

    I read somewhere that people have a tendency to assume intelligence in proportion to the amount of money someone earns. This is not based on a rational assessment. It's an heuristic that people tend to use subconsciously. So what happens I suspect is that a lot of students look at the mean earnings of medical doctors, compare that to professors in other fields, and assume that medical doctors are smarter and that the medical profession is more intellectually demanding.

    (Incidentally the implications of this phenomenon in, say politics for example, are somewhat concerning.)

    In reality it's an apples or oranges comparison. All fields have their challenges. All fields have their lowest common denominator.
  14. Aug 22, 2015 #13
    Depends on your specialty I presume. Sure, it's a lot more debt, but it's also like 5x the salary.

    My cousin (who's a neurologist) once told me that by the time you decide in medical school whether or not you like being a doctor, you're already in so much debt that you can only feasibly pay it off as a doctor.
  15. Aug 22, 2015 #14
    The economics of becoming a doctor and repaying those loans now is much different than in the past. Consider:

  16. Aug 22, 2015 #15
    We've sent premeds from our lab to medical schools like Stanford and Dartmouth and I have NO IDEA how some of them made it into those schools. These are the same students that couldn't even calcate how to dilute a 100 mm stock solution of a drug to 25 micromolar in 20 ml of media. Or other students that helped do research on a project for years and could never understand what the big scope of the research was or couldn't interpret the results of a new experiment. There are a lot of them out there that are simply good at taking exams and regurgitating material.
  17. Aug 22, 2015 #16

    Hogwash. I have a degree in math, chemistry and am near completion o a Phd in engineering. I basically do biochemistry and molecular biology all day now, and biology is insanely hard. Trying to do a coIP in a repeatable manner was harder than any differential equation, graph theory proof based problem set, or quatum chemistry hw problem I've ever been asked to solve.
  18. Aug 22, 2015 #17
  19. Aug 22, 2015 #18
    It's very surprising to hear that people consider pure math to be harder than other disciplines like medicine and engineering. This smells like "I'm doing math, so I must be doing the hardest possible thing".

    Anyway, it is my opinion that the more applied you go, the harder you get. Pure math is one of the easiest things there is actually. Here you have a field in which you can actually verify truth and false in a reasonably simple manner. Sure, it's gonna be difficult to find a proof of a statement, but once you have this proof and once it is checked it is without question true. The more applied you go however, the more the real world rears its ugly head. No longer can you deal comfortably with the idealized objects of math, you'll have to deal with real-life nuisances like friction, or human behavior. This makes things a LOT more difficult. Designing a functional and safe airplane is much much harder than solving a differential equation. Trying to find cures for diseases like Ebola is much much more difficult than solving some group theory problem.
    The only reason math is hard right now is because we've been doing it for so long. It is obvious that after we've done math for 3000 years, it might not be as easy anymore.
  20. Aug 22, 2015 #19
    I know that comment is directed at me. I meant to say a Phd in engineering is not the same as undergrad Pure Math. The poster I replied to claims to have multiple degrees. One in chemistry, math, and a PHD in engineering.
  21. Aug 22, 2015 #20
    That's right, a PhD is very different from an undergrad degree. A PhD will almost always be far more difficult, whatever the field is.
  22. Aug 22, 2015 #21
    Anyway, I have a degree in mathematics. I don't think I could ever become an MD. I am not able to complete the studies. My sister is an MD, she doesn't think she could ever become a mathematician, she could not complete the studies. Take from that what you will. I think different people are able to do different things. Not everybody will be good at everything, some will be mathematicians, others will be MD's. It's all a matter of personality.
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