Case study: From physicists to physicians

After completing undergraduate degrees in physics, Henry Drysdale, Ioan Milosevic and Eirion Slade decided their futures lay in medicine. They share their experiences with Physics World

Physics World: You’ve all just finished the third year of the four-year-long graduate-entry medical course at the University of Oxford. How are you finding it? Any big surprises?

Henry Drysdale: In comparison with physics, the subject matter of medicine is easier, but there’s much more of it. I have a fairly useless memory, so I struggled to remember the sheer volume of stuff we have to know. But that’s actually been a really useful learning curve – had I gone straight from physics into the real world I might have lacked that skill.

Eirion Slade: The main issue is that as a physicist, you’re not necessarily practised at just sitting down and memorizing lots and lots of facts, and there’s no way around that in anatomy. But in physiology you can shortcut a lot of that by having an understanding of a physical system.

HD: Understanding how physical systems work is definitely a large component of medicine. For example, understanding what happens when you get a pneumothorax – a hole in your lung – relies on understanding pressure gradients, surface tension and lots of other physical concepts.

Ioan Milosevic: What I found pleasantly surprising was that approaching medicine more from an understanding point of view, as opposed to a memorizing point of view, is definitely possible. As physicists, I think we understand new concepts more quickly because we ask "Why does this happen like this?"

PW: Why did you decide to study physics initially?

HD: I loved physics from the age of 14, when I got into reading Richard Feynman’s books – I wanted to be Feynman, basically. So it was kind of obvious to me that I was going to study physics, even though I didn’t have any particular thoughts of doing it as a career.

IM: At school, my interests lay with understanding how things worked and why the universe is the way it is. The other sciences didn’t have the same level of explanation. Biology I didn’t really enjoy because it was more like "this is the Golgi apparatus" and "learn how to spell this and draw it".

ES: When you’re 18, you really don’t know enough about yourself to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life. But if you know there’s something like physics that you’re really interested in, and that is going to open up many doors in terms of your later career, it puts you in a good position. It’s also great, from a philosophical perspective, to get a fundamental understanding of why the universe exists. It’s easy to go through life and not really think about those things, otherwise.

PW: When did you decide that medicine was for you?

HD: I come from a relatively small town with a big hospital, and I started working in one of the operating theatres a couple of weeks after I finished my A-levels. That gave me a massive exposure to medicine, particularly anaesthetics and surgery, and I saw what it’s like, day-to-day, to be a doctor. But the real decision came later, when I moved beyond thinking "What do I want to study?" to "What do I want to do with my career?" To this day, I still think it would be kind of lovely to do a PhD in physics. But medicine puts you in a great position to make a significant and tangible difference to people’s lives, which was a big selling point for me.

ES: I realized I wanted to go into medicine when I was shadowing one of my father’s colleagues, an orthopaedic surgeon. I watched a hip replacement, where you take out the hip of someone who has arthritis and can’t walk, and put in a metal one. It takes a couple of hours, and then the person can walk normally again. What I find amazing is that this operation probably costs the National Health Service (NHS) £3000 or £4000, and no matter who you are or where you live in the country, you can get that treatment. There’s something quite beautiful about it, because the British public have voted to make that the case – they’re willing to sacrifice a great deal of their own wealth to make it happen. And I really wanted to be part of that system. I think it’s a great triumph of humanity, in a way.

HD: I think that’s the most profound thing I’ve ever heard you say!

ES: Really? Well, on a slightly more practical note, I like teaching, I like academia and I like doing things with my hands, so being able to do all of those things was very appealing. And on top of that, it’s a guaranteed career progression – you know how your pay is going to change, you know how your working conditions are going to change and you know you’re going to reach a position with a lot of responsibility.

IM: When I was at school, I went on the Medlink programme, which is a two-day residential course where they give you a stethoscope and a white coat and you get to pretend to be a doctor. It was really good fun, but I was pretty lazy, and I thought this was probably not a good quality for a would-be doctor. So I went to Cambridge to do physics instead, but I decided I didn’t want to go into academia; I liked the idea of research but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to study. So I became a teacher, but I didn’t really enjoy it. Then I thought about medicine and the more I thought about it the more I realized it ticked all the boxes of the things I wanted from life. It’s quite a cerebral subject, which is something I wasn’t getting from teaching, but it also had the practical application and the social interaction that teaching gave me.

PW: Any advice for someone considering medicine after their physics degree?

HD: One concern I had was that it meant another four years of study. That seems like a lot of time, but it’s gone like a flash, and actually I think it’s an advantage to start your career a few years later. So don’t worry at all about the extra time it takes or that you’ll be a couple of years older than some people on the course. It’s utterly irrelevant.

IM: If you have a degree in physics, you’ve got a skill set that many employers would kill to have, so you’re in a privileged position: you can choose what you want to do. If money makes you happy, pick something that will pay lots of money. But ultimately that’s just one thing in life.

ES: A lot of my classmates ended up doing things that they thought would be good, well-paid careers, but they didn’t really think too much about whether they were going to get much self-actualization from their job. You only live once, and the novelty of making money wears off a lot more quickly than the novelty of doing something you love.

HD: The other message I have is that technology, and specifically physics-based technology, is becoming a bigger and bigger part of medicine, so it’s getting more and more important to have people with knowledge of the fundamentals of physics as well as the training to deal with patients and the clinical aspect of it. So I think over the next 20 or 30 years, having a physics degree and being a doctor is going to be a good position to be in.

About the authors

Henry Drysdale, Ioan Milosevic and Eirion Slade are medical students at the University of Oxford, where all three are involved in the COMPare project, which tracks "outcome switching" in clinical trials, see http://compare-trials.org