Giving it All Up: From Med School to Trader

Kato's picture
Rank: Senior Baboon | 178

Hey all, I'm new to this board, and figured I'd introduce myself by conducting an interview that might be useful for those on the fence about their career.

I'm here today with a friend of mine who gave up everything to shoot for finance. My friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, graduated at the top 2% of his top target university, aced the MCAT (40) with minimal studying, was accepted into a top 3 medical school, and pretty much had it all. But he didn't. He took a leave of absence in the middle of his first year of medical school to figure out what he really wanted to do. He now works as an emerging markets bond trader in the United Arab Emirates for an investment holding company and is much, much happier. In his own words:

So why leave medical school? You seemed like you had it all.

Well at a certain point I realized that I just didn't want to be a doctor. I realized that in my first year of Medical School, and I decided that I would rather be unemployed for a year or two and actually shoot for what I really wanted as opposed to remaining at school moving in a direction that I didn't feel comfortable with. When I did leave, I was unemployed for a few months. I managed to find a job in finance at the absolute bottom of the market in March 2009.

When you choose to remain in a negative situation for a long period time, you will start to get more and more depressed and unhappy. That was me in medical school. It reminds me of this psychology experiment that I read about before. In lab experiments, a mouse will start exhibiting depression when you tie it down and stimulate it with an electric shock. It knows it can't escape and stops trying after some time. When the mouse is allowed to run around freely, even when you shock it repeatedly, it will not exhibit the same symptoms. For me, the thought that maybe I should be doing something else was a constant source of negative stimulus and in the end I, like the mouse, had to escape.

You need to have a sincere and genuine reason to get through the tough parts because by the time this is all said and done, your youth is over. I didn't have that, so I left.

But why make the decision so late?

It was a late decision. Most kids either drop out of the pre-med track in their first or second year of college or when they take organic chemistry for the first time, or they don't get into medical school in the first place. Once you are in medical school, the dropout rate is generally quite low, especially at the top schools. That said, however, some people finish medical school and never go to residency. Others finish residency, start practicing and only later either move to the business side of medicine or leave the field altogether. It varies.

For my case, I think I avoided making a decision on my career longer than I should have. I liked the idea of medicine more than the actual practice, and as I was generally good at science...being a doctor seemed to make sense.
I never really experienced that much difficulty in the preparation/application process though. It was generally quite easy. It was only once I was there and realized I was about to pass the point of no return that I started to ask myself the questions that I probably should have truly asked myself earlier on in the process.

So why finance then?

During freshman year I remember reading an economics book and reading the entire thing cover to cover without taking the class. I fell in love with the subject. In fact, I ended up majoring in Economics at my university. I didn't know that much about the actual practice of finance when I left medical school in late 2008, but I know that I was a lot more interested in watching the news about the ongoing financial crisis, than I was in my medical case studies

Finance and in particular financial markets made sense for me for 2 reasons:

1. I always loved numbers, and financial markets are all up about numbers... from the financial statements that companies release, to the pieces of macroeconomic data that move markets up and down, to the actual prices themselves of financial instruments that are constantly fluctuating all the time.

2. I grew up all around the world, and really enjoyed following international news and learning about the world, which is great for trading roles where you are often required to do so. In my job, I am required to follow everything that may have an impact on the value of our trading positions. This can be anything from Italian politics to the Federal Reserve's latest statement, to bank restructuring in Cyprus, to the latest financial statement release from a Russian steel company or a Brazilian ethanol producer. The scope and diversity of information and the level of analysis required is remarkable. It's intense and consumes most of my daily life, but I love it because it is always different and always intellectually stimulating

I've seen a lot of people engage in online "career bashing" before, and some of those remaining in med school might suspect that you just "couldn't hack it" in med school. What would you say to that?

First of all, I wouldn't bash anyone's career decision. Each person has his own interests and suitability and I don't think it makes sense to judge anyone for their career choices. So for the people who enjoy medicine and want to become doctors... that is their choice and I respect their decisions. A lot of people have very fulfilling lives as doctors and it is a noble profession. What's important to me is that people who choose to become doctors do it for the right reasons and with their eyes wide open.
Regarding current medical students' suspicion that I "couldn't hack it".... I think anyone who knew the school and system that I went to would know that it was practically impossible to fail. In the first place, we didn't have grades during the first 2 years. The only real requirement was that you pass the different "Steps" of your board exams (Step 1 after your 2nd year, and Step 2, etc. later on). Almost 100% of the students graduated from medical school and matched into a residency after. Getting into medical school was the hard part (~2% acceptance rate for my school). Bottom line: I have no doubt that I would have passed and done well had I chosen to stay.

The key question was not if I should continue but WHY I should continue. Medical school is a vocational school. The only reason to go to medical school is to practice medicine after. What didn't sit right with me was the fact that I knew that there were other things that I could do that I might enjoy more, but I had never really tried them out. Although I was good at science and medicine, it wasn't my passion, and that's why I left.

So if you were to say anything to anyone considering medicine... what would you say?

If you have any doubts, you have to address them sooner rather than later. It takes a special type of person to do medicine and really enjoy it. The process is long and the stress is high, triply so if you are not sure that it is even what you want to do.
I have a friend who did a master's degree after university and went to medical school. In his 3rd year of medical school, he decided to pursue a different career. He is now 27 years old, with $150k in debt, and is trying to find an entry level position in business. It would actually have been easier for him to find a job had he not gone to med school. Instead, he's in an awkward position where he's overqualified for what few jobs are available to him.

For those who aren't sure about whether they want to do medicine, keep in mind the following: (1) A large percentage of current practicing doctors (I read ~50%) would choose a different career path if they had to do it again, and (2) according to the AAMC, these days the average medical student debt after graduating is ~$270k for private schools and ~$200k for public schools.

Sometimes the grass really IS greener on the other side of the fence.

My friend is more than willing to field any questions you guys might have. Cheers and have a good weekend.

Comments (32)

Apr 12, 2013

Welcome. Wish I had some SB's to throw at you.

Overall, I mostly agree with what he said. Based on what I've seen, any second thoughts and any sense of ambivalence about life decisions will ultimately lead to mediocrity. I can't even imagine what kind of hell it must have been going through all of that and not even really wanting to enter the profession... I guess early bouts of success do have their downsides.

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Apr 12, 2013

Was about to tl;dr you but I'm really glad I read that.

Apr 12, 2013

How did your friend "re-brand' himself given his background? Why not something more adjacent such as sell-side pharma?

Apr 12, 2013

How did your friend "re-brand' himself given his background? Why not something more adjacent such as sell-side pharma?

"My friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, graduated at the top 2% of his top target university, aced the MCAT (40) with barely any studying, and a top 3 medical school"

Kid is brilliant and a citizen of the world (srs). No need to re-brand.

Apr 12, 2013

@Vi: My personal opinion is that to be successful in this field you need to be smart. However, being smart doesn't mean you'll be successful. I think interest and self-motivation are more important.

Also, when can I actually start quoting? :(

Apr 12, 2013

wonderful interview kato, thanks we really appreciate it, putting it on the homepage at 1pm et

WSO's COO (Chief Operating Orangutan) | My Linkedin

Apr 12, 2013

poor mouse :(

May 9, 2013

poor mouse :(

I know - all of those Excel BSD's who don't ever touch it

Apr 12, 2013

Sometimes the grass really IS greener on the other side of the fence.

Nice read, love hearing stories like this

Apr 12, 2013


"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts." - Bertrand Russell

Apr 12, 2013

Nice interview, thanks. How did your friend actually make the transition, once he left school, to becoming a trader? Would really like to hear the particulars of that, thanks!

Apr 12, 2013

Great interview. Thanks for posting. Inspires/motivates me to try and leave science for good...

Apr 12, 2013


Apr 12, 2013

I felt like that mouse during my time in the military; except I knew when the electric shock would end, but it was so far away. I drank a lot.

EDIT: Great post by the way.

Apr 12, 2013

great post and advice website for class. pagerank improvement.

Best Response
Apr 13, 2013

I got some follow-up questions via PM and have answered below

I was wondering if you could make a distinction between pre-med students and people that actually become doctors. I've met a lot of douchey and shallow pre-med kids that are clearly in it for the money and it really bothers me that these guys might be taking care of my kids. Will this be the case?

Most doctors, I find, are pretty decent people, more decent than the average person I would say. Of course, there is a large percentage that is in it for the money. However, these types would usually go for higher paying specialties like plastic surgery (and other surgical specialties), dermatology, radiology or ophthalmology. I don't think you need to worry too much about your average pediatrician, primary care doctor, psychiatrist or OBGYN. People don't generally choose those specialties for the money.

You mentioned that doctors are "noble". What do you think of financiers? Can the two professions be compared in this regard? Do you think whether a profession is "noble" should even be a consideration when making career decisions?

I would make a distinction here between the medical profession being noble and doctors themselves being noble. I have met a lot of doctors whom I would not consider noble. I remember one time we were in the hospital and we were interviewing a patient. Right after we stepped out of the hospital room, the doctor was cracking jokes at the patient's expense. I can't say I was surprised, but not exactly what I would call "noble" behavior.

In terms of the financial profession, I would not necessarily call it a "noble" profession, but it depends on how you look at it. Let's look at my job. You could take a macro view and say that investors like my company are important in providing debt financing to countries and companies across the world. Most sovereigns and companies will have debt of some sort, and those that are big enough to access the capital markets often do so. At the micro level, however, we really are just trying to make money day in and day out, just like any business out there. That my mean going short the debt of a sovereign on the expectation that their economy will deteriorate. That might mean financing a South African gold mine that just laid off 20% of its workers. Money flows in the direction of investments with high risk-adjusted returns, which may not necessarily be in the direction that is "noble" or good for society.

Whether or not a profession being "noble" should factor into your career decision depends on your own view. I think it should be given some weight, but very very little. In my opinion, you should do a career that you enjoy and that you are good at. If it is a "noble" profession, then great, but remember, you are the one who is going to have to do it every day, and while it might be a nice thought to be working in a "noble" profession, you shouldn't' make a martyr of yourself for that reason.

I'm a current 2nd year medical student in the same situation. I want to quit, but I'm not sure where exactly to look. You mentioned that your friend was looking for an entry-level job in "business"- this is incredibly vague. Candidly speaking, where in the financial services sector am I most likely to find a job if I bail right now? Where do you think your friend, for example, is most likely to find a job?

To be specific, my friend is focusing on the financial sector, but is open to other industries. He plans to come to the UAE during the summer. I'm planning to set up meetings for him with friends I have in the industry in buy-side shops, sell-side shops and brokerages in the country.

I think the best way to get a job with an unconventional background is to (1) network like crazy and (2) get an internship

(1) Meet all of your friends in finance for coffee and let them know your situation. Talk to everyone. The objective is to get an internship.

(2) The easiest way in is to get a foot in the door through an internship (paid or unpaid), and to prove your worth during that period of time so that you can have a full time offer waiting for you when you finish. I have a good friend of mine who had been at a startup fund that had to fold. He got a job at my current company using this tactic. I helped him get the internship interviews and he did the rest. Now he's full time, making decent money and has his career back on the right track.

Where might my friend have the best shot at finding a job? Well, out of all the places I listed, I'd say it would be easier for him to find a job at a brokerage (where you generally get paid a % of your revenue, with a low base salary) or at a buy-side shop. Investment banks are generally more structured in their recruiting and you would need a seriously strong connection to have a chance there.

How exactly did you find your current position?

At that time, I was interviewing with a few different places, and had started studying for CFA level 1 so that I could improve my background in finance. All of the interviews that I got were through contacts and connections. I never formally applied for anything.

I would say I lucked out a bit in finding this job. I managed to get a meeting with the chairman of my current company (a big shot Emirati) through a connection. He basically decided my fate in the span of 5 minutes. He asked me what I'm interested in. I told him I like numbers and would be interested in financial markets and trading.

He suggested that I meet with the head of my current team. The team that I'm currently with had just started up when I joined. The main guys heading the team had just relocated from a top investment bank in London to my current company. I interviewed with the team's CEO and with the managing director. I didn't have any financial experience at that point. The one thing I had going for me was a solid academic background and a willingness to work 24/7. I started work the week after the interview.

Is there anything else about med school/medical profession that the general public should know, but doesn't?

I think most of the information is already out there. Everyone knows the level of debt you might have to take on to graduate medical school, and the fact that it's almost impossible to go bankrupt on student debt (and thus have it expunged). Everyone knows that there are doctors out there who are more interested in the science of their patients' bodies than in their actual wellbeing. There isn't really any dirty laundry that I witnessed that wasn't already out there

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Apr 13, 2013


Apr 13, 2013

What a champ, thanks for the post.

Apr 13, 2013

Wow, that was well worth the read. Thanks for posting your friend's story.

Apr 13, 2013

Thanks for a great post!

Apr 13, 2013

Awesome read. I one heard that you spend your 20's figuring out how you want to spend your life, your 30's getting really good at, and your 40's and thereafter making real money off of it.

Too many people on this board just want to grind away to early retirement.


Also I have a friend who I'd like to forward that mouse study to. Can you find it? He's in a very (almost identical) situation as you.

Please don't quote Patrick Bateman.

May 9, 2013

Cool post, thank you for doing this


Awesome read. I one heard that you spend your 20's figuring out how you want to spend your life, your 30's getting really good at, and your 40's and thereafter making real money off of it.

Too many people on this board just want to grind away to early retirement.

Well thanks for summing up my life :)

Apr 13, 2013

Was in this situation in 1st year Uni when I was thinking of majoring in Biology.

Apr 14, 2013

Great post. The "noble" discussion brings an important aspect of work to mind. As a graduating senior, I've been grappling with the idea of doing noble work vs. interesting/fun work vs. well-paid work, and your friend's perspective on "martyrdom" stuck with me. If you don't like what you're doing, you'll probably be a poor "martyr" for that matter anyways...

Apr 15, 2013

great post. thanks for sharing

Apr 19, 2013

Great post!! Thanks so much for sharing

Apr 20, 2013

OP: "I liked the idea of medicine more than the actual practice..."
Question: The first half of the first year of medical school is all books/classroom/tests. Why did your friend quit before he saw what doctors actually do on a daily basis?

OP: "I fell in love with the subject. In fact, I ended up majoring in Economics at my university."
Question/Comment: Medical schools have a significant number of science prerequisites that would not be part of an Economics major. I am guessing he double-majored? I just point this out because he obviously had more flexibility than most medical students...

May 9, 2013

Wouldn't finishing medical school and pursuing a short residency with plenty of time off post-residency better position yourself to become wealthy? You could earn 200-250K from your work which you could then invest. If you found that you suck as a businessman you could fallback on a career in medicine.

May 16, 2013

Wouldn't finishing medical school and pursuing a short residency with plenty of time off post-residency better position yourself to become wealthy? You could earn 200-250K from your work which you could then invest. If you found that you suck as a businessman you could fallback on a career in medicine.

"You can make good money doing either, but if you are successful you are much better off doing finance.

Typical medical route. Go to med school at the age of 22. Graduate at 26 with $200-250k in debt. Spend a minimum 4 years in residency making $45-55k. Then at the age of 30 you come out making $200-250k a year (of course this varies a lot depending on what specialty you do, and whether you go into private practice). Now this assumes you work in the U.S. If you work abroad, you generally will get paid a lot less. And of course, you can't forget taxes which will reduce your all in pay to let's say $150k. Let's say that you are very frugal and managed to use your after tax income to pay off your debts + interest in 4 years. So now you are 34, debt free, and earning a decent paycheck.

Finance route (again this is just an example). Get a job at 22 starting at $60-70k + bonus, which gets you to the low 100s to start with. This goes up each year. Say you get promoted at 25, so now you're making $130-140k+bonus, which gets you already to the low 200s. You get promoted in 2-3 yrs, so at 27-28 you are making around $180k base + bonus, which should get you to a $300k handle minimum if you are any good. At the vp level the bonus varies a lot, so over the next few years your all-in will vary anywhere from 250k (low end) to 750k (can be more than this). So by the time you are 30, in finance you would have had 8 years earning at least $100k a year and your all-in compensation should be significantly more than $250k if you are successful. In the UAE you will get taxed at a 0%. If you are smart about saving and investing your money, and you don't get fired, you can retire very comfortably at 40.

That said, the finance route has more risk, more volatility in compensation, and you have a greater chance of getting fired in this field. You have to be good at it and you have to be with the right organization and in the right role."

May 9, 2013

2nd question: In your first post you stated that you didn't like the practice of medicine. How would you know what the practice of medicine is like as a MS1? I'm an MS3 and still have no clear idea what work life will be like outside of academic medical centers. Was there something in particular that irked you?

May 9, 2013
Mar 12, 2014