Nursing school requires four years of preparation to ultimately serve patients in their most vulnerable moments. In school, nurses are taught physiology, pathology and pharmacology while simultaneously developing skills that make them different: compassion, patient advocacy and unique practical intuition. What happens after a nurse has gained valuable experience at the bedside and fine-tuned this skillset? Many find themselves exploring the idea of returning to school for an advanced degree, which is typically a master’s degree or doctorate in nursing. On the other hand, some choose to take a path less traveled — from nurse to physician.
As more nurses are returning to school to pursue a more intimate knowledge of medicine, the specific pathways of postgraduate training should be tailored to the individual, as there are a variety of options available to nurses who desire career advancement. The decision to pursue an advanced degree should be thoughtful and thorough, and students should consider their career goals before enrolling in a program. When choosing a graduate degree, nurses should consider their preferences for location of practice and specialty of choice, but most importantly, their desired scope of practice. In this article, I will explore the journeys of three nurses who forged paths for themselves in medical school.
Many nontraditional students encounter a life-changing event that alters their career trajectory. This is the case for Arrianna Thompson, a graduate of the University of Miami School of Medicine class of 2020. She was inspired to pivot into health care while teaching literacy with AmeriCorps. After Hurricane Katrina, she began volunteering with those who had been displaced to Florida. It was at these shelters that Arrianna witnessed the difference that health care providers could make. The nurses and doctors worked hard to make each person feel safe, comfortable and healthy throughout their stay. This experience propelled her toward a career in nursing and she subsequently established a successful six-year career as a nurse before returning to medical school.
Arrianna’s decision to attend medical school instead of a nurse practitioner program was based on her cumulative experience: “I was at a point in my career where I felt two years of school was not enough for relatively independent practice. I’d met many fantastic nurse practitioners, but most of them had been nurses for quite a long time.” Many students who don’t have the knowledge that comes with years of experience choose the extended training that comes with medical school, residency and fellowship. At the time, Arrianna felt that this rigorous training would prepare her for a possible career in rural medicine, where resources are limited and specialist backup can be miles away, if available at all. The longer, but more comprehensive medical school training pathway can prepare students for a career in a region where physicians manage a broad spectrum of patients without the ability to refer to a specialist for support.
Jason Leong, a graduate of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine class of 2014, always had the desire to provide bedside care as a registered nurse in the emergency department and did so for four years before transitioning into medical school. As he was preparing to pursue an advanced degree, he weighed his priorities: “I initially wanted to be a CRNA, but then really got interested in critical care. As a physician, I found I could practice both [anesthesiology and critical care] easier.” Jason now works as a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist and intensivist, though his career as a nurse formed the foundation of who he is as a health care provider. Jason’s passion for anesthesia combined with his interest in critical care encouraged him to apply to medical school, rather than a CRNA program; Jason’s desired specialty and scope of practice changed the direction of his educational journey.
The final professional I interviewed was Bhavana Aitha, a member of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine class of 2024, who took an unconventional approach to nursing. She attended nursing school with the intention of pursuing a medical degree. This is uncommon, as these two distinct careers are not typically linked as a pathway. She chose nursing as her undergraduate degree because she wanted to work hands-on with patients as she developed the careful assessment skills for which nurses are trained. Bhavana acknowledged, “I knew that if I had even a fourth of a nurse’s heart, I would make a great doctor someday. Knowing what nurses endure on a daily basis has made me a more empathetic member of the [interdisciplinary] health care team.”
Bhavana was inspired to pursue obstetrics after her experiences in labor and delivery in Tanzania, Africa. She witnessed the effects of health care disparities and failing health care systems — women treated with disrespect, distressing black market abortions and subsequent loss of reproductive ability. She offered advice for students who are deciding what career to pursue, sharing, “Follow whatever path leads you to fulfilling your passion. There is so much negativity in the medical field these days, especially within health care teams … at the end of the day, it has to be about the patient. Physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, nurses and physical therapists must all work together in order to address the mind, body and spirit of our patients in order to lead them to a healthier life.”
As the landscape of medicine continues to change, exploring the different experiences of our health care team members is critical. Although medical school and its postgraduate training involve significant sacrifice, there are reasons to choose this path. Jason reiterates, “Medical school and the subsequent training is a huge investment of time, energy and finances, but it is so rewarding if you are in it for the right reasons. Enjoy the ride, it’s quite wild.” More students are choosing alternative paths to medicine, bringing new perspectives to patient care. When planning a pathway of training in medicine, thorough self-assessment of career and specialty goals, desired scope of practice and future location are all important considerations to help one achieve a fulfilling career and life.
Image credit: Custom drawing by Megan Pattoli for this column.
After working in the Emergency Room as a registered nurse for three years, Coco made the transition into medical school at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. The column Switching Stethoscopes describes a medical student’s journey from nurse to doctor, while reflecting on the “non-traditional” path some students take to become a physician.