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Career Choices

autumn 2000

From nucleus - autumn 2000 - Career Choices [pp33-36]

Alan Johnson addresses career choices, ambition and the rat race.

Medicine is a well-paid secure profession with many opportunities for a varied career, but it can also be practised selfishly in a non-Christian manner. If you are not careful, it can become your god. On the other hand, medicine is a wonderful opportunity to serve others. It is very humbling to experience the trust and confidence patients will put in you. With this in mind, let us consider some of the common questions that Christian students ask when looking ahead to this fascinating and challenging career.

Should a Christian doctor or student be ambitious?

The term ambition is often used in a derogatory sense to suggest selfishness; doing a job only for what you can get out of it. However, ambition is not necessarily wrong. Indeed Christians should be ambitious for their Lord in seeking to further his kingdom. The Apostle Paul had tremendous ambition and his use of sporting metaphors rings true with the ambitious athletes of today. But Paul makes it absolutely clear that his aspirations are based not in this life but in heaven (Col 3:1-12). He was pressing on towards the goal to win the prize for which God called him (Phil 3:14). He also lists ‘selfish ambition’ as belonging to the sinful nature (Gal 5:20) and warns against doing anything out of ‘selfish ambition or vain conceit’ (Phil 2:3). In our lives we must also make sure that God is our alpha and omega, the first and the last; our ultimate priority in all that we do.

Should Christians aim for the top in medicine?

It all depends what we mean by ‘the top’! God’s hierarchy is not necessarily the same as the profession’s. The top for you is the place where God wants you - where you can best use your talents and gifts to serve him through the practice of medicine. Different positions give different, not necessarily better, opportunities. A clinical student is often closer to the patient than a professor and in some branches of medicine (eg pathology) the doctor is serving the patient indirectly. Some posts provide the opportunity to influence health policy whereas others have influence at a one to one level.

Ambition and service need not be opposites, but a right attitude to our careers, and lives in general, depends on a very real faith. The Bible reassures you that God will make your paths straight, providing you ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; (and) in all your ways acknowledge him’ (Pr 3:5,6).

How do we judge whether we are successful?

This all depends by what standard success is judged; money, fame, numbers on the waiting list, the ratio of thank-you letters to complaints? Jesus’ criterion of success is staggering: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be your slave’ (Mt 20:27). Even leaders must be ‘servant leaders’. But is this realistic in the modern age? We must not forget that it was just as revolutionary in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. We aim to serve patients, the profession (colleagues) and the Health Service, which incorporates this idea in its very name. This does not mean always being the last off duty and always working longer hours than anyone else, but it does mean an attitude of mind, that is not always pushing for personal gain whether in money or convenience. For example, serving colleagues can mean offering to change a duty when you have heard that someone has a problem.

How can I know what branch of medicine I am suited for?

Most medical students, by the very selection process, are multi-talented and many enjoy nearly all of their student experience in different branches of medicine. Most of us have one or two specialties we are not suited for and if you are, what the Americans call, ‘finger negative’ then surgery may not be for you! But for many lifestyle and the implications for church and family life are the most important considerations. Most students need help from teachers and friends, both in medical school and church, to help reach a realistic assessment of their talents and gifts. Sadly, medical school curricula are so organised that there is decreasingly meaningful contact between individual students and teachers. Students rotate so fast through different firms that the teacher has difficulty learning their names let alone assessing their gifts! Clearly, this is a problem that must be addressed. However, in the meantime, try to find people who do know your strengths and weaknesses to advise you.

It is worth bearing in mind that over the last ten years training programmes have become far more rigid and closely defined. This may make it difficult to change specialties. However, there are Department of Health plans to make it easier to change in midstream, taking with you some of the credits from the previous training programme.

An excellent secular guide to medical careers is So You Want to be a Brain Surgeon? [1] edited by Chris Ward and Simon Eccles. This offers practical advice on the personal qualities needed for each specialty, as well as summaries which allow at-a-glance comparisons to be made between different jobs. But ultimately, we must all pray and entrust our lives to God, for him to use as he sees fit.

What about failure?

There are those who see a failed exam or failure to get a job, as clear guidance that God wants them to change directions. This is not necessarily so. There may be many reasons for failure, some outside your control, and a retake (as some know from A levels) may strengthen your resolve to do medicine. It is not uncommon for people to fail postgraduate examinations at the first attempt. This does, however, give an opportunity to reassess motivations, readjust over-confidence and sympathise with others. It may well lead to reorganisation of priorities with a new determination to succeed. Even professors have been known to fail examinations and not get the first job they applied for!

In the face of failure, we can hold on to the truth that God has a plan for our lives. He gives us both a hope and a future (Je 29:11). If we continue to follow him, he promises to see us through and bring us to our appointed place (Ps 37:3-6).

How can I balance career, home and church?

All life involves choices and priorities and balancing different activities. Contrary to popular expectation there will never be a magic formula, or one Bible verse, that gives an easy answer and takes the stress out of choices. But certain specialties by their very nature involve more time, energy and nervous tension and may be difficult to combine with certain family responsibilities. You must make choices knowing as much as possible about what a certain course involves and discussing it with your spouse and other family members if appropriate.

It may be appropriate for one doctor to take a nine to five laboratory post so that evenings can be spent in church activities and other areas of service. Equally, another might faithfully carry out pioneering work in a developing country, requiring considerable sacrifice from their nearest and dearest.

A very practical problem, particularly for women students, is that because people are marrying later some may be well along a chosen career path before family responsibilities arise. Fortunately part-time training is well established and encouraged by the Department of Health, even in traditionally male dominated specialties such as surgery.

What sacrifices should I make to further a medical career? What limits should I put on my medical ambitions?

These two questions are opposite sides of the same coin. All worthwhile jobs and achievements involve sacrifice and it must be calculated and counted just as Jesus recommended to those thinking of following him in the first place (Lk 14:28-33). But voluntary sacrifice is different from involuntary neglect of other responsibilities.

Medicine can be very seductive especially when there are large financial rewards in private practice. Limits do need to be set on both time and energy. It is easy for specific Christian service, family and recreation to be squeezed out with the excuse that ‘all activity is Christian activity’. My personal limits have meant not planning academic or hospital activity on a Sunday except for emergency cover (plus not allowing the BMJ into the bedroom!)


The rat race is defined as ‘a continual routine of hectic competitive activity’. That should not be the description of a Christian career in medicine. There will be competition and episodes of hectic activity but a Christian career should be hall-marked by a calm faith in God’s plan and a confidence that you are in the right place to use your particular gifts in God’s service. Finally, you don’t have to wait till you are an established general practitioner or a consultant to serve God in medicine: as a student you have opportunities that you will never have again. Free time and lack of responsibilities are valuable assets. Students have more time to spend with patients, witnessing and serving, as well as opportunities to act as ‘salt and light’ within the medical school.


  1. Ward C, Eccles S (eds). So You Want to be a Brain Surgeon? Oxford University Press:1997

Article written by Alan Johnson

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