Jan 2016: Starting Over / life / STEM

Starting Over After 12 Medical School Rejections

Starting again after a breakup is hard. That part of you daily life gone, and all future plans abandoned. But my hardest breakup wasn’t with a person, but a plan for my life.

As a teen I had toyed with the idea of various careers. Most had centred around the science-sector but there was also that time I wanted to make adverts for Honda, bring my appalling acting skills to the world of theatre, or my ill-advised ‘I’m going to go to art school’ period. None of these had ever really stuck though and I’d always been left feeling like there was something more out there. There wasn’t that ‘spark’, if you will, until one day at 18 years old all of that changed.In that romcom-style moment of realisation I discovered that everything I ever wanted was right there in front of me all along. I had walked into a hospital that morning to continue learning about life in a pathology lab, but had found my gaze drifting off from the blood oxygen machine, and instead lusting after the role of others on the ward. I walked out of the hospital that afternoon and everything was different. I had realised that what I had wanted all along was to be a doctor and suddenly everything made sense. I felt like I had discovered what it really meant to want something. This day set off the chain of events that would grow to become my most all consuming (and longest) relationship ever.

Medicine, as I’m sure a lot of you are aware, is very difficult to get into. I had to be willing to put everything in to have even the slightest chance of success and so that’s what I did. It became an obsession. I thought about it every single day, even going over interview questions in my head in the shower. Every decision I made in the next five years was the one I believed would lead me to medicine: I would have given up everything for it.

I told myself that this was everything I ever wanted, that anything I needed from life would come from this, and that becoming a doctor was the only way I would every truly be happy. I applied to 12 medical schools, over three UCAS applications, at ages 18, 19 and 23. After failing to gain a place the first two times and a disappointing gap year I went to study Biomedical Science: a degree chosen because I could use it to apply for graduate medical school. My degree only made me more driven and this goal slowly took over my life. So, when I failed to gain a place the third time round, after a fair and expansive interview, I was devastated to say the least.

I don’t think I’ve been as upset about anything else as I was when I had to abandon my dream to become a doctor. Everything I ever wanted was gone. I was left without any plan, without my raison d’être. I spent days in my room crying my eyes out and truly believing that I was now destined for a life where nothing would really make me happy. I didn’t know where to go from there or how to start again. Something I had thought about every single day for five years was gone and I felt completely lost.

After a while, I realised I needed a new plan. I was graduating from university and didn’t have anything that even vaguely resembled a backup. I was left with an empty basket which had once held all my eggs and I needed some new chickens. A friend of mine was doing a Masters in Science Communication, something I didn’t even know existed beforehand. It looked more like fun than work so I researched into it and, as old habits die hard, I came up with a new plan. I would go home, work for a year to save the money, and return to my Uni city of Sheffield to do this Masters. A coincidentally well-timed perusal of the Science Museum’s website led me to a job vacancy that sounded pretty damn cool, and expecting nothing to come of it, I applied. Four days after finishing university I started this new job as an Explainer, and my life now couldn’t be more different from what I had intended.

One year on I had abandoned all previous plans, got another job in the museum and moved to London. I don’t earn a lot, I often have to wake up before 6am to drive a van across central London and I did spend most of today arguing with security guards about parking. But none of that really matters, because for the most part I am doing something I absolutely love and care about. A couple of years ago I would never have imagined my life to be this interesting or bizarre. I no longer have a life plan. I don’t even know where I’ll be next summer, and because of this I am more happy and feel more free than I’ve ever been: something I believed would never happen if I wasn’t a doctor.

It turns out not achieving the one thing I wanted more than anything else was the best thing that ever happened to me.

So the moral I have tried to draw from this tale is by all means have a goal, and work hard to achieve it. But make sure it’s really what you want, and make sure that when you work hard for it that you’re rewarded for that work. There was nothing good about spending years putting everything I had into something and still being told I wasn’t anywhere near good enough. It’s great to have a motivator, but make sure that you’re not so blinkered in your looking ahead that you miss all the great and unexpected opportunities in your periphery. And don’t trick yourself into believing there’s only one thing that will make you happy.

I will leave you with this song inspired by a hypothetical graduation speech and very fitting to the topic, with two very important pieces of information:

  1. “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t.”
  2. Wear sunscreen. It’s important, and a really easy way to try and reduce your risk of skin cancer.

Well, I couldn’t write something and not put any science in it.


– Holly Palmer


4 thoughts on “Starting Over After 12 Medical School Rejections

  1. I was in the exact same boat with my art career so much so that I felt everything that was said here. I was in and out of jobs because I felt defeated that I never got into my ‘dream career’ but I’m glad I’ve landed into blogging because that was a combination of unexpected and giving things a go. I’m loving it and I’m glad in a way I took the path I did to get here.



  2. Great piece! I know what it’s like to change your life plan for something that ultimately makes you more happy. It takes courage, risks, and motivation, so congrats to you for all of that. I’m glad you’re current journey is going well. 🙂


  3. Holly, this was a fantastic piece and it really rang true for me too. I was also encouraged to consider Medicine as a course but when I didn’t get the grades at A-Level they funnelled me in to Mental Health Nursing.
    I cracked under pressure when it came to placements and ended up having to leave.

    I’m now glad I did because I’ve found the right course for me and I’m soon to graduate from that so you and Baz are right, you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t know what you want to do… and don’t let other people tell you what it is either!

    | princessparasox.wordpress.com | bloglovin’ |


  4. Pingback: Mental Health and University | princessparasox

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