‘Changing one’s preferences’: From art to medicine

I was recently asked to speak about my pathway into medicine to year 12 students in Victoria during their ‘change of preferences’. Change of preferences is the window of time after students receive their final exam results and may have to reconsider their initial preferences to enter a university course. When I think about these young people, receiving their results at the end of a very difficult, Covid-disrupted year, I realise what a hard decision this must be for some of them, and reflect on the decisions I have made throughout my years studying, before settling in medicine.

When I was in year 12, I vaguely fluctuated between wanting to be a florist in Brisbane and running away to Russia by myself, although was finding it difficult to convince the local travel agency in the rural town where I lived to help me look into the sponsorship and visa requirements. My year 12 exam results were excellent, and to my huge disbelief I was made dux of my high school. I think back to this time and wonder if I could have embarked on my medical studies straight out of high school. At the time however, it seemed unattainable and frankly, undesirable to 17-year-old-me. No one in my family had gone to university, and while I was never told I ‘couldn’t be a doctor’, I was never really told I could be one either. The only doctors I had ever come across were the (mostly) older male GPs at the town clinic. While I’m sure there was probably a ‘change of preferences’ time where we could re-shuffle our university preferences based on our marks, I knew by then what I wanted to do: study art history.

Art had been my favourite subject throughout high school and I was enchanted by the (heavily romanticised) notion of working in museums and art galleries. Even though our small town in Northern NSW didn’t even have an art gallery until after I had packed up and left to study my Bachelor’s degree, I was invested in the idea of understanding the world through art, society and culture. I completed my study, majoring in art history, with a minor in film theory. I never did end up in Russia, though I undertook electives in Russian language over my summer semesters, and those years studying at University of Queensland are some of the best in my life. And because I was happy, and supported, and curious, I once again did well academically and was inspired to pursue postgraduate study in the field.

I commenced the Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation at Melbourne University, and entered the ‘behind the scenes’ world of art galleries and museums, learning how these institutions operate and working with historic objects of great wonder. This was truly what 17-year-old-me had envisioned doing: it was practical, academic and slightly magical. It was at this time that I began to gain so much more confidence in myself and my abilities. I met my future husband, friends I would have for life, and grew in ways that I would never have thought possible. I was working more with community-based projects and began to enjoy so much more of the people-related aspects of the arts and cultural field. I began to wonder about the ways art and culture plays into someone’s wellbeing, and how I could make more of a difference to the communities around me.

When I decided I was going to apply for medicine and sit the GAMSAT, I had a strong feeling that I was tapping into a part of myself that had been there all along. I hadn’t taken any maths or science subjects in year 11 and 12, so I started tutoring myself by getting out textbooks at this level from the library, and very slowly, learnt what I needed to sit the GAMSAT. I told myself that I only wanted to sit it once, but if I hadn’t passed that first time with enough marks to get into Deakin University, I do wonder if I wouldn’t have just kept trying, like so many people do, when you realise that medicine is probably what you were meant to be doing all along.

The notion of pursuing what interests you has been central in my message to the current year 12s deciding their future. I loved studying the arts and I hope to incorporate principles of social and cultural wellbeing into my practice of medicine in the future. I also feel fortunate that I was able to apply to postgraduate medicine without having a biomedical background, as there is no way that this is something that would have ever interested me when I was in high school.

I think this represents a shift in the understanding of what makes a good doctor, and recognising that diverse backgrounds often create doctors that are more holistic and empathetic, as well as better communicators and problem-solvers. I hope this will shift even further as young people continue to find diverse role models and mentors in unexpected places that inspire them, regardless of their background, geographical location or interests in life. I also hope that any young person leaving high school, considering medicine or not, is given the space, support and time they need to consider their future and can find a way to nurture their curiosity and passion.

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Meghan Ellis