Choosing between two attractive careers in computer science or medicine is hard. It was surely hard for me, when I had to make a decision between the two disciplines after graduating high school, and even more so when I decided to switch careers from medicine to computer science after a few years of work experience in healthcare.
In this article, I will tell you my story of going back and forth between the two fields and provide a review of the two professions, their differences and similarities, education routes, difficulty, and salary estimates. I hope with this information, it will be easier for you to consider your options and make a correct decision.
And for those who are still torn in between, I will show some ways in which combining medicine and computer science could also be a legitimate career path.
My story of deciding: computer science vs. medicine
Back in 2010, I was graduating high school and was at odds with choosing between computer science or medicine as my primary field of study in college. I knew I loved programming, which I have been doing as a hobby since early teenage years. But I also had a newly developing interest in the human body, brain, and medical puzzles.
It was agonizing to have to choose between two very dear passions and I lamented the fact that I couldn’t study both at the same time. I decided to go to medical school, where I got my MD with honors after a dense 6-year program, which included basic science courses as well as hands-on clinical rotations. It is worth mentioning that I attended a medical school in a foreign country, thus bypassing the usual pre-med college requirements for medical school you might see in the United States.
Things I enjoyed during medical school:
- Learning life sciences – theoretical subjects like molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology, histology, embryology, anatomy, and microbiology.
- Conducting research – I participated in 5 research projects during my medical training, which was the most exciting experience in my life as a med student. I enjoyed developing methods, doing animal and human studies, analyzing the data, and writing manuscripts.
- Sense of fulfillment – the idea of helping ill people get better was quite rewarding in itself.
Things I didn’t enjoy:
- Hospital environment – the sense of sickness, smell of bleached floors, examination rooms with no natural light, uniforms contaminated with patient bodily fluids.
- Patient and personnel communication – I am inherently an introvert, so I found it difficult to spend a major part of my day communicating with patients and their relatives, as well as nurses and other hospital personnel.
My clinical work experience after graduation
By the time I graduated, I already felt that I wouldn’t be happy working in a clinical environment for the rest of my professional life. My two options were to try to go into research, which suited me better, stay in clinics, or transition to tech.
At the time, the decision to completely switch my career just after finishing my medical degree seemed a bit too radical, so I decided to try and get a research position. Unfortunately, there wasn’t too much interest among researchers in my area to hire me as a research specialist, so I decided to get some clinical experience and try to generate some income.
I got myself a job as a general practitioner at a private hospital, where I fulfilled the duties of a physician responsible for mixed inpatient wards which housed patients from different departments, including internal medicine, neurology, general surgery, urology, and cardiothoracic surgery.
The job was fairly simple and involved daily rounds, treatment overview, managing consultations, ordering tests, and solving quick patient complaints. I felt capable, but unstimulated and desiring more responsibilities. Thus, after a year of experience, I took an offer to join the department of liver transplantation as a junior transplant team member, where I would be responsible for managing pre- and post-operative transplant patients and their donors.
This job was extremely demanding, requiring me to keep tabs on often more than 20 high-risk, unstable, severely ill patients at a time. It was a fast-paced environment with me managing the whole department while the surgeons were busy with transplants in the OR. In contrast to my first job, I was overwhelmed, tired, and burnt out within several months. After about a year into my position, I decided to leave and look for another job.
My experience with animal research
At this point, I decided to dip my toes in basic science research, since I really enjoyed a few projects that I got involved in during medical school. I found a job as a research assistant at a state university and was promoted to a post-doctoral fellow after 9 months since my MD counted as a doctoral degree and since I gained some research experience to qualify for the position.
During my time at the research facility (a psychopharmacology lab), I performed many experiments with a very large number of animals. In all honesty, what I expected to be an easier-than-clinical work ended up being a demanding job with typical 12-hour days (experiments often ran from 7 AM to 7 PM), as well as weekends (animal experimentation protocols don’t know weekdays or weekends; it’s just ‘another day’).
In addition, I was the only person in the lab, so I was basically juggling experiments, administrative duties, training temporary rotation students, and writing study protocols. Needless to say, I was running on adrenaline all day and only made my previous burnout worse. Besides, it’s not only the sheer amount of work that made me averse to the research environment. Research is traditionally slow, needs extensive theoretical literature review, and requires repetitive daily tasks. I craved something more playful and stimulating.
My decision to transition to computer science
I decided to transition to computer science shortly after starting my research position at the university. I put my head to it, figured out I would attend a Master’s degree for career changers, bought the GRE books, prepared for and passed the exam, and started filing my university applications.
All-in-all, I was accepted to my first-choice Master’s program in computer science and left the lab after 1.5 years in total. I was happy and proud of my accomplishment and finally felt like I was on the right path. As of now, I am studying in my Master’s program, where I profoundly enjoy all of my courses, peers, and professors. I genuinely couldn’t be happier.
It is important to point out that, while this career route and an ultimate pivot to a career in tech has worked out for me, it doesn’t mean that this is the best path for everyone who is deciding between choosing computer science or medicine. This is my personal account, which, I hope, provides some valuable information for you to make an accurate decision.
Now, I would like to give you some more objective information about the two disciplines to help you consider your options.
Computer Science vs Medicine Education
In the United States, it is certainly easier to get education in computer science rather than medicine. Let’s consider the two paths:
Traditionally, you are able to go to college for computer science directly after graduating from high school. With a typical 4-year Bachelor’s degree required to get comprehensive education to succeed in the tech industry market, you are looking at finishing your education and being job-ready by the age of 22-23.
You may decide to get a graduate degree in computer science, but this is by no means a requirement. Your education can thus be considered complete in just 4 years of training.
Medicine in the US is a completely different story. In order to become a trained doctor, you must first attend college as a pre-med for 4 years, usually by majoring in a biological science-related field. Only after completion of your first 4 years of college, you are able to apply to a medical school, which usually takes another 4 years to complete.
After you graduate from medical school and get your MD, you need to choose a specialty and go through residency, which takes another 3-5 years to complete. Only after completion of your residency, you are considered a specialist in your clinical field and your training is complete. You may, however, choose to do a fellowship to further sub-specialize in a chosen clinical sub-field. Thus, your education is typically complete in an average of 12 very intensive years of training.
Computer Science vs. Medicine Difficulty
If we talk about difficulty of studying computer science vs. medicine, it is undeniably challenging to study both disciplines. Computer science is notoriously tech-heavy, while medicine requires a lot of memorization.
However, considering early clinical rounds, stressful rotations, and night shifts, we could objectively conclude that medical school and residency take a harsher physical toll on your body. Besides, it takes only 4 years to conquer CS school, while medical trainees often have to endure more than a decade of training.
If we talk about post-graduate difficulty in working conditions, computer science still wins the medal for having a much more favorable work-life balance than medicine. While a typical week for software developers look like a 9-to-5 on weekdays with weekends off, physicians still often have to go through early-morning rounds, night shifts, and round-the-clock emergency wake-up calls.
Computer Science vs Medicine Salary
Both computer science and medicine specialists make a good amount of money. However, this is the department in which the hard work during school years pays off for medical doctors.
In fact, according to Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2022, doctors make a whooping annual $339,000 on average. Since physician salary varies a lot by the specialty, we will refer you to Medscape for the chart of doctor’s salaries by clinical field.
Software engineers, on the other hand, make $120,990 on average, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Combining Medicine and Computer Science
If you just don’t like the idea of choosing one career over the other, you may definitely follow a path of combining medicine and computer science. Seemingly different disciplines, these two have a significant overlap, which you are free to tap into as a multidisciplinary professional. While you would likely have to sacrifice some duties of a classical clinical or technical career, you may choose to combine the two by studying computational biology, biostatistics, or biomedical engineering in college.
Careers That Combine Computer Science and Medicine
By choosing to get education in the above fields, or by getting supplemental education after specializing in medicine or in computer science, you may become a professional in one of the following careers that combine computer science and medicine:
- Biomedical Engineering
- Computational Modeling
- Computational Biology
- Computational Genetics
- Computational Neuroscience
- Brain-Computer Interfaces
- Health Data Science
- Digital Health
- Health Technology
If you are unsure about choosing computer science or medicine, my best advice is for you to seek out opportunities to try each field immersively.
By that, I mean getting some hands-on experience in coding by taking an online course or two and building your own programming mini-project and volunteering at your local hospital and shadowing doctors to try to get a better sense of what it feels like to work in a clinical environment.
You have a much better chance of understanding which field feels more like you by trying them out rather than by reading internet articles related to them.
In conclusion, both computer science and medicine are supreme career choices for ambitious individuals. However, for most people, one choice usually prevails over the other, and we have provided some compelling reasons to get into each in this article.
If you are the rare type that has a strong preference for both subjects at the same time, there are options available for combining medicine and computer science that you may choose to pursue. Whichever path you pick, we hope you have a happy and successful professional life filled with fulfilment and satisfaction ahead of you!
Elmar Mammadov is a software developer, tech startup founder, and computer science career specialist. He is the founder of CS Careerline and a true career changer who has previously pursued careers in medicine and neuroscience.
Due to his interest in programming and years of past personal experience in coding, he decided to break into the tech industry by attending a Master’s in Computer Science for career changers at University of Pennsylvania. Elmar passionately writes and coaches about breaking into the tech industry and computer science in general.