I’m a utilitarian contemplating a career change. I currently give all my income to international development (which is possible because my husband supports us both financially). I don’t have any special gift for science, etc. that would help save the world, so I think donations are the best way I can help.
I’m 26 and halfway through social work school. I enjoy social work and am reasonably good at it, but the most I’ll ever earn is probably $80K/year. I’m now thinking more about the moral imperative to earn more and thus give more.
Most high-earning careers are not ones I think I would enjoy. That means I would be fighting burnout for the rest of my career. (I'm open to suggestions if you think otherwise.) The exception is psychiatry, which I do think I would enjoy and be moderately good at. But I would need about nine years of school and residency to become a psychiatrist.
If I go to medical school and become an average psychiatrist, I’d double my expected lifetime earnings compared to social work (even after paying for school). I could give about 2 million dollars more, which GiveWell thinks turns into about 2,500 lives saved. No amount of inconvenience on my part compares with that many lives.
So what I want to do is figure out whether I could be productive as a psychiatrist or some other profession, or whether there’s a good reason I should stay on my current course.
I’m fairly smart but not competitive-natured. I think this would make me bad at a lot of careers that pay well but don’t require extra school, because there’s more competition for those jobs.
I’m not sure about my academic capabilities. I haven’t taken a real science course since high school. It’s also been a long time since I had to do the kind of rote memorization that I believe is needed in law or medical school. I’m worried that I would get into one of these and then find I wasn’t up to the work.
I have no interest in chemistry. Also, I don’t do well when sleep-deprived. Both of these might make me a terrible med student.
I’ve had bouts of depression in the past, but never ones that crippled my ability to study/work. If I were busier, they might cripple me more.
I would need at least a year of postbac science classes before I could go to medical school. This would bring the time to become a psychiatrist to nine years, plus at least a year to apply. That seems like forever, though I know when I’m older it won’t seem as long as it does now.
Investing that time in more school has an opportunity cost. If I stick with social work, I could start donating again in one year. If I become a psychiatrist, it would be more like twelve years before I could donate again. I don’t know what effect that delay would have. Psychiatry earnings would overtake social work earnings about 18 years from now.
I know I should count my useless undergraduate major and one year of social work school as sunk costs. But adding a lot more school on top of the eighteen years I’ve already done feels exhausting, and I think I’m more likely to fail now than I would have been if I’d started planning earlier.
Medical school would mean nine years of giving up many of the things I enjoy – spending time with my husband, cooking, gardening, reading. This gives me an incentive to burn out, because it would mean I could do those things again.
I’m married. I don’t want to believe it applies to us, but statistically, me going to medical school would increase our risk of divorce. This study says 51% of married psychiatry students divorce during or after medical school (about double our current statistical risk). I don’t think my marriage is more important than 2,500 people’s lives. But I do think seeing it die would make me much worse at school. Even if we didn’t actually divorce, I would expect our relationship to be significantly stressed because I would be gone or busy so much of the time.
If I quit or fail out of medical school, I’ve wasted a lot of time and money.
If my coworkers are high earners, convincing any of them to donate effectively would have a larger impact than convincing social workers to do the same. However, I’ve had zero luck persuading anyone I know (except my husband), so this may be irrelevant.
Do you have advice on powering through an unpleasant experience for a good cause? Is nine years too long to power through? Are there other careers I should be considering?
Update, May 2012: I decided not to try medical school, because I thought I would hate it. I finished social work school and am looking for jobs in psychiatric social work, which I was doing this last year and really enjoyed.