Why do so many elite students choose to study medicine?

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

With school leavers around the country receiving their ATAR scores, many students are beginning to enrol in their desired university courses for 2024.

However, one subject stands out amongst the rest – and it’s what many of Australia’s top elite students are choosing to undertake.

Recent research undertaken by the University of Technology Sydney, Western Sydney University, and Macquarie University has found that medicine is one of the most desirable tertiary courses for elite school graduates to undertake – beating other disciplines, such as business management, computer science, engineering, and law.

For students from disadvantaged, lower socio-economic backgrounds, it’s a different story, with the research revealing they are far less likely to undertake degrees in medicine. It’s an outcome that fuels a future where graduates of medicine degrees will not be representative of the communities that they will serve.

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A demographic disparity

Associate Professor Christina Ho from the University of Technology Sydney is lead researcher of the paper, entitled Cultures of Success: How elite students develop and realise aspirations to study Medicine and says the findings build on previous research done on inequalities in the education system – “in particular, the barriers faced by students from disadvantaged backgrounds in accessing courses such as medicine”.

“We wanted to investigate how even aspirations to study medicine are unequally distributed. Among elite students, a disproportionate number aspire to medicine while many disadvantaged students assume it is not for them,” she says.

Elite students are more aspirational

Associate Professor Ho says the study – which is based on interviews with students from an academically selective school in Sydney – found that elite students had higher levels of aspirational capacity.

And not only did they overwhelmingly aspire to prestigious and lucrative professions – they also had the skills and resources to achieve their goals.

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“Entry into selective schools is extremely competitive and these schools tend to outperform many prestigious high-fee private schools in the HSC,” she says.

“In the paper, we describe a culture of success in both home and school and how practices in both sites reinforce each other. It is a culture of high aspirations, gruelling workloads, and intense competition.

“There is a culture within the high school we studied of aspiring towards the most prestigious courses, particularly medicine and law. This creates a culture of competition to see who can gain entry into these courses, showing that aspirations are highly social as opposed to individual.”

Home life is the foundation of aspirational ambition

Whilst students within the school environment are seen to have high aspirations, Associate Professor Ho says it’s often the case that home environments also contribute to students’ high aspirations.

“At home, parents, mostly highly educated migrants from Asia, set the bar high and provide resources for their children to engage with their studies at the highest level,” she says.

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At secondary school, she says, students are surrounded by peers who are equally driven and success oriented. It’s a combination that creates great aspirational capacity, including high aspirations and also the knowledge and skills to realise those aspirations.

“Having great aspirational capacity is hugely beneficial to students because it is not just about ‘dreaming big’ but knowing what it takes to realise one’s dreams,” Associate Professor Ho says. “It is about strategic planning, institutional knowledge and how to work to a demanding schedule to achieve success.”

High achievers sometimes self-sabotage

But aspirational constriction is another issue, with the research revealing that these high achieving students prematurely foreclosed their career goals.

“The aspiration to study medicine was so dominant within our target school, in large part because of the symbolic significance of medicine. Because it is so difficult to get into medicine, it is the foremost symbol of educational success, of hard work, perseverance and intelligence,” Associate Professor Ho says.

Despite this, choosing medicine is not necessarily the best career choice for every student.

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It’s a thought that led her to question what other opportunities students are missing by barely considering other career options – particularly less prestigious ones?

“What is our society missing out on, when so many high achievers are concentrated into one profession? And what about students from less advantaged backgrounds who may be more suited to medicine but are ‘crowded out’ by high achievers?”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live