If you had told me a few years ago that I’d be applying to medical school in 2008, I would’ve said you’re nuts.
By then, I had worked as a journalist for a decade. I had interviewed presidential candidates campaigning through Iowa, Kosovar Albanians in a refugee camp in the Balkans, and survivors of a deadly tornado hours after it struck a rural Illinois town. I had covered hearings on Capitol Hill and murder trials in farm communities. I went searching for bald eagles on the Mississippi River at the crack of dawn.
No, this is not your typical path to medical school. But that is exactly what I’m trying to do, one year after voluntarily stepping out of the Chicago Tribune newsroom.
Already, I have completed post-baccalaureate pre-med courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. I’m most of the way through an intensive summer course in the dreaded organic chemistry prerequisite. I’ve taken the MCAT. I’ve applied to ten medical schools. My fingers are crossed.
I certainly didn’t plan it this way. Not when I was writing for my high school newspaper or majoring in English in college. Not when I took an entry-level job in the CNN Headline News newsroom, or when I moved to Bosnia as part of an effort to start an English-language newspaper after the war. Not when I was filing copy for The Associated Press in Des Moines, Baltimore, and Annapolis, or through most of my four years as a Metro reporter for the Tribune.
I suppose journalism is no longer the way any of us pictured it. I sent my first e-mail and first surfed the Internet just after I graduated college in 1995. Who knew what a profound impact that technology would have on my budding career? A decade later, I feel like the Chesapeake Bay watermen I covered for the AP who have been forced to build new lives as the blue crabs disappeared—only for us, classified ads are the endangered species.
Reading Romenesko was a daily depressant, but also a reality check. For a while, it seemed other papers were being hit harder than the Tribune. Then came Sam Zell and his deal, which left us, the “employee-owners,” so deeply in debt. Despite his insistence otherwise, there was little doubt that massive layoffs would follow.
Even if you survived the cuts, what’s next? More frenzied filing of unfinished stories to the Web site. Shorter, shallower, press-release stories. More hyperlocal focus on fires and crime, more wire copy and pop culture. Taking notes in the field while balancing a video camera. None of this appealed to me. Unless something dramatic comes along to shift the paradigm—public financing, nonprofit newspapers—I can’t imagine this job getting better because of these changes.
And as all this is happening, life for me has been moving on. I got married, had a son, and my wife was expecting again when Zell entered my life. Suddenly, a career choice that had seemed stimulating and romantic as a young, single man had become risky, and, frankly, self-indulgent. There are two main ways to pull your weight as a parent—through your time or your resources—and with a newspaper reporter’s salary and work schedule, I was not contributing enough of either. Nobody expects to get rich as a journalist, but at a certain point you realize that for your family’s sake you might’ve been better off becoming a plumber.
Odds were, I concluded, that the industry woes or the salary would force me out of journalism within a decade. So, I could wait for that breaking point or take action on my own. I’m thirty-four, so I have more options than I will later on. However, to make such a jump, you are forced to think as if you’re eighteen again: What do I want to be when I grow up? What would my fifty-year-old self want me to have done at this juncture? And what am I, as a longtime journalist, even qualified for?