Why Medicine And Not Nursing? (How To Give The Perfect Answer)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

“Why do you want to be a doctor and not a nurse?” It’s an incredibly simple but challenging question that frequently crops up at medical school interviews.

To deliver a convincing answer to “why not nursing?” you need to contrast the roles of doctors and nurses against each other while tying this in with your motivations for medicine. Avoid broad reasoning that could equally apply to both professions such as “I’m a caring person.”

To truly nail this common interview question, you need to have a solid understanding of the differences between the two roles as well as what it is exactly that draws you towards medicine.

In this article, we’re going to cover exactly what each profession does, what might make you choose medicine over nursing and how to deal with a curve ball that interviewers love to use. 

How Not To Offend People When Answering

This question can be a bit of a minefield if you’ve not put some thought to it before you’re asked it in an interview.

You will not impress your interviewers if you lead with any of these responses:

  • I’m too clever to be a nurse
  • Because I want to help people
  • I’m a guy??

There are plenty of nurses I know who are far more ‘intelligent’ than doctors, lollipop ladies ‘help people’ and nursing is not just for girls!!

But joking aside, there is a bit of a thin line you have to tread to convey your reasoning without accidentally coming across as offensive.

Especially if there’s a nurse sat on your interview panel!

You’re not going to offend people if you truly understand the differences in realms of responsibility between the two professions.

So, what is it exactly that nurses do?

The Role Of A Nurse

Now I can’t say I’ve ever worked a shift as a nurse (so apologies for any glaring errors!) but I’ve certainly had the pleasure to work alongside some excellent ones.

A colleague once told me he thought doctors were the centre of a patient’s world while in hospital… Until he was admitted himself- then he realised it was the nurses!

Nursing staff are on the front line of providing care to patients, far more so than us doctors.

They’re who will spend the most time with the patient, update their family and help them with any personal care they can’t manage themselves.

A nurse comforts an older man at the hospital

Common jobs that nurses in a hospital carry out are:

  • Giving patients their medication
  • Setting up any IV lines that are required
  • Carrying out regular observations on all their patients
  • Performing bedside tests (such as urine dips or ECGs)
  • Making referrals to other members of the MDT team

This task list varies wildly between what area of nursing you’re working in.

There are ward nursing staff (described above), mental health nurses, district nurses, children’s nurses… You name it!

But the overall theme is that as a nurse you’re more hands-on with the patients and actually get to deliver the care yourself.

The Role Of A Doctor

Okay, so let’s now contrast this with the roles of a doctor working in hospital.

Hint: learn more about the duties of a junior doctor here.

The doctor’s role is more to do with directing the treatment than necessarily carrying it out personally.

This of course is not always the case- take surgeons for example, but in general a doctor in many ways co-ordinates rather than delivers care.

It’s the doctor who decides whether a patient needs to be taken down to have an x-ray but the porters who actually take the patient.

It’s the doctor who prescribes a new medication but the nurses who actually give it.

It’s the doctor who declares the patient is medically fit to go but the occupational therapists who make sure they’re actually able to manage once at home.

As a consultant looking after a patient you’re essentially steering the ship of their treatment.

But that also means the buck stops with you.

You’re ultimately responsible for that patient’s care and it’s your job to make sure quality standards are being met.

Often you’ll have thanks unduly heaped on you by grateful patients but you’ll also be the first in the firing line if things don’t go to plan.

Why Do You Want To Be A Doctor And Not A Nurse?

Having outlined the differences in roles between doctors and nurses lets now look at how they might shape your career motivations.

I’m going to cover four important reasons I’m drawn to medicine rather than nursing.

But it’s all entirely personal.

There’s no single correct answer to this question, just what you genuinely feel!

Doctors Tackle Diagnostic Challenges

A remit often reserved for doctors is the process of diagnosing new patients.

There really is a bit of a thrill to having to synthesise information from multiple different sources and weigh up possible diagnoses.

You’ll have the patient telling you what’s happened, your examination findings, the results of any tests that have been carried out… And you have to put all this together to come up with the most likely cause of the patient’s problem.

Admittedly, sometimes it’s blindingly obvious if there’s a piece of bone sticking out from their leg, but in other instances you’ll have carefully think about your options.

Often there may be a few different things it could be so you have to select the best tests to narrow things down.

Once you’ve decided on the most likely diagnosis you can then initiate treatment to start getting the patient better. 

You Can Mould A Career In Medicine To Fit You

Now it’s not a facet that’s totally unique to a career in medicine but the sheer degree of flexibility in the vocation is extremely difficult to match.

The different locations it can take you, people you can meet and procedures you can perform is astounding.

Even just within a hospital environment you’re able to specialise in any area that takes your interest. From dermatology to microbiology to vascular surgery.

Then there’s the opportunities open to you outside a hospital.

You can take your skillset and secure work in nearly any part of the world, work with organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières or spend your career expanding human knowledge through clinical research.

This isn’t to say you can’t do a lot of these things through a different pathway such as nursing, but I just think medicine opens more of these doors and potentially a little bit wider.

Doctors Direct Patient’s Care

I touched on this when describing the role of a doctor but as the doc you’re the one directing a patient’s care.

And as I mentioned this does bring with it increased responsibility, but I think it also brings a far deeper sense of satisfaction.

Instead of carrying out someone else’s plan, once you’re a consultant or GP you’re the one coming up with the plan!

It’s through your own decision making and choices that directly affect whether this patient in front of you is going to get better or not.

It’s not for everyone, but I know personally I find this concept far more satisfying than helping enact my colleagues’ ideas and treatments.

This shouldn’t be your singular driving factor, as throughout your medical training you’ll be working in a team (with a boss), but rather something to look forward to.

Medical School Provides A Broader Knowledge Base

The five years of medical school provides the luxury of time to cover more scientific theory compared to a shorter nursing degree.

This teaching gives doctors a solid grounding in human physiology and the mechanisms of action behind many medical treatments.

Nursing degrees on the other hand have a much larger clinical focus, a lot faster.

This produces competent nursing staff who are able to carry out a wide range of procedures.

However, this relative paucity of more academic learning can impact nurses as they progress in their career.

While a doctor can build on their knowledge base as they specialise, if a nurse chooses to go down the advanced practitioner route they often have to revise subjects in greater depth than was covered in their training.

And the advanced practitioner route is exactly what we’re going to be talking about next…

The Role Of Nurse Practitioners

An interviewer bringing up the concept of nurse practitioners can sometimes be real spanner in the works of a candidate’s answer!

It’s because the role somewhat blurs the line between doctors and nurses.

If you’re not familiar with what a nurse practitioner is don’t worry… I don’t think I was until I met one!

What’s A Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner is essentially a very experienced and qualified nurse.

They’ll generally have worked as a nurse for a significant number of years and taken a series of postgraduate exams.

A nurse practitioner gives a little boy a vaccination

This allows them to see patients independently, diagnose them and prescribe treatment.

Nurse practitioners are most commonly seen in GP practices and A&E, but are becoming more prevalent elsewhere too.

So Why Medicine And Not Be A Nurse Practitioner?

Without doubt, a nurse practitioner’s duties can very closely mirror that of a junior doctor’s.

However, despite the apparent similarities there still some key factors that might draw you to medicine:

Medicine Is A Much Quicker Route

If your aim is to practice in the capacity of a nurse practitioner/junior doctor, there’s no denying that going through medical school is a much faster way to reach it.

To become a nurse practitioner you have to have many years experience as a nurse.

You then normally have to go and do a master’s degree or equivalent.

Although medical school might not seem like the ‘fast’ route at five years long, you’ll reach the independent prescriber level much quicker than the alternatives.

Medicine Provides Options For Further Progression

As a nurse practitioner, there aren’t always well-defined options for career progression.

It’s normally a role people attain later in their career, due to the vast amount of experience required.

So as a nurse practitioner you may be confined to operating as a mid-level practitioner.

Doctors however benefit from extremely robust training pathways that can see them reach the top consultant posts.

With these training pathways doctors also develop a depth of expertise that’s needed to recognise and treat more complex conditions.

Although independent and entirely competent, a nurse practitioner won’t have the necessary training for treating these more challenging patients.

Medicine Offers Domains That Are Unavailable To Nurses

Although nurse practitioners are becoming more prevalent, there still are certain areas of practice that require a medical degree.

An important example of this would be surgery. 

To become a consultant surgeon in any specialty you’ll need to be a doctor rather than an allied health professional.

Another downside of being a nurse practitioner is your scope of practice can vary considerably between employers.

Different NHS trusts will have different rules for what you can and can’t do depending on your qualification level. 

Levels of practice are far more standardised in medical training because pathways have been established for much longer and the necessary regulatory bodies are in place.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, there’s a wide variety of factors that may draw you towards medicine rather than nursing.

To answer the question ‘Why not nursing?’ well you need to have a good understanding of exactly what each profession does and so be able to contrast them against each other.

The common pitfall candidates fall into is spouting extremely broad reasons (such as ‘I want to help people’) that really could equally apply to both medicine and nursing. 

Medical school interviewers can use the position of nurse practitioners to really stretch a candidate’s logic.

But now you’ve read this article I’m confident you’ll be able to take it all in your stride!

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.