‘It took me a little bit more time in life to figure out what I wanted to do’

Ahead of a widening participation in medicine event in Belfast, junior doctor Shane O’Hara writes about his pathway into the profession

Location: Northern Ireland
Published: Monday 2 October 2023
Shane o'hara

My path into medicine has been more unusual that most with a prolonged detour involving wrong degree choice, mental health struggles and disability.

At secondary school I had initial aspirations to become an airline pilot. However, I discovered that I was deaf in my teens and wouldn’t meet the strict medical criteria. I was devastated with the diagnosis and from then I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. 

I was interested in science, so I’d picked chemistry and biology for A levels. Someone suggested that I should do pharmacy as it was supposedly a well-paying career. I did some work experience and thought it was something I could do and applied. I didn’t think I mature enough, or capable of studying medicine at that time and had ruled it out.

I got three As in my A levels and went on to university to study pharmacy. It wasn’t the right degree for me. It was a difficult and I hated it. I didn’t really want to become a pharmacist and I struggled with depression. It’s possible to switch degrees mid-course, but I didn’t know what I’d do instead.

I took a gap year, worked for a while, settled my head and decided I needed a degree of some description to progress. Not knowing what else to do, I returned to pharmacy.

It was on a hospital placement that I had the opportunity to shadow two endocrinology consultants. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a doctor. It gave me the inspiration and drive to finish my pharmacy degree with the aim of using the degree result to apply for alternative entry into medicine.

I applied via the graduate entry route. Working part time as a pharmacist allowed me to self-fund. I took all the available student loans, grants, the disabled student allowance and had support from both my wife and family.

Today I’m a doctor. I love doing what I do and couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. The struggle was worth it.

In hindsight, medicine wouldn’t have been a good fit for me at 18. I wasn’t mature enough, didn’t have the work ethic or ambition as a teenager.  It took me a little bit more time in life to figure out what I wanted to do.  Having good A-levels grades and a degree gave me the options.

It’s difficult to study something that you’re not interested in. Medicine is a difficult degree and tough career path.  You have to really want it. I learnt the hard way with my pharmacy degree. 

My advice for those wishing to become a doctor would be to gain some work experience or work shadowing in medicine or a similar healthcare field to get a taste for what it involves. There are easier, better paying careers out there, but few are as rewarding as medicine. 

You don’t need to go to university straight away after finishing school. Many of my peers took the less traditional routes, such as a gap year out to chill, boost their applications, travel, or work. Others didn’t get the grades or the offers they were hoping for, repeated their exams, and reapplied the following year. They came back stronger and more determined for it. They graduated no less a doctor than those who applied straight from school.  Some, like me, had alternative degrees and careers to begin with before finally deciding to make the switch.

Ill mental health or disability isn’t a barrier to medicine.  I’d struggled with burnout and depression and had to take time off during my education and career. With progressively worsening deafness, I required hearing aids and then eventually a cochlear implant. My university, employer and colleagues were very supportive and were able to get me the extra help and adjustments that I needed. Rather than viewing it as a weakness, I believe my diversity, background and experiences make me a better well-rounded doctor who can interact with and empathise with patients.


Shane O’Hara is a junior doctor working in Antrim