Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The temporal decline of idealism in two cohorts of medical students at one institution

Emily M Mader1, Carrie Roseamelia1 and Christopher P Morley123*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Family Medicine, SUNY Upstate Medical University, 750 E. Adams Street, MIMC 200, Syracuse, NY 13066, USA

2 Department of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY, USA

3 Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY, USA

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BMC Medical Education 2014, 14:58  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-14-58

Published: 24 March 2014



A number of studies have indicated that students lose idealistic motivations over the course of medical education, with some identifying the initiation of this decline as occurring as early as the second year of the traditional US curricula. This study builds on prior work testing the hypothesis that a decline in medical student idealism is detectable in the first two years of medical school.


The original study sought to identify differences in survey responses between first-year (MS1) and second-year (MS2) medical students at the beginning and end of academic year 2010, on three proxies for idealism. The current study extends that work by administering the same survey items to the same student cohorts at the end of their third and fourth years (MS3 and MS4), respectively. Survey topics included questions on: (a) motivations for pursuing a medical career; (b) specialty choice; and (c) attitudes toward primary care. Principle component analysis was used to extract linear composite variables (LCVs) from responses to each group of questions. Linear regression was then used to test the effect of the six cohort/time-points on each composite variable, controlling for demographic characteristics.


Idealism in medicine decreased (β = -.113, p < .001) while emphasis on employment and job security increased (β = .146, p < .001) as motivators of pursuing a career in medicine at each medical school stage and time period. Students were more likely to be motivated by student debt over interest in content in specialty choice (β = .077, p = .004) across medical school stages. Negative attitudes towards primary care were most sensitive to MS group and time effects. Both negative/antagonistic views (β = .142, p < .001) and negative/sympathetic views (β = .091, p < .001) of primary care increased over each stage.


Our results provide further evidence that declines in medical student idealism may occur as early as the second year of medical education. Additionally, as students make choices in their medical careers, such as specialty choice or consideration of primary care, the influences of job security, student debt and social status increasingly outweigh idealistic motivations.

Career choice; Idealism; Students; Medical; Surveys