If you were to ask me today what I’m studying, I’d reply with full confidence and a bright smile: “I’m pre-pharmacy!” After all, pharmacy was always the only profession in which I could truly see myself.

But a year ago, I would’ve told you I was pre-med.

For a long time, I tried to believe that medicine was what I truly wanted to pursue. I tried to convince myself that bloody operation videos interested me, that my hyper-sentimental self was strong enough for the emotional ride of life and death at the bedside.

While I knew I wanted to work in healthcare, to treat patients, to apply the science that I so loved, I also knew I was not meant to be a doctor. So why did I pretend?

In short, I fell victim to a common misconception about the health professions, an unspoken axiom:

Pharmacists are just a lesser version of doctors.

Perhaps it’s why so many freshmen claim to be pre-med, and why so many pharmacy students hesitated to walk down this path in the first place. After all, doctors are the ones saving the lives, writing the prescriptions. They’re the ones we fear as children and respect as adults, who’ve triumphed through decades of school to receive the emblem of expertise and prestige.

And I do not resent this, because they indeed are all of those things — in a perfect world, I would want to be one of them. But that doesn’t change a less popular fact: medicine and pharmacy are two entirely different professions.

Hence, it didn’t help when, after I’ve finally found the conviction to call myself pre-pharm, not everyone I knew or met was prepared to hear it.

While I got the usual “Cool’s and Wow’s,” I began to notice a different, distinctly unsettling trend:

“Wait, I thought you’d be pre-med because you’re smart!”

“Is it because med school is too hard?”

And my personal favorite: “Nice, that’s so much easier than being a doctor!”

Whether or not these comments were meant as compliments, I could not help but feel insulted. It confused me how people were so quick to compare pharmacy to medicine. It frustrated me how they accepted the stereotype so readily, without even realizing there was one. Most of all, it hurt me that they could assign a finite level of competence to a career choice that was entirely my own.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t blame them. After all, compared to medicine, pharmacy is far less talked about as a profession. It was understandable that those outside of the health field tended to group the two into one muddled “clinical bubble.”

But it was not excusable. We cannot speak for what we do not know.

Though all these comments hurt, they hit the hardest when pre-med students themselves were at the outgoing end of them. To give the benefit of the doubt, I do not believe they did so because they feel superior to me, or because they have too much pride to admit they are not. The issue, as it often is, is nothing more than ignorance.

We don’t teach it to our kids: while the doctor’s playing field is the human body and all that could go wrong with it, the pharmacist specializes on exogenous medications and the body’s specific responses to them. And though it’s tempting to think that this means simply putting pills in bottles at your local CVS, there is a large variety of settings at which pharmacists work and an even larger scientific skill set required to do so. Just as pharmacists cannot be “promoted” to physicians, physicians cannot “step down” and be pharmacists when the job gets too hard. They are different in title, degree and specialty, but NOT extent of capability.

In a hospital setting, where the “doctor’s superiority” assumption is perhaps most expected, this difference is clear. According to second-year Pharmacy student Cecilia Li, a current intern at Beaumont Hospital, the two professions practice separate specialties and contribute equally to the healthcare system.

“There are the pharmacists who stand passively in the corner of the room, but the majority are extremely active, knowledgeable and function at the same level as doctors,” she said. “Sometimes, if I were to close my eyes and listen, I couldn’t tell if it was the pharmacist or the physician talking.”

Which just goes to show that pharmacists are, like doctors, nurses, dentists — or any profession, for that matter — respected only as much as their personal performance warrants. It’s only fair, as it should be. At last, I have found the self-assurance and validation that is so, so long overdue.

While becoming an actual pharmacist is quite a way down the road for me, my choice to become one is certainly not a measure of my intelligence, ambition or aptitude. Too many times over the past year, I’ve let ignorant and offhand judgements come close to dictating my entire future, and I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of dreading self-introductions, in fear that sharing my major will brand an unwanted label across my forehead. I’m tired of secretly wishing I’d done worse in school, just to justify myself for taking a “dumber” career path.  I’m tired of pretending, and even more tired of being ashamed.

Now, I know I don’t have to. Each and every profession deserves merit in its own right, and should be treated as such.

Angela Chen can be reached at angchen@umich.edu

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