Despite growing concerns over physician shortages- the American Medical School Association estimates a shortage of 90,000 physicians by 2020-when it comes to applying to medical school it is no longer enough to have good grades, high test scores and the desire to become a doctor. Those attributes are typically standard across the board. With 50-60 applicants for every seat in a class of 100, Medical Admissions Committees want more. A lot more.
Although it varies somewhat depending on the school and how competitive their enrollment process is, most Committee’s extensive list of ideal characteristics include everything from- community service, clinical exposure, research, a heavy class load, leadership positions, special talents outside of medicine- to a generally interesting personality. With so many candidates to choose from, it’s no wonder Admission Committees have the liberty of being so selective. Given this process, I am intimidated just thinking about the caliber of people I’ll be studying with- they may, quite literally be, the most interesting people in the world.
Typically, there are two categories of students who apply to medical school. Those who are termed “traditional”- in the sense they likely majored in one of the hard sciences and then either applied in their junior year of undergraduate studies or took a year off, known as the glide year. Then there are the “non-traditional” students who didn’t decide on a career in medicine until later in life. Non-traditional students often majored in non-science subjects, attended grad school and perhaps even developed a career before having some kind of grand epiphany that made them turn to medicine. I fall into this second category. Although it is hard to tell if Admission committees agree, I happen to believe that non-traditional students make for better, and certainly more interesting candidates. They are generally more goal oriented, mature, self-confident and willing to ask tough questions- such as why?? My perspective is shared and elaborated on in this article from the New England Journal of Medicine-“From All Walks of Life: Non-traditional Medical Students and the Future of Medicine.”
My path to medicine has been anything but direct. After earning my B.A. in broadcast journalism, I took what amounted to six years “off” before applying to medical school. During that time I went to graduate school and studied international development. I began working for an international non-profit organization, starting out as an unpaid intern who had a fascination with all-things-Africa (particularly tropical diseases) and quickly moving up the ranks to a position of Program Manager, in charge of overseeing five country offices and millions of dollars in health programming.
Throughout my nearly five years with the company, I have managed to fill every page of my passport with stamps and have tried, sometimes successfully, sometimes not- to help alleviate the world’s greatest problems of poverty and poor health. I am unconvinced that the work of NGOs will save the world, but there are certainly many good people and many good programs trying. My experience has been fundamental in helping me understand health in the developing world context. As if traveling in a time machine, billions of people continue to live in pre-modern days without clean water, sanitation, vaccinations, and labor and delivery in a health care setting. Basic things like gloves, doctors and oxygen are missing. I will never forget the things I have learned during my travels. Health care in the developing setting is different- it is innovative out of necessity, portable and raw. The U.S. health care system certainly has it’s challenges, yet it falls into completely different categories from the life and death struggles of the developing world.
Looking ahead, I will likely be among the oldest students in my class. I won’t finish residency training until I am in my mid-thirties, and perhaps by then I won’t have the energy of my 25-year-old colleagues to keep up with the intense hours and lack of sleep required by residency training. Yet I would never, under any circumstances, give back the last six years.
In the past few years I have developed a thirst for knowledge I’ve never had before. I can’t imagine taking organic chemistry at 19 and doing as well as I did. I needed to grow up and to fulfill my once naive, romanticized desire of traveling to distant, exotic locales and saving the world. The health care challenges of third world countries are far too great and complex to be solved by well-intentioned humanitarians. However, I needed to find that out for myself.
Maybe because I felt the urgency of being older and knowing there was little time to waste, I approached my post-bac studies with a vigor and dedication I have never felt before. The distinct knowledge of how much I was sacrificing to attain my goal of becoming a physician was a driving force that helped me excel in every single one of my evening science classes. I am leaving a promising career, a steady pay-check and an exciting life of traveling the world and getting paid for it. Yet I am gaining the ultimate dream of medical knowledge and the ability to heal people.
At least for me, being a non-traditional student prepared me for the dedication, sacrifice and responsibility of the profession I am about to embark on. I am sure many traditional applicants will become excellent physicians who advance the field of medicine. Yet, I can’t help but advocate taking a few years off after college to explore areas of interest and learn something about the world and yourself. You never know, you may end up becoming a better, if not happier, doctor in the end.
Vaccination time for an infant in Africa.
Typical lab equipment in rural Nigeria.
Young malaria patient in Cambodia.