“How can I just go straight to med school…you know…in the shortest amount of time possible?” a wide-eyed high school student in my summer program class asked me.
“You mean…you want to skip college?” I asked her in response, a bit in disbelief, a bit hoping really only to clarify.
The daughter of two physicians and already an excellent science scholar, this student responded with a kind of all-knowing smirk to my follow-up, “Of course, Jessi. I am going to be a doctor, I need to know how I can do that now…not later.”
With her overeager enthusiasm for all things science and her dire need to rush into a career in medicine, I was suddenly transported back in time to my own experiences. Hoping to save her from my own mistakes (hindsight is OF COURSE 20/20), I wanted to shake that kind of “hurry-it-up-and-get-‘er-done” attitude out of her as early as I could. Though a much more diplomatic response including the pluses and minuses of doing a 6 year medical program actually came out of my mouth, all that I was actually thinking was screaming, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO. NOT AGAIN”.
As early as elementary school, I knew that I wanted to be a doctor. The “well-duh” look on our family friends’ faces suggested that most people merely thought my definitive career choice was due to the fact that my father was a physician and was secretly brainwashing me with science (not to be confused with the 1980s classic She Blinded Me with Science). Even though I checked under my bed for hypnotic tapes of anatomical texts and made sure my copies of Nickelodeon Magazine weren’t replaced by the journals Science or Nature (just kidding), the truth of the matter was, no matter how hard I tried to pretend that what I was interested in wasn’t science (or how much my dad tried to expose me to other interests), the root of my nerd-driven excitement could always be traced back to something medically related.
For “Role Model Day” in 3rd grade, I dressed up as Marie Curie and tried my best to explain to my classmates who exactly I was – while they all came dressed as baseball players, actresses or football stars. I excitedly dissected animals, while the other girls made noises or grossed out faces (or worse, threw up). And, in high school, when other kids worked at the GAP or the movies over the summer (and got fabulous perks like discounts and free tickets), I spent hours after swim practice cutting and staining spinal cord sections of rats in a spinal cord regeneration lab (cool, right?). I knew this was NOT a normal way to spend my free time, but I knew what I wanted to be and what I was “supposed to” do to get there. Like my “oh-so-goal-directed student”, I assumed I was good to go – not just to college – but straight on to medical school.
In the fall of 2005, I matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania. I planned to be a neuroscience major, work in basic science lab and volunteer in the hospital. And, because I desperately wanted to study abroad, I wanted to take all of my premed requirements and the MCAT before the end of my sophomore year (a feat that most people accomplish using one more full year of school). This was a truly insane idea, but no one had told me that at the time.
Ego blow by ego blow I slowly realized that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. In the fall, I dropped calculus, after I realized that there was no way I could beat the engineers on the curve who were repeating the class for a good grade. Spring term, I had finals for biology and chemistry on the same day within two hours of each other. To have a better normal distribution of grades for the course overall, the chemistry teacher had decided to up the anty on the final even though the rest of the year had been fair and MUCH easier (aka I studied WAY less for chem then I did for bio) and, after opening my chemistry final and realizing how hard it actually was, I went into a state of shock and just started crying. Yes, in front of my HUGE introductory science class of gunners, ferociously taking an exam, I started BALLING. In fact, I am not sure I would have even started the test if the TA hadn’t come over and talked me through one of the easier problems from the back of the test to get me started. For someone who had never had any trouble academically (especially in science), this was turning into a disaster.
I found myself in advisor meeting after advisor meeting wondering how on Earth I thought I could handle not just this course load, but pre-med, and even medicine itself. I was questioning becoming the one thing I knew I wanted to be my whole life because of some stupid curve and some stupid tests. I believe the words “If I am too dumb to do well in chemistry, I am WAY too stupid to be a doctor”, came out of my mouth. In response to my rantings, my advisor told me to consider taking a semester off from the sciences (and from “pre-med”). My parents thought this was a bad idea, as this path was always what I wanted to do and I think they were worried that I might be discouraged completely (like so many other would be amazingly empathetic physician types are) for the wrong reasons. Yet, since there were general requirements I had to complete for Penn and an English requirement for premed anyway, I listened and ultimately, this was the best decision I could have made.
In my semester away from the pre-meds (you know the people always talking about grades and telling you they don’t know how to do something, when really, they do, they just don’t want to help you get points on a test), the curves, the stress and the need to keep chugging along on this long path to doctor-hood, I actually took the time to figure out what I liked and what I wanted to study. I took a course on the History of the American South after Reconstruction, which was probably the best class I ever took at Penn. I found Anthropology, which I ended up not only majoring in, but getting a Masters in. I found clinical, social science, and public health research and mentors who I loved. Oh, and outside of academics, I rushed a sorority and had a lot of fun. I stopped listening to what I thought I was “supposed to do” or what I thought people “wanted me to do” for my future applications to medical school and instead, I looked around at all the different opportunities that college offered (including socially) and, I said, as cheesy as it sounds: What would make me HAPPY?? If I could study ANYTHING what would it be?
When you are growing up it seems like there are only three careers you can possibly be: a doctor, a lawyer and a businessman (er, well woman). Someone always wants to know “what you want to be when you grow up” and this is hard if you have only heard of 3 jobs (brainwashing, much?). Then, when you are grown up (like say when you are in medical school), they always want to know what comes next (like what specialty you are going into?). This is the same thing as when you have a boyfriend and people always want to know when you are going to get engaged and then when you are going to get married and then when you are going to have a kid. The best thing you can do is take the time to make an informed decision. Just as you wouldn’t rush into a marriage (I think? Er, well hope?), you shouldn’t rush into a career like medicine just because you have always wanted to do it or your parents think you should do it. Doubt is more than healthy and you should be able to answer the “Why do I want to do this?” question with more than just a stereotyped admissions made up answer. It is much better to have asked yourself this question and really thought about the answer before you have trained for 10 years to become a doctor. People do not tell you this, because for some reason it is sacrilegious to say it, but the road really does not get any easier for a while (and we are talking years, not weeks).
While it is true that I still ended up in medical school (and some people in medical school love basic science and basic science research and more power to them for that), for me, the way that I think about issues and patients, the things that I am interested in and the mentality that I have in facing the difficulties in this long and challenging path, are all greatly influenced by the fact that I broadened my outlook in college and took (and still take) the time to remember WHY. It is the WHY that keeps me going and it is the WHY that makes all the difference.