When I was a sophomore in undergrad, I developed an internship at my local coroner’s office. I had wanted to be a death investigator for years; the time had come to experience the sights and smells. At the Coroner’s Office, I fell in love with both medicine and law and I found myself at the intersection between them, attempting to figure out how I could integrate the two into my future career.
As a doctor, I could perform autopsies to identify the cause of death and provide the prosecution with the evidence that they needed for justice. As an attorney, I could be the voice for those no longer able to advocate for themselves.
However, I could not bring myself to just choose one.
I began my criminal justice minor as soon as I returned to classes. It took several semesters before I encountered someone who suggested a dual degree. “Why not do both? My husband is an MD/JD and works down the street,” she said. I met with him and discovered that the programs, in fact, were real. And the possibilities were endless. While he worked in pharmaceutical law, he connected me with several other MD/JDs in public health policy, in malpractice law, and in forensics. Identifying current students was like finding needles in a haystack, but they were out there and ready to share their experiences. Ultimately, I knew it was right for me. It was a fortune cookie that gave me the push. It stated, “nothing can stop you from the vision that you have of yourself.” Just like that, I became a pre-law student in addition to pre-med.
What is the Process?
The application process was a whirlwind. With next to no one able to help me, I was tasked with many hours of research. The application processes are independent of one another entirely.
I took the MCAT and I applied to medical school, as any other medical school applicant would. Three months later, I took the LSAT and I applied to law school, as any other law school applicant would.
While my experiences remained the same, my two personal statements reflected my two distinct passions. Fortunately, the social determinants of health are so deeply rooted in public health policy. But nonetheless, I had to develop a way to to spin my experiences to wear both hats. With only about fifteen schools offering the program in the United States, my choices were relatively easy to determine.
So what do Programs look like?
Schools cannot get too creative with two doctorate degrees. The program is six years, no matter where you go. But they do come in two flavors: they produce doctors with a law degree or lawyers with a medical degree. I knew that I wanted to practice medicine and so I sought out the former. From there, programs varied in their organization. Some were two years of law school, followed by four years of medical school. Others broke up classroom and clinical years with law school in the middle. With no preference for either, I sent in eight applications and crossed my fingers.
As someone who was a traditional medical school applicant, I did not have much faith in my ability to gain acceptance to law school. In addition, I was met with resistance from my family, friends, and mentors. “Why would you do that to yourself?” being the most prominent question. Followed by, “but I thought you wanted to be a doctor, not a lawyer?” At the end of the day, no one understood. I did not let this stop me from applying and a weight lifted from my shoulders on the day that I received both my first acceptance and my first full-tuition scholarship. While this was not the school that I dreamed of going to, the affirmation was exactly what I needed.
I felt that, finally, I was a good law school applicant. My vision had been seen by that admissions committee and all of the doubts that surrounded me faded into nothing but white noise.
Six law school acceptances later, I feel that I’ve made the right choice.
I found an MD/JD program that will help me to achieve my goals. In talking with previous students, they assure me that my dreams will be heard and supported—no matter how lofty they may seem to an outsider. I hope to find this true when I begin law school this fall.
After training, supervising and mentoring hundreds of medical students, medical residents and practicing physicians, Jennifer Hunt, MD, became aware of the very high prevalence of imposter syndrome among high achieving women. Now, in addition to serving as the Chair of Pathology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, she is also a keynote speaker (and TEDx speaker), dynamic workshop leader and experienced executive coach who works for current and aspiring women leaders. Dr. Hunt builds programs and individual engagements to help women overcome self-doubt, increase self-confidence and enhance their resiliency. She teaches her participants and clients skills and tools to amplify their personal power and grow faster and higher into leadership. Dr. Hunt believes that imposter syndrome is holding back talented women, and so she developed and leads a popular leadership development program for women to help address impostor syndrome in their professional lives. Her passion-mission is to increase the number of women in leadership roles across all industries through her speaking and coaching.
I remember sitting in that big auditorium on my first day of medical school. The Dean was welcoming us and said something about the amazing members of our class: a pianist who had played Carnegie Hall; an Olympic gold medal athlete; blah-blah-blah incredible, amazing people and then there was me. I shrunk down into the crack of that fold-up wooden chair, thinking, “I was the last person admitted to this medical school. I am not smart enough to be in this class, I don’t belong here.” (That wasn’t all my inner critic, I really did get off the waiting list the day before school started.)
Mine is not a rags-to-riches success story. By the time I graduated, I could suture, write a note (in paper charts!), draw blood, do CPR (after being remediated through ACLS), and do everything else a medical student should be able to do. My Dean’s letter was bland and my evaluations read like standardized form letters. By my account, I started out as an average newly admitted medical student, and I graduated as an average newly minted medical doctor. Or, was I?
A couple of weeks ago, a fellow medical school colleague and I were chatting and she said
Here is my definition of a story:
Pieces of information, details, and emotions that are selected, arranged, and embellished to infuse meaning into circumstances (Unlocking Your Authentic Self, 2020, page 201). Importantly, a story is not equivalent to the facts. The facts about my medical student experience were a lot different from the story I used to describe it in my memories. The facts were actually much kinder than my story. And, so were my friends…who apparently had a lot more confidence in my future than I did—a lot kinder to me than I was to myself! I’ll bet a lot of you reading this have a story, too. Is your story less kind than the facts? If so, you may be experiencing a little bit (or maybe a lot) of impostor syndrome.
In one study, almost half of the women and nearly a quarter of men in American medical schools experience impostor syndrome (1). Impostor syndrome shows up as under-appreciation of your own skills and talents—where others think you are pretty awesome, you just can’t see it in yourself. It shows up as a smoldering feeling of self-doubt and worry that someone is going to eventually discover that you just aren’t as good as everyone seems to think. It shows up when you enter a new classroom, start a new rotation, or get up to present and you think, like I occasionally did, “I don’t belong here. I am not good enough to pull this off.”
So why does imposter syndrome matter?
In the abstract, impostor syndrome shouldn’t matter all that much—your self-under-appreciation and mine is mostly hidden, tucked away, and not out in the open. But in real-life it matters a whole lot. Impostor syndrome is associated with physician burnout, low self-esteem, derailed career progression, and decreased satisfaction with life. Take a look at this graph with data from a program I run for women physicians that shows a direct correlation between impostor syndrome and burnout (Figure 1)(2).
How do we fix it?
When doctors start to address self-doubt, self-under-appreciation, their relentless inner critic, and beat up self-confidence, they can start to rediscover joy, satisfaction, and meaning in their careers and lives. And if you are a medical student, just starting out on this journey, how would your life change if you never again thought, “I don’t belong here”? Remember, someone (more likely a whole bunch of someone’s) thought you did.
Impostor syndrome is complex and multifaceted. Overcoming it can be a life-long journey, filled with a few steps forward and a few steps backward. How about starting on that journey today? Ask yourself, what is the story I’ve been telling myself? Can you relinquish that story for just a minute and tell it as unembellished, unemotional, uninterpreted facts? Let me set an example for you.
My story: I was an average student entering medical school.
The facts: I graduated college magna cum laude.
My story: I was an average medical school graduate
The facts: I graduated with a combined MD/MEd degree with honors.
Starting today, think about how you can adopt an attitude of appropriate, intentional, and realistic self-appreciation for your skills and talents.
Villwock, Jennifer A., et al. “Impostor syndrome and burnout among American medical students: a pilot study.” International journal of medical education 7 (2016): 364.
Hunt, Jennifer. Unlocking Your Authentic Self: Overcoming impostor syndrome, enhancing self-confidence, and banishing self-doubt, 2020 (Amazon Publishing)
If you are looking for tools about how you can prevent and overcome impostor syndrome make sure to check out Dr. Jennifer Hunt ‘s new book!
Chase DiMarco is the Founder of FreeMedEd.org and host of several MedEd Podcasts. He has a passion for medical education and the psychology of learning. For more information and research on optimizing one’s study environment and use of the MedEdge Method, consider downloading the free “Essentials of” PDF of Read This Before Medical School.
Or… you can buy the full book on Amazon!
Are you having difficulty motivating yourself to sit down and study? This is an exceedingly common issue for medical student’s education. There is a never-ending stream of information, updated, correction, and flat out memorization that takes place in medical school. This information overload and lack of motivation can continue on through medical residency and even fellowship.
The problem is that our levels of a student’s motivation can wax and wane through the hours, let alone the days. Sometimes the last thing a medical student wants to do is sit down for another review session. However, increasing study motivation is not out of grasp. There are a few techniques that all students should know to get through their next study session.
Intrinsic Motivation vs Extrinsic Motivation
First, we should discuss what “motivation” actually means. Most psychologists split motivation into intrinsic and extrinsic subcategories. Extrinsic motivation is caused by some stimuli outside of oneself. For instance, you may hate your job but are extrinsically motivated by your paycheck. Intrinsic motivations are generally considered to be done for one’s self and not due to external forces. There are plenty of overlap and debates in regards to this seemingly clear-cut definition, but it’ll suffice for our needs.
It is easy to picture an artist painting a mural that no one else’s eyes will ever lay upon or gardening just for the joy of doing so. It is less easy to imagine an individual freely working on a neighbor’s busted plumbing for the pure enjoyment the activity brings them. So how can medical students increase intrinsic motivation when studying?
The mind is surprisingly pliable and often viewing our studies through a particular lens can help change our perspectives significantly. Increasing one’s interest in a particular topic is a great way to increase motivation. Luckily, there are many ways a medical student can try to add interest in an activity. With luck, this will raise the level of enjoyment received and prolong their study session or prevent study fatigue.
Sometimes studying is overly isolating and this can lead to a feeling of loneliness. Some activities can benefit from group studies or discussing interesting factoids of your material with someone else. Even if this is your pet or plant, sometimes speaking aloud can help increase the memory of the material as well. Find similar interests in both classmates and non-classmate peers that you can engage in conversation with. Not only will this limit the isolation that can hamper interest, but it acts as a review to make sure you really understood the material, to begin with. Even perceived social isolation can have negative effects on cognition!
2. Change Your Mindset
Try to set a positive attitude about the approaching study session before you even sit down. Going into a scenario with a negative attitude can decrease academic achievement. This mindset can relate to the discipline being studied, the reason the learner is studying, or even the school at which the student attends. Also, have a growth mindset, which will allow you to acknowledge your ability to overcome any obstacles that may arise during your studies. Having a Growth Mindset is likely correlated to positive motivation, and could provide significant benefit to a learner. Medical students that know they can conquer difficult situations may be providing the self-support needed to succeed.
Lastly, find engaging manners to relate to the material on a more personal level. Medical students might be able to find games associated with the topic or even find someone they know with a related disease or disorder to the current material. If these can’t be found, simply ask questions! Asking questions is a great way to stimulate creativity and increase motivation. Open-ended questions allow the mind to wander more and find unique solutions.
3. Increase Creativity in Your Studies
There are many other ways to try to increase one’s creativity in order to improve their studies. Medical students are often surprised how important creativity can be to their academic performance. It is a skill that can be trained and harnessed to increase motivation as well. Creativity can take many shapes and forms in your academic studies. You may want to consider a few easy implementations to improve your motivation level.
Medical students may consider utilizing arts and crafts within one’s study materials as childs play, but it can be a very useful creativity training exercise. For instance, instead of taking notes in class try implementing Mind Maps or Memory Palaces to remember your study material. These fun and visually creative activities are mentally stimulating and may increase your long-term memory of the material being studied.
This may sound quite obvious, but medical students often don’t realize when they are losing focus. This can be an important factor when spending hours each day studying for an upcoming test or board exam. Lack of focus leads to inefficiencies in our day and halt our progress. To increase motivation for medical students, knowing when we lose focus and how to correct this can be vital.
Setting up the correct study environment can significantly benefit students that wish to focus for longer periods of time. This means setting up a place that you have all you need and nothing more. Some research demonstrates that increases in stimuli can negatively impact attention. Too many items on one’s desk or workspace can limit focus. Colors (too vibrant or too dull), noise pollution, and other visual distractions can all be considered when assessing the space. When noted, medical students should limit or eliminate these interrupting stimuli.
Scheduling time before or after school for certain tasks can help eliminate distractions and increase focus. For some tasks, setting short study periods or using the Pomodoro technique is a great way to achieve accomplishments in smaller increments. Of course, eliminating digital distractions is mandatory as well in order to keep on target. Setting phones to silent, turning off computer notifications, and placing all non-essential devices in a box or another room can aid in study success. Distractions and task-switching reduce our productivity and focus.
5. Increase Social Connections
As already mentioned, connecting to one’s community may increase certain types of motivation. However, closer social connections may play a significant role in improving student incentives to learn. Having strong family bonds or close peer relationships impacts our mental health. It is thought that these relationships may increase self-esteem, resilience, and decreases depression. It is likely that increased mental well-being will provide increases in student motivation and academic success as well.
6. Achieve Small, Consistent Goals
Setting SMART goals or using WOOP to plan ways around obstacles that may arise is a recommended task for all medical students. It is a mandatory aspect of academic organization and efficiency. On top of this, setting smaller, consistent goals may play a significant role in a learner’s motivation during their health education. Long-term goals are nice, but they do not have as strong of an impact on motivation because they are so far into the future. The animal in us wants immediate gratification!
Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
Assignable – specify who will do it.
Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
Time–related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.
Not only can smaller goals act as a positive feedback loop for students, but they allow for short breaks to be implemented. In fact, some argue that giving oneself little rewards throughout a student’s designated study session is mandatory. It might act on more ancient neurochemical responses that increase “happiness”, so-called Happy Chemicals.
7. Go Outside
Lastly, a frequently overlooked tool for increasing motivation is to enjoy the nature around us. Medical students all too often lock themselves up to concentrate on their studies. Too much screen-time, which I presume to also include studying on the computer, may decrease psychological well-being. We need sunlight to create Vitamin D and exercise (even walking) to simulate our cardiovascular and respiratory systems. We can also benefit from the simple fact that being in nature decreases anxiety and increases creativity.
We all hit a wall sometimes and need to utilize some techniques to increase our own motivation levels. Medical school is a rough period and any method to improve our mood, focus, and incentives in our studies can be greatly beneficial. Just remember that not all of these techniques will work all the time. Try them out in different scenarios and at different times to see what works best for you.
In the end, medical students need to remember they are only competing against themselves. Maximizing your own abilities and efficiencies is all you can do. Hopefully, with these motivation techniques, you can improve your focus, mental health, and achieve greater academic success.
Growing up, I always said I wanted to be a medical doctor. However, I never knew what it would take to get into that. I went to Kennesaw State University for my Bachelor of Science in Biology. During my undergraduate journey, I felt really lost. I went from thinking about being a medical doctor to a dentist to “I do not know anymore”. But why was I confused? I shadowed doctors and volunteered; I thought I knew exactly what I wanted.
So what changed?
My senior year, I joined a microbiology lab for research. I presented at two conferences. Not only that, but I also presented at the American Society for Microbiology Conference a week before I graduated. Something I never thought of before happened- I won second place at that conference. Was it possible that I am leaning more towards research? Could be.
I graduated in December of 2018. A month before that, I got a job interview at a clinic. I was offered the job and was due to start the day after graduating. I worked as a medical assistant full time, Monday through Friday, 8-5 pm. Luckily, the job was looking for fresh graduates and training was on them. Two months into working, I shocked myself with my thoughts. I really was not into talking to patients for the whole day and diagnosing them. Everytime a patient came in, I was only thinking to myself.
My research memories were hitting me. I missed the bench work, the article reading, the deep knowledge analysis.
So what next?
Being in a confused state, I had no idea who to talk to. During undergrad, there were clubs for pre-med, pre-dent, pre-vet, pre-pharm, and many more. No one really talked to students about other career pathways I could go into with science. I started looking up PhD programs on my own. I also contacted my professors, advising me not to go for a masters degree, mainly because I had a 3.85 GPA. They said a masters would help if:
I needed to boost my GPA
I did not have any research experience, and was interested in giving it a shot.
However, my professors just gave me insight on academic positions. My friend, Google, taught me that there are many other careers to be considered with a PhD. I started applying for lab technician position because I thought I would strengthen my research experience before deciding to apply to any graduate programs, as well as use the experience to confirm my decision of going to grad school. A professor wanted to phone interview me for a lab tech position. After he found out what my goals are, he referred me to the director of the program for a PhD student interview. In my situation, I was lucky! I took the opportunity and accepted the offer, and I never regretted the decision.
My name is Maya Maarouf. I am a first year PhD student in Translational Biomedical Sciences. Looking back at my undergraduate studies, there were interesting classes such as cell biology, human physiology, and toxicology. Taking those classes made me appreciate how intricate the human body is, which made me realize that I was more interested in how the body and medicine worked on a cellular level to get the response at a systemic level.
Translational Biomedical Sciences means translating “bench to bedside”. My program has a strong focus on Immunology, which made me appreciate medicine even more. Our body works so hard at a cellular and molecular level to try and prevent us from getting sick and such. As for my research, I will be studying Inflammatory Bowel Disease- hopefully identifying components to help develop treatment.
Why do a PhD?
Like said before, working at a clinic had me thinking of how much I would like to work on and research actual treatments that would help cure cure or alleviate symptoms, rather than talking and diagnosing them. Identifying myself as a scientist who’s working on a treatment gives me great pleasure. As a scientist, you could also just be identifying mechanisms of disease as well. There are plenty of microbes, viruses, and autoimmune diseases that we still do not know how they work in the body.
What’s nice about having a PhD or even a Masters, is the flexibility in career options such as:
Government (NIH, FDA, etc)
Medical Science Liaison
Clinical Lab Scientist
Science writing and communicating
… and many other more. If you think about it, you are needed wherever they need an expert in your area of focus.
I have completed my first semester of grad school. Thoughts? I LOVE IT. My knowledge has been rapidly growing, and I became more confident in presenting science to anyone. My program requires two years of coursework. At the end of year 2, we have to take qualifying exams. Years 3+ is where you work full time on your research until you are ready to defend. Throughout a PhD, you will definitely get your own first author publication and probably a coauthor of multiple others. Once you are ready to defend, you can also start writing your thesis and compiling all the data that you got ever since the first day you got to lab.
Network and communicate as much as possible. Networking will open opportunities, just like how I got the opportunity to speak about my experience here.
I am writing this post because my decision whether I should pursue a Doctorate degree or not was hard for me. This is only because during my undergraduate degree, I was only exposed to careers such as: medical doctor, dentist, vet, or professorship. However, no one told me about other career options you can pursue in science. I had to research on my own and find programs on my own. Sad to say, I went through a period of time where I was lost and confused.
Communication is Essential
My advice to any student, always COMMUNICATE. Email your current professors, but also contact schools that you are interested in, let them know what your credentials are, and ask them what you should improve on. At the end of the day, they are the ones looking at your application; therefore, no one knows better than they do. I would be more than happy to speak to anyone interested in pursuing a PhD or a Masters, or anyone who does not know exactly what to do after getting your Bachelor of Science. There is a spot for everyone in this world!
I am on instagram @mayamaarouf where I speak about experiences and do science facts and debates often.
Getting published in a
prestigious journal such as Science or Nature is a serious feat for an
undergraduate researcher. It cements your scientific reputation and boosts your
pedigree as an academic. In order to get published in a high-tier journal it’s
essential to understand what constitutes a certain research project as being
“worthy” or not. After being published in Nature, here are some
factors that made the difference in my research:
1) Research what journal you are submitting to.
Nature and Science are more general than other journals so if your research is incredibly niche or in a sub-sub-speciality then it might be less likely to get published there. Go read some recent additions to the Journal and get a feel for what they’re looking for.
2) Your principle investigators (PI’s) ability to write in an intriguing way.
These journals want to make science sound fun and exciting, so whoever is writing the manuscript needs to sell your research as innovative and impactful. Don’t underestimate your input! I was the primary editor of our Nature manuscript.
3) Consistent work.
I spent my summers researching from 9-5 most days of the week. I spent after class researching and on my days off. A lot of my work was on the computer so I was able to work at home as well. I had an open line of discussion with my PI and often pushed him to move the project forward. The amount of time I was able to pour in (except during my MCAT semester due to my PI being on sabbatical) was primarily the reason we were able to publish it during my time.
Bottom line, putting time in will earn you a spot on whatever publication you’ll be able to push out. Don’t be afraid to inquire about the progress of certain projects! PI’s are really busy and the more they know you’re serious, the better it’ll reflect in your LOR and give the impression of being very ambitious.
Getting published isn’t an essential part of your app, but it could really help if you’re going to an institution that heavily values it like John Hopkins. Let me know if you have any questions about conducting research!
I’m not a fan of prolonged articles that frankly take forever to get to the point so here’s my conclusion upfront.
Balance. Balance is the essential quality absent in the lives of the majority of premed students. I’m not talking about your cerebellum’s basic function here, I’m talking about an attribute that when lacking has the ability to dramatically decrease the quality of your life.
Hear me out here, I know that the FUNDAMENTAL quality of any successful premed student is dedicated and consistent work-ethic. However, it increasingly seems we’re living our lives primarily to complete each stage of requirements. We go from SAT, to MCAT, to USMLE, to Boards and on and on. We’re living to fulfill pre-reqs, fill up volunteer hours, and scouring for new shadowing opportunities. We’re in this endless race, in competition with our peers, to do the most. We put our bodies under immense stress- taking 18 credits a semester, doing research, and being leaders of clubs. We work really hard, and the people who may work slightly less than the absolute maximum are seen as wanting it less.
The problem with this culture of devoting our entire beings is flawed in many aspects. It’s not uncommon for people to routinely sacrifice their family time, time with friends, and health in order to get ahead in this field. I know the gut reaction of this sort of post- If I don’t prioritize my education then I’m going to fall behind and be an uncompetitive applicant. I’m not saying to de- prioritize your quest to medicine, but to build better habits that allow you to lead a healthier, more joyful lifestyle that allows you to prosper.
These years are supposed to be the best of our lives! By pursuing our own passions and dedicating time to personal development and socialization we can prevent burning out (which is officially a medical condition as recognized by the World Health Organization) and actually spur us to become better academics and future physicians. Below are a few applicable tips of how to gain more balance and lead a healthier lifestyle as a premed and beyond.
Schedule time for yourself. No matter the circumstance, ensure that you have a small portion of time every week to do whatever you want to do. Make it a timed event. Put it on your calendar! Just don’t push it off to study or do other things, schedule it at a good time so you can reset and avoid burning out.
Try new things! Try the things you’ve always wanted to do and the things you’d never thought you’d like. I personally tried hot yoga for the first time and despite being the only 20-something male there, I had an incredible time. It was a really great experience and one I want to continue for a long time.
Cut out unnecessary time wasters that make spending time with family or friends feel like they’re wasting your time. Specifically, social media. We spend so much time on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook etc. throughout the day and right before bed. If we cut down social media use during study sessions and wasting free time aimlessly scrolling then we’ll find ourselves with ample time to do significant things in life. You know that hour of sleep you get during daylight savings? Imagine that every night! Just don’t watch YouTube videos that no one needs or scrolling through Instagram for ages (Unless it’s on my profile @premed.plus).
Continuation of the last one- make sure you get good sleep! Sleep at the same time. Wake up at the same time. Every. Day. Your body needs a routine in order to thrive and it won’t do that when you pull all-nighters and feed it tacos and Mountain Dew.
All in all, living a balanced lifestyle will benefit you in both the short and long term. As a med student and beyond you’ll thank yourself for being able to budget time and have different reliable stress relieving activities. If you’d like to list some of the things you do to balance your medical lifestyle leave them in the comments below!
About the Author:
We’re PreMedPlus, a business oriented towards helping the next generation of doctors. We offer academic advise, productivity tips, and warn of common premed pitfalls on our Instagram page. On our Facebook page we offer personalized services for those who want one-on-one attention from a team of MD students. We know that being a premed is expensive and exhausting so we strive to make ourselves as affordable, accessible, and efficient as possible! Whether you want to enroll in our personal statement service or simply listen to how we got into medical school we’re happy to have you for either!
Editor’s Note: There are many things to consider when applying to medical school. We thank Kathleen for this informative post regarding non-traditional medical schools. We do feel that each student should exhaust all avenues applying to traditional MD or DO schools before seeking alternative options. While we all know people that have been successful and competent doctors by alternative routes, please be aware that most of these international schools lack the resources that schools in the United States offer and that matching into residency can be much more difficult coming in as an international medical grad.
This article will share a list of fully accredited medical schools that
are non-traditional in their admissions requirements, program length, or
geographical location. In order to truly appreciate the trailblazing stance
these institutions have implemented it is important to understand what factors
make a potential doctor fall under the category of traditional or
A traditional medical school applicant is someone who went straight from
high school to a four-year college. During college, they sat for the MCAT, and were
admitted to medical school promptly after graduation, or after taking a gap
year. Gap years, which are not required, are often filled with shadowing
doctors, volunteering abroad, interning, or even squeezing in a 12-month
master’s program. This process is what defines a traditional pre-medical
Thus, a non-traditional pre-medical
student is anyone who does not fall under the specific circumstances mentioned
above. In today’s world, student debt is projected to be the next financial
crisis, and many chose to work their way through school, which may prolong the
graduation timeline. For those who have yet to start or finish their four-year
degree, there are endless ‘finish your degree’ program options either on-line,
accelerated, or in the evenings. Carving out a non-traditional path to medicine
for yourself is more realistic today than ever before. In addition, many
medical school admissions teams agree that real world experience such as
serving in the military, starting your own business, parenting, or doing
whatever you were doing before feeling the call to medicine, contributes to
making someone an excellent doctor.
Personally, becoming a doctor is something that was always in the back
of my mind, but working as a Certified Nurse Aide really fueled my passion for
people and medicine. I remember a couple of years ago driving around on my day
off, and on a whim decided to stop at a bookstore. I scanned the shelf for
books on medical school, and found one titled “On Becoming a Doctor:
Everything You Need to Know about Medical School, Residency, Specialization,
and Practice” by Tania Heller, MD. I sat on the ground and binge read
half-way through the book, then bought it, went to Starbucks, and binge read
the rest. This book, among others, is an excellent way to start taking baby
steps towards your dream. Spending time to become well informed about the process
will likely save you lots of time and money down the road, as well as drown out
the uneducated but well-intentioned opinions of those around you. So, whether
you are 24 years-old just embarking on the college journey, or 56 and stepping
into a gen chem class for the first time, this article is for you. Without
further ado, here is a list of non-traditional pathways to fully accredited
medical schools which, for one reason or another, fall under the category of
DO programs: Hopefully you are familiar with the concept of a DO;
and have learned about the osteopathic approach to medicine with an open mind.
However, to the general public, it is just now becoming common knowledge that
DO’s are fully certified doctors. This means that every individual holding a DO
license has undergone the same MCAT, 4 years of medical school, and required
residency, that an MD must go through. If you are passionate about the training
that DO’s receive, but timid that patient’s will not recognize you as a fully
certified doctor, please take confidence in the concept that the general public
is slowly becoming more educated on the fact that DO’s and MD’s are equal. It
is also important to point out that in all my years working in healthcare
(approaching nearly a decade now), I have never witnessed a patient
demand to be seen by an MD over a DO. I’m not saying that situation never occurs,
I’m just saying I have yet to see it.
Schools with no or few science pre-requisites required: Having a solid understanding of core science topics is very important
when pursuing matriculation into medical school, however, schools rarely
require you have a science related bachelor’s degree. I remember arguing with countless
academic counselors about switching my major from Biology to Spanish.
Ultimately, I switched to Spanish, because I was serving on multiple medical
missions to Central America in 2017 and found Spanish classes to be much more
applicable than three semesters worth of Calculus. Remember that college is a
business deal, and you are paying for a very expensive product, that being your
degree. So be sure to major in something that you are truly passionate about.
Although I majored in Spanish, it was still necessary for me to take the core
science classes which would prepare me for the MCAT (medical college admissions
test). Many medical schools have recommended classes that vary per
institution, but the core classes often are:
Two semesters of general biology, with lab
Two semesters of general chemistry, with lab
Two semesters of organic chemistry, with lab
Two semesters of general physics, with lab (may vary per school)
Two semesters of math, including calculus or statistics (varies greatly
Two semesters of English
I have mentioned the list of science pre-requisites most schools
require, however not every school requires them. Here is a list of schools that
allow you to bypass most of (or in some cases all) these classes.
New York University school of medicine
University of Virginia school of medicine
Central Michigan University College of Medicine:
Two semesters of biological science courses with lab
Two semesters of organic chemistry with at least one
One semester of organic chemistry and one semester of
biochemistry with one lab section
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
Keck School of Medicine of USC
UC Davis School of Medicine:
Accepts on-line classes, and does not require labs or a bachelor’s
degree (although it is strongly recommended)
University of Minnesota Morris School of Medicine
Stanford School of Medicine
Now, before withdrawing from that dreadful organic chemistry or physics
class, PAUSE AND THINK. Although the above schools do not require all
core science classes, it is incredibly important to note that the schools do require
the MCAT be taken. Many of these schools have made the decision to change the
sciences course from required to recommended, in the name of inclusivity. That
is, perhaps someone with relevant life experience whom is well prepared for the
MCAT, would not need to sign up for more science courses. Someone who has had a
career in nursing, science teaching, or another related vocation is probably
the best candidate for this route. It is very important to do personal research
to verify exactly what type of student these schools are looking for. Also,
medical school is incredibly difficult to get into, and choosing to proceed
without the core classes that many schools require, may limit your options when
Schools offering 3-year programs: Many
schools offering a 3-year program, require that accepted students make a
professional commitment to family medicine. The motive behind many of these
programs is to produce primary care physicians quickly, in order to decrease
the physician shortage. Kunal Sindhu, a reporter for the online journal Quartz,
shares some alarming statistics in his article, including “the US is now
forecasted to experience a shortage of 46,900 to 121,900 physicians by 2032.”
Keep in mind that the fourth year of medical school involves hours of clinical
rotations to give students exposure to multiple fields of healthcare. If an
individual is coming into medical school already having found a strong interest
in becoming a primary care physician, then this is an excellent option. However,
if you still feel undecided as to what branch of medicine to specialize in, then
saving a year of tuition and time probably will not be worth the permanent
commitment to primary care that you will be required to make.
NYU: 3YMU Pathway
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center: Family Medicine
UC Davis School of Medicine, ACE-PC – Primary care only
Mercer University – Primary care only
Colombia University – must currently hold a PhD in Biological Sciences
Lake Eerie College of Osteopathic Medicine – Primary Care Scholars
McMaster University School of Medicine, based in Canada
University of Calgary, based in Canada
International Medical Schools: The fourth and
final type of non-traditional medical schools, are those in international
locations. As someone who has done a fair amount of traveling across the globe,
95% of my missions being in the name of medicine, I personally am a huge fan of
this option. As with any school in the US or Canada, it is imperative that the
student do their own research about tuition costs, residency placements, and
school accreditations. It is very frustrating to read posts on social media in
which someone is slamming international medical schools. Whether a student
attends medical school in the states or not, that student is still responsible
to perform well academically, and present themselves as a competitive candidate
when applying to residencies. When I worked in a pediatric ICU, I met one
surgeon who had graduated from St. George’s University, in Grenada. I also
found the biography and picture of one of the hospital’s most renowned
surgeons, whom was a graduate of a US accredited medical school in Puerto Rico.
Many of the US accredited medical schools which offer an international program,
require that the student study on that campus for two years, but come back to
the US to finish their clinical rotations. There are many international medical
school options, and this list may not cover all of them, but these are some of
the most popular that I have either researched myself or I have known a doctor
or nurse to have been in attendance at one of these institutions:
St. George’s University – West Indies, Grenada
Ross University School of Medicine – Barbados, Caribbean
Saba University School of Medicine – Caribbean Netherlands
American University of the Caribbean – Sint Marteen, Caribbbean
Trinity School of Medicine – St. Vincent & Grenadines, Caribbean
Gurion University – Beersheba, Israel
Autonoma de Guadelajara – Guadelajara, Mexico
Atlantic Bridge Program – Various locations in Ireland
The University of Queensland – Brisbane, Australia
McMaster University – Canada
University of Toronto – Canada
McGill University – Canada
Duke – NUS Medical School – Singapore
University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine – San Juan, Puerto Rico
After spending hours
researching multiple medical programs, it is apparent that schools themselves
can be as diverse as the students whom apply. While discerning which program
best fits you, remember that ultimately the goal is not bragging rights for
what medical school you attend, but that you become a proficient doctor who is
well educated in your specialty. If you chose to go to a Caribbean medical
school, go the DO route, or follow your passion for family medicine that leads
to a 3-year program, you will probably get much unsolicited advice from well
meaning family members or co-workers who not only never applied to medicals
school, but do not understand the unique process of accreditation that all the
above mentioned schools have obtained and currently maintain. Just as every
individual is different, each person’s path to medical school is different, but
at the end of the journey a doctor is a doctor. Keep your head up, your grades
up, and someday you will be able to facetime that one special person in your
life, wave an acceptance letter in front of the screen, and proudly say “Hey
look Ma I made it!”
At the heart of every great medical school application, is an incredible personal statement! Contact Great Editations for help with the editing and content development of your personal statementhttps://www.greateditations.org or call/text 916-214-0119
“Mom, what’s that?” my four-year-old daughter asks curiously as she stares at the pink and purple colors of the page I had just been staring at and trying to memorize.
“Skin.” I reply simply, because she’s not going to have any idea what Sweet’s syndrome is, or that many of those cells are neutrophils or that there are a list of other causes of papillary dermal edema or that a characteristic histology is only one part of the diagnostic criteria of Sweet’s. Her question means that her patience for my absence is wearing thin, and I only have around 5-10 more minutes to study before she’ll want to just sit on my lap and “help” me study.
Medicine is a demanding field that requires years of study and practice. It is a constant cycle of studying, test taking, applications and deadlines. It is all consuming, and in some regards, it should be. If you don’t know your shit in other jobs, you may lose the sale, lose the customer, or even lose your job. In the medical field, you could lose a life. So in a field that is years of training, a seemingly endless competition for the med school spot, the TA spot, the test score, the residency spot, and at times literally puts someone’s life in your hands, there is no time for distractions right? Do you have to choose career or family?
I know that it is absolutely possible to have kids in medical school and residency and be successful. But let’s be real about it, and practical about it. This question and its answer are very different for each individual person. I think there are four things to consider. But first, I want to give you my back story, so you can appreciate my perspective and the potential biases and misunderstandings I may have.
My husband and I decided to try to get pregnant at the start of my fourth year of medical school. We decided in June that we would try for two months- July and August, because then I could use my elective and vacation months of April and May for maternity leave, before having to report to residency training in the following June. If we didn’t get pregnant, we would wait a year or two before trying again. We got pregnant the first month. I had my first daughter at the end of March. My second year of dermatology residency (PGY3), we decided to give our daughter a sibling and got pregnant with our second daughter, who was born April of my second year. Obviously, I did not do most of medical school with any kids and have pretty limited experience regarding that, but I can extrapolate from my experience in residency.
Ok, so back to the four things to consider regarding having kids and pursuing medicine as a career.
What are your goals? Do you want a super competitive residency spot? Do you plan to do a residency and fellowship, etc, etc that will extend you to PGY6 or more? How much work are you going to have to put in to meet these goals, and is it possible to balance the time commitment of kids, with the time commitment of study in med school, extracurriculars, research and residency?
Because I didn’t have kids in medical school, I was able to focus my studying to obtain great test scores and grades and publish case reports in order to be a good candidate for dermatology. In general, dermatology is not one of the most time demanding specialities during residency, although there is an above average amount of study and focus on academics, more on that later.
What kind of student are you? If you are super smart or have a super good memory and can be an excellent student without having to spend extra time studying, then you will easily have some time left over to spend with your kids after studying. If you know that you will have to dedicate a lot of time and tutoring to stay afloat, it may be difficult to find any extra time for your kids.
I am the type of student who has to study a lot and repeat the material over and over in order to remember it. However, after doing this, I do retain it pretty well and I am a good test taker. So I really need to spend a lot of time on the foundation of material, but can relax my time after I have “put in the work”. So again, having a kid in medical school would have really been a struggle for me as I wouldn’t have been able to commit all the time that I did to studying. Again, this is just me personally. However, because dermatology is such a demanding speciality academically, my first year was a crazy load of material to memorize and I needed a lot of time to be able to go over it again and again to get it down. This is where scheduling my time and my support network came into play.
How much support do you have? To me, this is the most important thing. In general, I believe in the statement that it takes a village to raise a child. Children, especially when very young, are extremely demanding of your time, sleep, emotions, etc. To do it all alone and manage to study for medical school and residency is nearly impossible. However, it is very doable with a strong support network. Whether that network is a spouse, family members friends or nannies, there needs to be people in place to give you the ability to be at work when you need to be, and to have extra time to study.
I owe so much to my husband, who at times functioned as a single parent while I was in training. This was especially true my intern year when I was often working 12 hour shifts and would go days without seeing my daughter. It was true my first year of residency when I would spend the entire weekend before a test studying at work. It was true when I had to travel out of town for 6 weeks to do a rotation my second year, seeing them only every other weekend. And it was true leading up to my board exams my final year of residency, when again I would shut myself away to study for hours at a time. A lot of spouses would resent this burden, and I have seen marriages struggle as a result. We had a nanny as well to help ease the burden and give him a break as well.
Finally, what are your priorities? During medical school, after a long hard day of studying, I would enjoy going for a run or watching Office reruns with my husband. Those little breaks were filled with bath time and story time once I had kids. If you are already a parent, you know the extreme level of selflessness that goes along with that. If you are going to get burned out by not getting that down time or alone time, you really need to think hard about your career choices. It all depends on your priorities.
Having kids has changed my whole life perspective in a beautiful way. It has allowed me to see what is really important in life. Getting a B + instead of an A doesn’t make me a worse doctor or person, but spending that little bit of extra time I could have used to study, in order to play pretend with my daughters is absolutely worth it. My time with them is exhausting, but in the same way, is so refreshing. I love seeing the world through their eyes. I am frequently in fits of laughter at their antics and my heart is so full when my eldest gives me a cuddle and tells me I’m the best mom ever. I wouldn’t want to do this life without them. There are sacrifices that I have to make, but to me, they are worth it.
“Hey Mom, that’s skin!” My daughter says proudly a month later when she catches me reviewing another H&E photo. Silently I’m grateful that she didn’t come up while I was reviewing genital lesions, and I answer her with extra enthusiasm in my voice “Yes it is! I’m proud of you for remembering.”
Shadowing as a pre-med is scary enough. But shadowing in the
operating room takes the game to a whole new level. Not only are you seeing
real-life surgery, but you are also seeing people at their most vulnerable
moments. The moments where they are completely helpless and dependent on
strangers to keep them safe and perform surgeries that will fix their injuries
and ailments. This is an area that can be utterly terrifying as a pre-med. The
personalities in the operating room are unique and intimidating. With the tips
below, we hope to make your experience in the operating room more comfortable
and memorable. Being a surgeon is a career that comes with its challenges but
also comes with the power to change or save people’s lives.
1. Eat a good breakfast
This seems like an elementary thing to put on the list but
it is very important. Days in the OR can be very long and hectic. It is not
uncommon for a surgeon to go all day without eating. To prepare for this make
sure to eat a good breakfast before you come in and pack a few protein or
granola bars that you can stick in your pocket. Be sure you are not in the OR
or in the sub-sterile area when you eat your snack. The last thing you want is
to be miserable during the day because you are starving.
Drink plenty of fluids and take advantage of the bathroom
between cases. It is easy to get dehydrated during long surgery days so be sure
to drink plenty of water throughout the day. You can often find water in the
patient holding areas such as the pre-op or post-anesthesia areas. Don’t be afraid to ask a nurse where water
dispenser is. It is typically not recommended to drink tap water in the
hospital but rather find the filtered water dispenser.
2. Dress for
I typically recommend coming to the hospital in business
casual attire because you never know who is going to see you walking through
the waiting room or the parking lot. Be mindful of what shoes you wear, even
though you want to look good walking in remember you are going to be on your
feet ALL day so you do want to wear somewhat comfortable shoes. Plus, you don’t want your expensive dress
shoes getting ruined with some of the things that you may come in contact with
in the OR.
Once you have found the locker room you will have to change
into scrubs. These are specific colors for each hospital and you are required
to change into and out of the hospital laundered scrubs at the beginning/end of
each day. This is to help prevent bugs from the outside getting into the
hospital and also to prevent you from taking bugs home from the hospital to
Once you have got your scrubs on the next thing you need to
find in a hair cover or surgeons cap. Everyone, whether they have hair or not,
has to have a cap or hair cover. The next piece of attire is shoe covers
because you are likely wearing shoes that have been exposed to the world
outside the OR you will need to wear disposable covers to prevent germs/bugs
from being tracked into the sterile environment. Furthermore, you want to
protect your sneakers from getting blood or other fluids on them. You will see
a lot of staff do not wear shoe covers but this is because they have shoes that
never leave the OR. Grab eye protection before each case, each OR room
typically has a handful of disposable glasses that can keep you from getting
body fluids in your eyes (it happens). If you wear glasses those should suffice
to keep you protected.
The operating room is a cold place with temperatures usually
kept between 65 – 70 degrees. If you are someone that gets cold you can ask the
nurse for a warm blanket or an OR jacket. Some hospitals will allow you to wear
a long-sleeved shirt under your scrubs but this can vary from place to place so
you should ask when you get there if this is acceptable.
If you see that the portable x-ray machine is in the room or
you are told that x-ray will be used then you will need to find a lead apron or
vest/skirt and a thyroid shield to wear during the surgery. The staff in the
room can be very helpful when you are looking for these.
Keep your personal items to the bare minimum. Scrub pockets
are very limited. Most only have a front left chest pocket and one back pant
pocket. You will not be allowed to haul a purse or bag around with you in the
operating room. If you bring valuables know that they may be stored in an
unlocked locker all day. You can keep your phone and your wallet in your scrub
pocket if they aren’t too big, but you don’t want to be lugging a bunch of
stuff around with you all day.
3. Understand the
While the surgeon seems like the ultimate power in the
operating room, know that they have earned respect through years of training
and working at a hospital. For the young pre-med this can be an intimidating an
unforgiving environment. Learning the roles of the various people in the O.R.
will help you successfully navigate this unique workplace. There will be multiple people that you will
need to work with to make this an enjoyable experience.
The first step when you walk into the building is to
introduce yourself to the staff. When you are shadowing as a pre-med you should
walk up to the front O.R. desk and ask to speak to the “Charge Nurse” this
person is the individual in charge of the majority of personnel in the
operating room, they are the boss and responsible for any problems in the
O.R. The charge nurse is usually by the
main O.R. desk and should know when there is a visitor. Don’t be discouraged if
you get an unenthusiastic greeting from this person or the desk staff. These
are very busy individuals and have a lot on their plate.
The circulating nurse is the person responsible for each
O.R. they are the person that verifies that everything is running smoothly and
as safe as possible. The surgical tech is the person responsible for assuring
that all tools and equipment are available for each particular case. They also
assist with each surgery passing instruments or helping the surgeon directly.
The person at the head of the bed is either the
anesthesiologist or the CRNA (nurse anesthetist) these providers are responsible
for providing anesthesia and keeping the patient comfortable during the
procedure. The anesthesiologist is in charge of the CRNA but often oversees
most of the rooms, they will be there for the beginning of the case or if the
CRNA has any issues. The CRNA runs the anesthesia during the remainder of the
case and monitors the patient. The anesthesia teams first job is the safety of
the patient, so be mindful if they are giving directions. At the beginning of
each case they will be putting the patient to sleep and intubating the patient.
This is a critical moment during the case and the room should be quiet and
When you walk into the O.R. room that the surgeon you are
shadowing will be working, find the circulating nurse and introduce yourself.
It is perfectly acceptable to walk into an O.R. and say “Hi my name is … I am
here to shadow Dr. …, who is the circulating nurse today? This will show the
entire staff that you know how the system works. The circulating nurse is the
person responsible for all the staff in each particular O.R. they have to keep
a record of every person that was in the room for each procedure. Since you are
new to the team it is a nice gesture to write your name down for the
circulating nurse. Usually the best place to do this is on the white board in
the O.R. but it is always safe to ask where they want you to write your name. The
circulating nurse can be your best friend and can help you look good during
your shadowing experience. They have known the surgeons for a very long time
and know the intricacies of what they like and dislike.
5. NEVER touch the
In the O.R. nothing is more sacred than the sterile field!
Infection is the nemesis of surgery and we do our very best to prevent
infection with every operation. The core dogma to preventing infection is
maintaining a sterile field. To do this every surgery is prepped and draped in
a very particular fashion. Most if not all operating rooms use blue drapes to
signify the sterile or “DO NOT TOUCH” areas. While almost everything is blue,
occasionally clear plastic or green drapes are used. If something looks like it
has been covered on or near the patient or equipment just assume you should not
As a pre-med shadowing, it is your responsibility to stay
several feet away from the sterile field. Don’t be offended when the staff
reminds you of this. The surgical tech will likely, not so gentility, remind
you if you get too close to their sterile field. If you contaminate a procedure
it can cause serious complications or significant delays in a procedure. Be
VERY cognizant of the sterile field and stay well away from the blue stuff. If
you aren’t sure you can ask the circulating nurse or the scrub tech for
clarification and they will be more than happy to teach you.
When you are moving around in the operating room you should
avoid walking between two sterile objects and keep around 3 feet of space
between you and a sterile field. You may see seasoned OR staff break these
rules, but as the new person in the room, you will be expected to abide by
them. For example, you should avoid walking between the surgical instrument
table and a prepped and draped patient. You should also avoid walking between
the surgeon or surgical tech and the sterile field once they have scrubbed in.
6. Don’t pass out
The operating room is filled with new sights and smells.
Every person responds differently to this and it is something you likely
haven’t experienced before. Sometimes, these new sights and smells can cause
even the strongest people to become nauseous, light-headed, or even pass out.
It is VERY important that if you are feeling any of these symptoms to tell the
circulating nurses so they can help you.
If you feel like you are going to pass out, find the nearest
chair or even sit down on the floor. The worst thing you can do is try and
tough it out and pass out while standing up. This would be very dangerous for
you AND the patient. In this situation, it is better to ask for help than risk
getting hurt or causing a complication. This is nothing to be ashamed of and
you should not hesitate to tell someone if you are not doing okay.
7. Don’t sit down
While it seems silly to tell people to not sit down during a
procedure it is something that is usually expected of pre-meds, medical
students, and residents. While every surgeon is different in his or her
expectations it is always safe to assume that you should be standing for the
operation to show your interest. With that being said and discussed above if
you aren’t feeling well or feel like you are going to pass out you should
immediately sit down or leave the room. No one will fault you if you are not
8. Know when to ask
While it is encouraged to ask questions and be engaged while
shadowing in the operating room. There are times when all the staff and the
surgeon are relaxed and joking around and there are times when everyone is
quiet and concentrated. During times of high stress in the room, it is best to
be quiet and just observe.
The safest time to ask questions is at the end of the case
when the surgeon is closing the wound. This is generally a time when all the
critical parts of the case have been completed and attention is safe to be
directed toward questions. Another time to ask questions to the surgeon is
between cases when you are waiting for the room to be cleaned and ready for the
next patient. Surgeons typically have some downtime during this point and can teach.
Once you have spent time in the operating room you will be
able to tell when things are going well and the surgeon can answer questions
during the case, don’t be offended if you ask a question and you don’t get a
response right away. The surgeon is likely just concentrating on the procedure
and needs to answer your question later. Don’t be afraid to ask again after the
surgery if you did not get a response.
9. Know when to
As a pre-med student, you have very little ability to help
during surgery. You will not be able to scrub into a case and you probably
won’t be allowed to touch the patient because of medical-legal risks. However, there are a couple of small tasks
that you can help with.
Help take the bed in and out of the room. Each patient will
be transported to the operating room on a hospital bed or gurney and moved onto
the OR table. Once the patient has been moved onto the table it is very helpful
when someone takes the bed out into the hallway. When the operation is done and
the surgical drapes are being taken down you can bring the bed back into the
room. Just be sure that you bring in the correct patient bed, it is usually the
one parked right next to the O.R. door that you are in but it is always safe to
verify if confused. You don’t want to put a patient onto a used hospital
bed. Try and figure out which is the
head side and feet side of the bed and bring it into the room in the
appropriate orientation. The head of the bed usually has handles and a pillow
but this can differ with different types Don’t worry if you accidentally bring
it into the room the wrong direction and have to take it out to reposition it, everyone
has done this multiple times.
Get warm blankets for patients. This is an easy way to help
out, find the blanket warmer closest to the operating room you are working in
and at the beginning and end of each case bring two warm clean blankets to each
patient for the nurse to put on.
Help pick up trash at the end of the case. After each
surgery is completed there is a scramble to get the room cleaned up and ready
for the next patient. You can help tidy up the room by picking up trash and
linens off the floor and putting them in the appropriate waste or laundry
baskets. You can also offer to help wipe down equipment but some OR staff may
not want you to help with this so just make sure you ask before you jump on
10. Fake it ‘till
you make it
If confidence is important anywhere it is important in the
operating room. As a pre-med, you may feel like you are the bottom of the totem
pole but realize that everyone had to start at your level or below. The
operating room is unique in that the staff can tell if you are nervous and feel
out of place. While some will be welcoming others will make you feel like you
don’t belong. Show confidence being there and be proud to be pursuing such a
noble field. The pure act of confidence will take you a long way in this
Working in the operating room is a tremendous privilege. You
are trusted to take care of patients at their most vulnerable times and the
operating room team is dedicated to making each case run as smoothly and safely
as possible. Most people who have worked in the OR have done so for many years
and have a special bond with their coworkers. This is a special place where
emotions can run high and stress can be overwhelming but what we do for
patients here is truly amazing.
I hope that with these tips you will have a good experience shadowing in the operating room and find that this is an amazing place to work.
Okay, so you actually have some free time in your schedule. Unlike other students you are not going to the lake or going to a party. You decide to use your “free time” to try and get some shadowing experience. Anyone who is a physician has been in that exact situation. I have personally sacrificed many vacations in high school and undergrad to work on getting clinical experience. When it comes to this, students can be nervous about the experience and not know how to go about arranging it or how to interact while shadowing. While every clinic and physician are a bit different, here are a few pearls that I have found along my 10+ year journey to become a physician and surgeon.
While there is not a perfect answer to how much shadowing a student should have, showing a consistent motivation to get into clinics or hospitals looks great on your application. I encourage everyone to shadow both M.D. and D.O. physicians to get a feel for which style fits you the best.
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask to Shadow.
If you don’t ask the answer is always no. Every doctor has
had to shadow at some point to get into medical school and most are very
willing to help a young pre-med. A lot of students get stuck trying to figure out
how to approach a physician to arrange a shadowing opportunity. Being a
physician is just like any other field of business where networking and meeting
other professionals is essential.
When setting up your rotation you can approach this in multiple ways. For a physician you have never met the best way to arrange a rotation is through their office staff. Call their office and talk to one of the receptionists. Introduce yourself and inquire if they allow students to come shadow. You will likely need to talk to the physician’s office manager to get this scheduled.
If you have met a physician personally and they have given you their contact information, don’t be afraid to contact them directly. When they say yes, then follow up with asking the best way to arrange the rotation. Sometimes the physician will fail to respond to you. They likely missed your message and you can always try calling their office.
I would caution about being too pushy for a rotation. If after several attempts with no response from the office, or the physician, it is best to move on and find a different place to shadow. Don’t be discouraged if an office tells you no. There are some practices or physicians that do not allow or want students, there are still plenty of opportunities out there for shadowing.
2. Dress for Success
This seems intuitive, but I have had medical students show up for rotations where they are interviewing for residency spots in less than professional outfits. Like it or not you will be judged by what you wear on your first day. The safest option is to dress business casual for your first impression. No need to bust out your interview suit, but a long-sleeved shirt and tie for gentlemen and professional blouse and pants for ladies should do the trick.
Different docs expect different levels of attire depending on their practice and schedule for the day. This ranges from hospital scrubs and white coat to very formal with a suit and tie. I always found when I was unsure about what to wear business casual was the safest for the first day. I would then adjust my wardrobe to be closer to the physician I am working with. If you are planning on observing in surgery you will be required to change into hospital scrubs. You should come to the hospital in business casual in case there is a change of plans for the day. Hospitals can be very strict about wearing scrubs out of the hospital. You should change into scrubs when you arrive and change back to street clothes when you leave.
3. Introduce yourself to the staff as soon as you walk in the door.
In medicine there are always a lot of new faces that come through clinics and hospitals. I always make it a priority to introduce myself to the staff that I will be working with. I tell them my name, current level of training (undergrad, medical student, resident, ect), who I am working with. For example, when you walk into an office and approach the receptionist state “Hi my name is _ I am an undergraduate from _ here to shadow Dr. _. Can you please show me where I can meet Dr. _.”
If you are in a clinic be friendly and introduce yourself to the medical assistants and nurses. These members of the team will be your best resources to finding your way around the clinic and learning the do’s and don’ts for the doc you are working with.
If you are in the operating room be sure to introduce yourself to the circulating nurse. Ask where you can write down your name so they can record that you were in the room for each individual procedure that day.
The nursing and other staff are a tremendous resource for young students, medical students, and residents. Be kind and friendly to them, they have often worked with the doctor you are with for many years. They can point you in the right direction and look out for you while you are shadowing. They can prevent mistakes before you make them and can answer many of your questions.
4. Know the right and wrong time to ask questions
While the overall goal of shadowing is to learn, you must figure out the best time is to ask questions. As physicians’ we value the education of the next generation of doctors, but patient care comes first. You must remember that there are instances that require a great deal of focus and can literally be life or death situations. There are also times where we put patients in a vulnerable and scared position and the wrong question from a curious student can cause the physician patient relationship to spiral downhill.
When possible try and save your questions for when you are out of earshot of patients. No patient wants to hear you asking what that funny looking bump on their body was or why the physician was particularly interested in a family history of cancer or heart disease. Remember that these are very personal interactions between patients and you must respect the patient at all times.
When observing procedures be careful to read the situation before beginning to ask questions. Like any field there are times when everyone is quiet and focused, this is because at that time they have reached a critical moment in a case or procedure. These situations require very precise steps and timing by all staff. Take advantage and observe and ask questions after the case or the intensity has lifted.
In emergent situations such as a code or where someone is getting intubated, step back and let the team do their job. Each team member from the doctor to the medical assistants have a pre-assigned roles to perform. These can become life and death situations so observe how the team is functioning and be careful to not draw someone’s attention away from the emergency.
5. Come prepared with a few questions and show you are interested in medicine.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to ask some elaborate medical question
that is way above your level. Just come prepared to ask some general questions about
their job and specialty. The premise to this is to show that you are interested
in being there and to gain insight to a career in medicine and that specialty.
Keep a lookout for things that you don’t understand throughout
the day so when a doc asks if you have any questions you have some questions
ready to go. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification of something you don’t
understand during down time or at the end of the day.
This is a great opportunity to get a glimpse of what their lifestyle is like. Ask them what their call responsibilities are outside of normal clinic or hospital days, what their residency and training was like, and what they like or dislike about their specialty. This is an opportunity for you to begin to find which specialty might fit you the best.
6. Don’t interrupt during the patient interview.
As an undergrad you will have a limited role during patient care. Some physicians may let you go in before them and talk with the patients, but most will have you just tag along. You have to remember that the patient interview is a very developed and pointed skill. While it may seem like small talk, most of the time the physician is using it as a tool to build trust and understand the personality of the patient. Most physicians would prefer that students don’t interject during the interview as this can lead the encounter off course. Unfortunately, these are typically a speak when spoken to situation. Take advantage of observing the unique interaction between different physicians and feel free to ask outside the room about their techniques of interviewing their patients.
7. Understand what HIPPA is and why it is important.
This is something that is VERY important and sometimes
misunderstood by shadowing students. Patient interaction and information is protected
by Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This means that
as someone who is involved in patient care (even as an undergrad student shadowing)
patient privacy is protected by law and can have massive fines if a physician
or anyone in a physician’s office lets personal patient information become publicly
accessible. This can be as minor as dropping a piece of paper in the parking
lot or as major as posting about a patient and including identifiable
information on social media.
The general rule of thumb is that you should not discuss your patient interactions outside of the clinic. You absolutely should not post ANYTHING that relates to a patient interaction on social media. This is important not only for the physician you are working with but to you as a student applying to medical school. A HIPPA violation could be a major red flag for medical schools in the future. Just be careful to keep your interactions with patients within the walls of the hospital or clinic and you will be fine.
8. When to ask for a letter of recommendation.
Don’t be scared, this is something that every physician has had to do multiple times in their career. This can even be a complement to a physician to be asked for a letter. It is debatable as to when to ask for the letter of recommendation. I have heard people advocate for talking to the physician when they start shadowing and tell them that their goal is to get a letter of recommendation after the shadowing experience. Most students get a feel for how the relationship with the physician has developed and make a judgement call if they would right a strong letter or not and then ask the physician.
Don’t be afraid to ask, but if a doc is making excuses to not write you a letter it is best to try and find someone else as they probably wouldn’t write a strong recommendation. It never hurts to ask multiple letter writers as there is a chance you could have difficulty getting a letter completed despite the best intentions from the docs. Always have a due date for your letter to give a doc and remember to send out a thank you for a letter or recommendation.
9. It is okay to not understand everything that is going on.
One thing to realize is that learning medicine takes a long time and is very complex. As an undergrad you will not be expected to understand the pathophysiology or pharmacology behind the treatments being prescribed. No need to try and cram and study for each shadowing opportunity. With that being said, it is often very hard to explain different treatment algorithms to pre-med students. Don’t be offended if you ask a question and doc doesn’t take time to break down the entire process. It will come in due time.
If at any point when you are shadowing you start to feel queasy or light headed don’t be afraid to excuse yourself from the room and tell someone how you are feeling. If you feel like you are going to faint find the nearest chair or sit down on the ground to prevent injury. This is actually a common situation with people new to the medical field and nothing to be ashamed of. It is not a sign of weakness and we would much rather know you are not doing well than to have you pass out or get sick and injure yourself or the patient.
10. Don’t ask to go home early!
This is an unwritten rule in medicine! A pre-med, medical student, or resident should never ask to go home in the middle of a clinic or O.R. day unless you have made arrangements to leave early before you began the clinic, shift, or case. I know this sounds harsh, but this is something that has been universal in every place I have shadowed, rotated, or worked. Medicine requires endurance and physicians pride themselves for being able to go the extra mile. If a student asks to go home because they are tired or bored, they will likely be told that it is okay that they leave but it will create a negative impression and make the student look disinterested. It is not fair, but it is how the culture is.
If you know that you will be required to leave because of a previous engagement, make sure that is know in advance to you starting your shadowing that day or at the very least the beginning of the day. Most docs are understanding if you have an emergency or an illness that requires you to leave but be transparent about your reasons. The biggest thing is don’t be the student that comes and goes as he/she pleases and make sure you try and stay engaged during your shadowing experience and always be early to the clinic or hospital.
Shadowing as a pre-medical student gives you invaluable insight into the life of being a physician. This is a tool that will help you decide to dedicate a decade plus of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars to become a physician. This field has many benefits and many downfalls. A shadowing experience should give you insight into the interaction between the patient and physician and what their day to day life is. Even as an undergrad you will pick up many pearls being in clinics and hospitals. Each little pearl you pick up will be a small piece puzzle that will lead to a successful career as a physician