This Counterpoint is an open letter from a current medical student that was written in response to a recent Globe & Mail editorial (Think medical school is for you? You’re probably wrong) which took a pessimistic perspective on the pursuit of medicine as a career.
This is the first in a series of replies, written by the BoringEM team. Each part of this series will feature a reply from person at a different level along in their medical career. This piece contains the reflections of a senior medical student (in her fourth & final year of medical school), and is the first Counterpoint from our Medical Student Editor, Eve Purdy. For part 2 BoringEM’s #DearPreMed series (released July 18, 2014) please click here.
Dear Aspiring Medical Student,
Think medical school is for you? As a fourth-year medical student I want to offer you my perspective and support. You have worked long and hard to get where you are. Kudos to you for dedicating yourself to extra-curricular activities, volunteering to improve your communities, and supporting yourself and your family along the way. Keep it up, this drive will hold you in good stead whether or not you become a physician.
This letter likely finds you preparing your medical school applications, working long hours, and studying for the MCAT in your “free time.” Even though it is summer you are probably not getting much sun. Applying to medical school can be isolating and difficult, even more so the second, or third time around. It requires you to reflect honestly on who you are and who you hope to become. As you approach interview season you will spend your time discussing medical ethics with friends, family, and anyone else who will listen. As you dive into these issues you will form opinions that will guide you for the rest of your life. You will buy a suit and polish your shoes because you know details matter, because you care, and because you want to show that you are serious about devoting your life to medicine. If you are able to fall asleep the night before your interviews, you will wake up early because you are nervous.
During your interviews you will stumble and you will know it. You will leave each room wishing that you had raised one more point and you will wonder what that panel member’s raised eyebrow meant. Hopefully, you will get into the zone, realize that there is no “correct answer” and start to have fun. You will be yourself, and hopefully, the interviewers will like you for it.
The most difficult questions will be about your motivations for pursuing medicine. These are questions that you will continue to revisit regularly throughout your training. They are not difficult because you are hiding the “truth,” as Ms. Sinclair implies in her letter. They are difficult because eloquently describing “why you want to be a doctor” means understanding the role of physician. How can one describe what one does not know? With few exceptions, medical school applicants do not know this; they cannot know it. Throughout medical school and well into residency, each person’s understanding of the role of physician changes. It morphs with our experiences, the needs of our patients, and the communities we serve.
Throughout your medical career, life will change in ways that you cannot know in your preadmission interview, but you will try to articulate your commitment anyway. If you try honestly you will succeed; if you try dishonestly you’re likely to fail. Let me explain. The interviewers do understand what it means to be a physician. They know that it is hard work that brings both sorrow and joy. If you answer honestly you may be admitted because they believe that you will find joy on this path and that your future patients will benefit. If you are not admitted it may be simple bad luck (there are an abundance of overqualified candidates) or it may help you avoid pursuing a career that is not right for you. If you are dishonest in your application then you will certainly fail: either because the admissions committee will see through you or because you will trick them but end up unhappy with medicine as a career. Either way, honesty is the only path to success.
Medical students are expected to be the best by society and by our patients, but this humbling profession reminds us that we are far from perfect. As we move along in training others trust us more, just as we learn to questions ourselves. It keeps us up at night when we get answers wrong, miss part of a history, or misinterpret the physical exam. It keeps us up at night, not because we are worried about our own failures, but because we are worried about how failures affect our patients. Despite the packed CV and glowing reference letters that got us here, we are human. We do fail. However, we are resilient.
With some speed bumps we begin to leave the “artificial world of grades and prizes” that we knew before medical school behind us. We realize that we do not need to be, in Ms. Sinclair’s terms, “artificially differentiated from those who are less academically-gifted.” It is wondrous to realize that we are a part of a team and that the well-being of our patients is the metric by which success is measured. The same drive and determination that got us that “4.0 GPA” compels us to walk back to the hospital to check on a patient long after we should be at home for the night. We learn from those around us who have more life experience. They show us that the true joys are not in the medicine, but in the people. You will be surprised at how much more gratification you find in this profession then you experienced by achieving an A+ on that organic chemistry test. You will feel fulfilled.
Medical school is not the easy answer, however. Once you are in, you will learn every day about medicine, about humanity, and about yourself. It is the real world. Horror stories about students going “years without hearing anyone saying you’re doing well” do exist. However, not hearing praise may be more of a reflection of our capacity to accept it than the actual lack of it in feedback delivered [PMID:20822286]. As a junior you will want to receive the pats on the back, but as you grow, you will realize that the feedback you crave is that which will make you a better version of yourself [PMID:22691150]. As you move forward in your training you can help create a positive culture while surrounded by colleagues and mentors who care greatly about you [PMID:20042840]. If hostility does come your way, you will find solace in “doing what you love” because you were honest, though naive, in your intentions from the outset.
So, dear aspiring medical student, be honest both with yourself and within your applications. Look forward to the joys that medical school offers but do not underestimate the emotional energy that caring for complete strangers will require. Once you are here, be resilient when you are challenged and be kind to your patients. Look out for your colleagues because the process of becoming a physician (which never really ends) is hard. Don’t forget that caring for the sick is a noble goal and privileged responsibility. Remember that being accepted to medical school is only the beginning.
Good luck with the process!
If there is anything I can do to help you along this journey please do not hesitate to contact me.
Eve Purdy (@purdy_eve)
MD Candidate, 2015
Medical Student Editor, BoringEM
For the rest of BoringEM’s #DearPreMed Life in Medicine series, please click below:
- Part 2 by Teresa Chan
- Part 3 by Heather Murray
- Part 4 by Alim Pardhan
- Part 5 by Sarah Luckett-Gatopoulos