Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from medical school, residency and beyond.

Why I went to medical school at a later age.

Back in 1993 when I was a busy graduate student, I was happily contemplating my future career as a college professor. Even as a child, I knew that I wanted to be a research scientist. I had excelled in math and science in the English school that my Mum had so carefully chosen for my education. My Mum was very pro-active when it came to the education and enrichment of her children. She was my first and best teacher. She had taught me the value of an education and the value of observation. While directing the growth of her children on a self-sustaining farm, she made our 90-acre horse farm, a living laboratory for our education. Armed with this background, we were expected to excel at all things academic. The “buzz” around our evening meal was not about sports but about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and higher mathematics in addition to the fine reasoning of Immanuel Kant.

Later, after I graduated from secondary school and entered university, I realized that I could trust my own observations and conclusions under the conditions of study. I approached every class with the vigor and demand for knowledge that my Mum had instilled in me (fostered with a healthy dose of curiosity on my part). I loved every second of my General Biology course and challenged myself to master every factoid that my professor presented. I never attended lab without careful preparation and continued with careful evaluation of every thing that I had observed. I was also very organized when it came to my coursework.

The first semester of my undergraduate freshman year, I took General Biology, General Chemistry and Differential Equations in addition to an English class on Critical Writing and review. I also played on the tennis team which required a fairly high demand on my time. Thus, I had to set a study schedule and keep to my study schedule. When I started college, I knew that I was going to major in chemistry with an emphasis in the chemistry of the living.

I sailed through General Biology and General Chemistry with gleeful passion. I also loved my Differential Equations class as I explored the theories of solving these mathematical equations. In addition, I honed my heavy flat serve and backhand volley that usually intimidated my opponents into submission. I had learned to play serve and volley with the boys so I generally dominated females who never came into the net. Most of the tennis games that I won were won on my fast, flat first service.

During my sophomore year, I took University Physics, Organic Chemistry and Histology. Again, my humanities courses consisted of a course on Early Puritan writers and History of American Thought. I had tested out of both classical and modern foreign languages haven taken classical Greek, Latin and Modern French while in secondary school. I also took a course in Applied Differential Equations (with the engineers). Physics became my favorite class and I loved Histology too. Histology provided a nice contrast from figuring out physics problems and mastering concepts.

During my junior year, I studied Analytical Chemistry, Advanced Inorganic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, Advanced Analytical Chemistry (graduate-level mass spectromety and electro chemistry), Nuclear Physics and Atomic Physics. I spent most of my days in the laboratory and loved the precision of my coursework. I also began working on my honors project as an undergraduate researcher in the laboratory of one of the analytical chemists. Working in his lab honed my love of developing hypotheses and design of experiments. Most of all, I started to see the dawn of the use of mass spectrometry in the analysis of large biomolecules.

My senior year brought decision-making for me. I was torn between the graduate study of Analytical Chemistry and Biochemistry/Molecular Biology. My senior honors thesis had been on determining the detection limits and analysis of Snake Venom by Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Time of Flight Mass Spectrometry. By doing this project, I had learned much about biomolecules and the analysis of large biomolecules (proteins).

I decided to apply for graduate school in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology. I was accepted and received departmental funding to teach both undergraduates and perform my laboratory experiments. I was placed in the lab of a cardiologist who was working on oxidation-perfusion and low magnesium states. This lab was multi-disciplinary with immunologists, biochemists, biophysicists and chemists present. I thrived in this atmosphere. Here, I found a constant exchange of ideas and constant challenge to ask questions and research to find the answers to those questions.

My principal investigator required his graduate students and research scientists to attend Cardiology grand rounds. It was during these sessions that my interest in the clinical applications of my research came to the forefront. I read as much as I could on cardiology, physiology and pharmacology. My PI loved my questions and one day suggested that I apply to medical school. “The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t get in”, he said. ” If that happens, you continue your work here”. He presented this as a “no-loss” proposition. This seemed reasonable to me at this point in my career. I could already see where the knowledge to be obtained in medical school would be useful for my research.

I took my comprehensive exams for my Ph.D in June, filled out my AMCAS and promptly took the MCAT that August. My MCAT study strategy was to study for my comprehensives (read, I didn’t have much of a strategy). On MCAT day, I hopped on my bike and rode the six miles to my test site. I got in line for check in and listened to Aerosmith and Toni Braxton on my Walkman. I was seated in a room next to a window where I could look up and see a lovely blooming cherry tree with loads of fluffy pink blossoms.

The first exam section was Verbal Reasoning. I scanned all of the passages and chose to do the ones that didn’t interest me first. I had little interest in psychology, history and sociology but loved science fiction and science. I scanned the questions and then read the passages underlining the key points that I needed for each question. I finished this section with time to spare so I just looked out of the window and enjoyed the view. I could totally let my mind wander far from this exam room and relax completely.

My next section was the Physical Sciences section. It was long but I had always worked these types of problems by using order of magnitude. I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out the hook for each question and supplying the answer. I found that I didn’t need to do very many calculations as I could clearly figure what was being asked by underlying key words and working the problems using order of magnitude. This section was my favorite and I worked each problem as they came. About ten minutes into this section, three young men got up, turned in their test materials and left the room. My next question was, “Am I missing something here?” “This is really not THAT bad”. Again, it was nice to be able to look outside for a mental break from the work.

The next phase was lunch time. I checked my bike and headed over to a small cafe where I knew the owners. After a light lunch of soup and tomato sandwich washed down with my favorite Diet Coke, I settled in the hallway outside of the testing room with my Walkman and some Moody Blues. There is nothing like “A Question of Balance” to keep your head clear. I had chosen my music very carefully and made the right choices.

The afternoon session consisted of the Writing samples and Biological Sciences. I finished the tests, hopped on my bike and headed back home for a nap. Later that evening, I went to a disco with a couple of my mates and lost myself in the pounding music and Guinness stout. It had been a long day but it was over. No matter what, I was locked into whatever score I received and my application would be complete that October 15th.

My first interview invitation came on October 20th and my first interview was the last week in October. My last interview was in February. By my final interview, I was holding three acceptances and went on to acquire six out of six acceptances. To my astonishment, I had been hugely successful in application to medical school.

I don’t know why I was accepted and two of my friends did not make it in that year. One of my friends was the president of the Pre-med honor society (I wasn’t even a member) and the other had more publications than I had and what I considered a better application. Both were also much younger than I was. The only thing that I had beaten them in was MCAT score. Of the three of us, I had the highest MCAT score by far. My undergraduate GPA was strong (it had to be for graduate school) and I had held some interesting jobs (TV news producer, political campaign manager, environmental speech writer) in addition to my scientific work.

With that first acceptance letter, it hit me that my life was going to take a turn that I had not planned. I was going to add research physician-scientist to my career. I would teach, perform my clinical duties and research. To the delight of my uncle, I would follow in his footsteps.

I was never a “Pre-Med” student as an undergraduate. I certainly remember my classmates anguishing over receiving “Bs” in their science classes and grumbling about my performance since I really didn’t care that much about the letter grade. I was in the class for the information. It was funny how my focus on mastery of course material (because I had to KNOW this material to be a good scientist) made getting the grade more easily than calculating what my score had to be to get an “A”. My tests were my challenge to do better and better. If I destroyed a few curves along the way, it didn’t matter much to me.

In the end, I carried a large body of knowledge and a solid background into medical school where I could build upon that background. Little did I know, until the second week of lectures, that I would be barraged with more information and a short time to assimilate it. My absolute curiosity about all things human would be satisfied many times over and continues to be satisfied to this day. For me, medical school was the ultimate mental exercise with a limitless supply of interesting experiences and facts. I had the time of my life and learned to love the craft of medicine, not to mention, that I have met some of the most interesting people along the way.

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29 January, 2007 - Posted by | MCAT, medical school admissions

25 Comments »

  1. Reblogged this on Medicine From The Trenches and commented:

    Since I am far away from my home base and living the life of a sailor, my thoughts have turned to why I entered medicine. It was my father’s dream (he was an Internal Medicine specialist) that I follow in his footsteps. My uncle was my mentor (he was a Cardiologist). I was a scientist and entered medical school a bit later because I took the time to complete a Ph.D. I have no regrets because medicine/surgery is one of the most amazing things that I do, when I am not sailing.

    Comment by drnjbmd | 29 July, 2015 | Reply

  2. Hello,

    I actually stumbled acrossed your blog while looking up information for Physician Assistant studies. I found the information you provided very refreshing. To give you a little background, I have been an Rad Tech for over 12 yrs. I left radiology to pursue a career as a Clinical Project Manager. However, I have always wanted to be a PA. I always felt I was to old to go back to school but my desire to be a PA is very strong. I am 38, so no I am not that old but I have to start from scratch. I am up for the challenge, I miss have direct patient contact. My major concern is that I’ve taken classes at the University I want to attend and didn’t pass them all this was in 2001. I am of course attending class now taking all the required course work, with tutors of course. Do you think my past course records will affect me once I apply to this program? Also what’s the best advice you can give to someone who is 38yrs and has been out of school since 2001. Plus I am starting from stratch . Anything advice your could offer would be great.

    Thanks so much in advance.

    Comment by Laticia | 10 April, 2012 | Reply

    • To Laticia:
      You will have to list all of your coursework when you apply to PA school (same as medical school). Most PA programs will require at least a 3.0 GPA thus you need to make sure that you have the minimum. Some programs are very competitive which means that you should research programs carefully and make sure that you are competitive for them. My program for example had over 600 applicants for 25 slots with the average GPA for the class being 3.65. Physician assistant has become a very sought after profession so make sure that you do the best you can in all of your prerequisite course work. You should also do an Internet search for “PA forums” which you can join. This forum is run by PAs and keep up to date information about the profession and the process of becoming a PA. Good luck.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 10 April, 2012 | Reply

      • Thanks a million for your advice. I am re-taking coursing that I didn’t excel in and I am currently a member of 3 Physician Assistant forums. The information I receive is great. I am nervous about the amount of applicates and my chances. I intend to work hard on my prerequisite, as well as shadow a PA. So I am prayful! Thanks again for advice. 🙂

        Comment by Laticia | 12 April, 2012

  3. Hi,
    I am 34 year old female having immense passion towards medical science and would like to go to medical school. I have a good medical background , but unfortunately the degree I have obtained from my country(India) is not accepted in this country.
    Can you please guide me as to how I can start to pursue in this direction? I would really appreciate if you can please reply to me in this regard.

    Comment by Keer | 18 July, 2011 | Reply

    • To Keer:
      You need to be sure that your degree is not accepted in this country. If that is indeed the case, you need to obtain a bachelor’s degree in this country (expensive). If money is tight, you can start at a community college and then transfer to a 4-year college/university but you need a bachelor’s degree to study medicine in the USA (at age 34, you are not going to be eligible for BS-MD programs). As you obtain a bachelors degree (be sure that you maintain a high uGPA (3.65 or better), you also need to be sure that you take the appropriate pre-med courses (gen biology with lab, gen chem with lab, organic chem with lab and gen physics with lab) plus any additional courses like statistics that many medical schools will require. You can look up the general and specific pre-med requirement on the AAMC website (American Association of Medical Colleges). Again, since you are 34, you need to get to work on your degree as soon as you can. Perhaps some but no all of your course from you country might transfer so that you could get your degree done faster. In any event, you will need to contact an institution here to see what can be used and what cannot be used. Good luck.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 18 July, 2011 | Reply

      • Hey. I’d like to first off say that your blog is very informative! I appreciate all the information you are imparting.

        Anyways, I wanted to ask you about my chances for medical school admission. Thank you in advance.

        I am a recent college graduate (age 22) with a BS Biology/ minor chemistry. I am beginning to realize that research is not my passion. It is only when I think about med school that I feel my ambition alighted. I genuinely feel I could be a quality doctor — this is not merely a shallow attempt at a job with rich compensation or an example of familial pressure. The idea of being a physician is rather existentially satisfying.

        All course requirements for med school I have completed. (Ochem, genchem, Biology, calculus, physics, etc.)

        I received a ~3.83 GPA at a respected liberal arts institution, with induction both upperclassmen years into its Phi Beta Kappa equivalent along with Dean’s List all 8 semesters. So my academics are pretty good. I also had good relationships with science professors so can count on recommendation letters.

        I also test well. Received 90+ percentile on the GREs. I assume I could tackle the MCAT given enough time to study.

        My concern is lack of hospital volunteer hours. How much time do you think I need to put in to be taken seriously by med schools? I have heard of students who had stellar academics and test scores but were roundly rejected due to lacking enough volunteer hours.

        As an aside, I have volunteered a whole summer as a national park wilderness ranger. Would this be interesting to medical schools? It was a pretty significant leadership experience, as I was acting as a mentor/enforcer/medical responder to thousands of backcountry visitors.

        I’m guessing I would be taking the MCAT next summer and applying for fall 2013 admission. What would you recommend I do in the meantime to maximize my chances? Volunteer at a hospital? Work as a CNA? Medical scribe?

        THANKS again! I had this epiphany only last night as I was pondering to myself while I felt no passion in applying for labratory tech jobs in my area. Thinking of medical school was a rather serious jolt.

        Comment by John | 20 October, 2011

      • To John:
        Unless you are applying to an MD-Ph.D program, medical schools won’t care about your GREs and scores on GRE do not have much to do with the Medical College Admissions Test. These tests are quite different and test quite differently. The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) tests whether you can take the knowledge base from your pre-med coursework and apply it to problem-solving. It’s a problem-solving test and not a test of memorization (which is why many people have problems with the test). As for volunteering, most medical schools want to see some evidence that you have some interest in your fellow humans. You should choose volunteer activities that show your interest in human beings and be able to articulate that interest. While volunteering as a wilderness ranger may have been a great experience, it’s probably not enough to offset lack of experience with humans/human interaction with people who are in trouble/underserved not so much volunteering with folks who visit national parks (these folks tend to be upper middle class and fairly well educated). Find some activity that you enjoy that involves service to at risk human beings and do it. Some folks will obtain their EMT certification and volunteer for ambulance/rescue squad which works and shows that you are capable to interacting with humans who are in trouble. As for hospital experience, you don’t need to become a CNA but you should shadow a physician or two in order to make sure that medicine is something that you know that you want to pursue. Given the long term aspects of training in medicine, schools want to be sure that you know the scope and nature of medical practice as it’s far different from what most folks would expect. To sum up, if your MCAT scores are good and you are able to submit a strong and competitive application, you stand a chance of entering medical school as long as you are competitive within the pool of applicants to the schools that you apply. There are no “slam-dunk” candidates in terms of admissions and everything counts which is why you need a complete application with all aspects taken care of.

        Comment by drnjbmd | 21 October, 2011

      • Some other relevant experience: I have TAed multiple undergraduate Biology laboratories at my college. Also have worked as an undergraduate researcher, once a whole summer (400+ hours) and another time during a semester.

        I was involved in trying to isolate novel antimicrobial compounds from soil bacteria.

        I apologize for the disconnected addendum.

        Comment by John | 20 October, 2011

      • Thanks for being up front about the amount of work I’d need to do for medical school to be a viable option. Brutal honesty is what I need before deciding to fully commit to this endeavor.

        As an aside, I’m actually in the last stages of a Peace Corps application. I am indeed a typical liberal arts college idealistic chap, and would be teaching science/math to secondary students in West Africa for 2+ years. Seeing as the medical school epiphany was only a recent phenomenon, this is not a calculated attempt to be a more attractive candidate. “Caring about my fellow human” and serving in Peace Corps is genuinely a very fulfilling option for me, and I’ve been involved in its extensive application process for 6 months now. That said, would having served in Peace Corps make me stand out as a candidate? (again, positing that MCAT scores and other aspects of my application are strong/complete)

        I ask this as it is not directly related to the health field, and is not done within the United States. I’ve heard from some that medical schools do not value such international experience that highly, and instead look for candidates to display their commitment within the US.

        Again, I highly appreciate your time and valuable input.

        Comment by John | 21 October, 2011

    • Hi, I am in the same situation as you are. Have a degree from India and now trying to figure out if I can go to Medical school here. Miss the clinical work!

      Comment by asha | 26 January, 2012 | Reply

  4. Hi,
    Your article is one of the most helpful and useful when it comes to preparing for getting into a med school. Thank you for posting it here.

    I am a Computer Science Engineer who is working in a leading software company and aspiring to be a doctor since my childhood. Due to several reasons I could not get a chance to pursue this dream.
    I am 24 years old now. Is it possible for me to get into a med school in US/Canada/anywhere now? My GPA is 3.28. I am quite hardworking and like to think myself as intelligent and ready to goto any extent to achieve this.Also, although I have completed pre-med courses in Physics and Chemistry with very good grades, the only biology course i had taken was in school. Do I have to start college all over again?

    Can you please guide me as to how I can atleast begin to pursue in this direction. Note, I am from India.

    It will be really great if you could reply to me.

    Thanks again for posting this article.

    Comment by pihu | 30 August, 2010 | Reply

    • To PIHU:
      With a strong MCAT, you should apply to a broad range of schools. Be sure to write a strong personal statement that outlines why you want to practice medicine. If you are not successful in getting some interviews, look into formal SMPs (Special Masters Programs) such as the ones at Georgetown or U of Cin that will allow you to take the same courses as medical students and show that you can handle a medical curriculum. The thing is that many of these programs will want an MCAT score. You may have to spend a year in one of these programs but not start over. Good luck.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 30 August, 2010 | Reply

  5. I’m truly inspired by your attitude towards learning. I can already tell that you come from a family that places a very strong emphasis on higher learning. truly impressive 🙂

    Comment by Shrujan | 22 November, 2009 | Reply

  6. To anyone who feels that it is necessary to comment on other posters, feel free to take your comments elsewhere. To anyone who is interested in asking a question, feel free to ask it. My readers are not interested in your opinions on other posters and for that matter, neither am I. This blog exists to answer questions and provide information. As the administrator of this site, I have full ability and control over comments and questions. I would like for people to be able to ask questions but I can certainly turn off that feature at any time if people feel the need to continue with off topic comments. It has nothing to do with me being defensive and everything to do with the spirit in which this blog is written. If you don’t have a question or comment about the subject material of the post in question, go elsewhere as my readers and I are not interested.

    Comment by drnjbmd | 11 July, 2009 | Reply

  7. To Laura and Shaun:
    Surgeons are aggressive by nature. I certainly hope that you don’t ever have to encouter a surgeon and remain in good health. That being said, both of you can take you dialogue between each other elsewhere as other blog readers don’t care about your opinions or feelings. I don’t care and they don’t care. The world does not center around either of you. Feel free to post elsewhere and read other blogs.

    Comment by drnjbmd | 6 July, 2009 | Reply

  8. To Laura:
    Opinions are like anal openings in that most people have one. You are entitled to your opinion and I could care less whether you or anyone out there believes I am cold and analytical. I am doing just fine being just the way I am albeit rude and immature as I want to be. I am laughing as I write this.

    Comment by drnjbmd | 4 July, 2009 | Reply

    • Wow I hope you aren’t so aggressive outside of the internet, you sound difficult to get along with. However, I’m sure I would feel well taken care of as a patient. However, as a medical student I hope I never meet you.

      Comment by laura | 6 July, 2009 | Reply

  9. But what your life? Partner, kids, friends? Life experience counts too – especially in the clinical setting.

    Comment by Amy | 6 February, 2009 | Reply

  10. This sounds almost like a personal statement. You come across as slightly pretentious, but I have no doubt you would be successful in medical school.

    Comment by Ayla | 19 January, 2009 | Reply

  11. To Todd:
    Poor baby, I have already done better than he can ever hope to which is why he sends the negativity. I hope your life gets better. I love it when people send negative comments via the impersonal internet because they are too “chicken” to say them in person.

    Hey Todd (I would say this to your face any day) I hope you achieve everything that you want in life and do well you little sweetheart!!

    Comment by drnjbmd | 6 December, 2008 | Reply

  12. i am absolutely inspired by the way you talk about learning…it’s an attitude of fun and curiosity 😀

    Comment by vandana | 29 April, 2008 | Reply

  13. 6 out of 6? wow! How did you decide which school to attend? What was your decision making process?

    Comment by Jacqueline | 30 January, 2007 | Reply

  14. I happily accept your offer to join the Digital Press Club.

    Comment by Drnjbmd | 30 January, 2007 | Reply

  15. We would like to invite you to the Digital Press Club to blog on any issues that will not jeopardize your career! 😉

    Qu’ul cuda praedex nihil!

    F.S.

    Comment by Fredrick Schwartz | 30 January, 2007 | Reply


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