Degree: Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
Test: Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
Class time: 4 years
Doctors you may know: Sanjay Gupta, William Carlos Williams, Ken Jeong (The Hangover, Community)
What medical school is like: Most medical school programs consist of general scientific coursework for the first two years, after which clinical work is incorporated in the curriculum. Throughout all four years, though, the work is notoriously intense. “One of the biggest adjustments from college to medical school is the sheer amount of information that you are required to learn in a relatively short amount of time,” says Lisa, an MD candidate at the University of Toledo College of Medicine. “The exams themselves are infrequent, but you have to stay on top of the material. It is near impossible to cram for medical school exams the way you may have been able to in undergrad. In terms of the amount of studying and the general atmosphere of medical school, it is like it’s always finals week.” This density of work is med school’s biggest downside; as Lisa says of any successful medical student, “Your life is medical school. Your social life will most likely diminish, your interests and extracurriculars outside of class will be mostly medically related, you may lose touch with friends outside of medical school, and you will probably spend an absurd amount of time studying.”
Lisa lists some perks of med school, though. Aside from the obvious incentive of receiving a license to practice medicine, the benefits of attending medical school include “independence and the fact that you are expected to own your learning, and more professionally relevant extracurriculars in which you actually get to take part in the process instead of just watching. For example, I was able to scrub in on surgeries.” If that sort of unparalleled intellectual experience is not enough, though, you always have the option of developing an inner monologue and pretending to star on Scrubs.
What you can do with a medical degree: In contrast with Eimear’s assertion that a law degree is useful for a variety of careers, Lisa admits that “medical school on its own does not prepare you for career paths outside of the field of medicine.” The path after graduation is rather structured, including a paid residency stage during which med school graduates gain hands-on, supervised experience in the specialty of their choice. “All medical students go through a process in their last year of applying to residencies in whatever specialty they choose,” says Lisa. “Each student then ranks the residencies at which she interviewed and gets matched into the program highest on her list that is willing to offer her a residency.”
Lisa herself aspires to specialize in bariatric surgery after medical school, which requires a fellowship on top of a surgical residency, though not all physicians are required to complete such a fellowship. “In order to do this, I would apply to general surgery residencies in my fourth year,” she says. And while success in medical school allows you to pursue any number of specialties, the years add up. “I would spend five years in residency followed by a fellowship in bariatric surgery,” she adds. The path to becoming a physician in any subfield of medicine is a long one. Bring snacks and good music. Maybe get married along the way.
How to prepare: Pre-med students can apply to MD or DO programs, which differ slightly but both of which have similar requirements for admission and prepare graduates for residency. Medical school requires specific undergraduate coursework for admission, typically one year each of physics, biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, labs in each of the above, English and math. GPA and MCAT scores remain crucial elements of any undergraduate application, though many applicants elect to gain some experience in research, employment or community involvement as well, either between classes or after graduation. “There are so many applicants that have the basics of a good MCAT score and GPA that you really have to have something more than that,” she says.
Based on her own admissions process and success, Lisa offers the following advice for medical school hopefuls: “Instead of involving yourself in everything possible, pick a couple of things and get really involved, whether it is an extracurricular activity or research. An additional possibility is doing something in between undergrad and medical school,” adds Lisa. “I did Teach for America for two years before going to medical school, and the professional and personal development I got from this was unparalleled. I’m sure it not only helped me get into medical school, but it also made me a much better student. The extra level of maturity you gain from experiences as an independent adult gives you more perspective, which is helpful when dealing with the pressure of medical school.”