Updated: Feb 27, 2022
We had the opportunity of interviewing Julian W. from Yale University about: Pre-med.
Julian studied Molecular Biology at Wesleyan University and then spent two years doing clinical research at MGH in Boston. Now, he is a fourth-year medical student at Yale University.
Here are some important words Julian shares:
"You could do some sort of research that doesn't even necessarily need to be medical or biology-related, but doing some kind of research before applying to a medical school is highly recommended."
"You can't fail every course, but you can fail a few, and it doesn't matter."
Q: Many students, possibly even some in our audience, want to go to medical school and become a doctor either because their parents want them to, the paycheck is attractive, they're genuinely interested in helping people, or they're fascinated by the field. What was your motivation to study in the field of medicine?
A: Initially, I was between medicine and general science, like research science, in biology and molecular biology. But I feel like my primary motivation might have turned to medicine because of the more clinical experiences I had working with patients. I realized that being able to directly interact with people, work with them, and help them face-to-face was really what made me happy. So that's the main reason that I chose medicine and science in general; it's just something I was interested in from a young age.
Q: For your undergrad, you attended Wesleyan University, a highly selective, private, liberal arts college in Connecticut. How do you think the experience of attending a liberal arts school helped you explore your interests?
A: I can't necessarily speak for any other colleges, but I think that the ethos and values of the liberal arts college are where you are encouraged to explore different avenues, take classes in various fields outside of your major, and small seminar-style courses where I had biology classes. You got to explore things, and there wasn't a significant pre-med community, so there wasn't the same competition. It helped me see what I wanted to do without a lot of outside pressure, explore things, and come through independently.
Q: Would you say your undergraduate majors, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, helped build a foundation for you as you went into med school?
A: My major is a straddle between traditional biology and biochemistry. That was personally just what I was most interested in. I have a lot of friends in medical school who did Chemistry majors, Neuroscience majors, English majors, Dance majors, and all sorts of other things. I mainly just did it because I was interested in it. But I would say that it provides the best foundation for the most fundamental sciences in medical school.
Q: Is there such a thing as the best major for pre-medical students?
A: Not necessarily. I think that you should do whatever you're most interested in as long as you take the pre-med requirements and get all your things done. I believe that if you're not very strong in molecular biology, you may have a little bit of a tough time. But it's only at the beginning of medical school. Pretty shortly after that, you'll find that the playing field levels out a lot, and you're quickly in this arena where you have never learned that sort of subject material before. So having a good background in biology is not that necessary.
Q: You've done a lot of internships and volunteering during your undergraduate years at various organizations and hospitals, including the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Georgetown Cancer Center, and the National Institute of Health (NIH). What are some important experiences/courses our listeners interested in medical school should try to have before applying to medical school as prerequisites?
A: There's not a one-size-fits-all thing. But I believe that you should generally do something you're interested in; otherwise, you probably won't enjoy it as much, and you won't get as much out of it. Being able to experience and say, “I got XYZ done during it”, is always good to show. You could do some sort of research that doesn't even necessarily need to be medical or biology-related, but doing some kind of research before applying to a medical school is highly recommended. Everything else is nice to do in moderation; especially if it will help you figure out whether you do want to go to medical school. Volunteering, shadowing, research, extracurricular activities, and leadership positions are all great things to have on your application. But I also think only doing something that you enjoy doing is not useful if you can't say a lot about them or get a lot out of them.
Q: How did you find these opportunities?
A: It's super difficult. And it's very geography-dependent unless you're willing to move for an internship, which unless you're from somewhere where there are no opportunities, I probably wouldn't recommend NIH. It has been eight years since I was last there. They have a general application system, and to get there, you can do it as either a late high school student or during college. Some are summer positions, while others are research positions. When I did this internship, I got paid the following year. The next time I did it, I wasn't paid.
The other times, I cold-emailed many people, looked on the website, looked at labs that I thought were interesting, and just emailed a bunch of principal investigators in the labs until someone responded to me. For Georgetown Cancer Center, I heard about it from someone else, and I applied to that as well.
But I'd say that for research and clinical experiences, you do have to look into it. Reach out to people through your school and your network, ask around and find out if people have done it in the years. And have them put you in contact with the right people. It's pretty tough, especially if you're looking to do a gap year job, which is what I did. It is very competitive depending on where you're trying to do it in the country.
Q: Could you explain to our audience how life as a pre-med and life as a medical school student varies as a whole?
A: While I was a liberal arts college student, coursework was difficult, but it wasn't overbearing. I would say I rarely was highly stressed about anything, especially coursework-related things. I know from my friends in medical school, that's not true at all for colleges, by any stretch, but that was my experience, and I kept a pretty level head in college.
Within medical school, it varies wildly, depending on whether you're doing your coursework in lecture hall classes, or whether you're actually in the hospital. Yale is not unique anymore because we have a very relaxed preclinical period during the first year and a half, which is all classroom-based. All of our courses are either pass or fail. If you fail, I wouldn't say it doesn't matter, so it's still stressful in the fact that it's a ton of information, and you have to learn that somehow, one way or the other. You can't fail every course, but you can fail a few, and it doesn't matter. However, you still need to learn the information, regardless of the pass or fail or, to be a physician. Even though it is a very laid-back experience, it is very stressful.
The clinical years are tough no matter where you go, and depending on your rotation, it can be long and stressful hours. Also, it's a lot of new information, a lot of learning the social structures in the hospital, a lot of difficult patient interactions, and a lot of emotional patient interactions. On top of that, you still have to do other work when you get home, either studying or doing research. So that's tough. I'd say that there were some times in clinical years where I got plenty of sleep, and I was happy, and there were other times where I was getting only 4-5 hours of sleep a night when doing 15-hour shifts. It does vary between medical schools, but I think no matter where you go, it's a tough year.
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