Monday, March 3, 2008

David advises pre-meds against Biology

It probably seems counterintuitive that anyone would seek my advice about anything. Yet, believe it or not, I often get asked for words of wisdom about navigating the pre-med and med school application process. For any current or prospective pre-meds, here is perhaps the best advice I have: unless you absolutely love biology, enjoy it on a profound and fundamental level that resonates within your pre-med soul, do not major in Biology*. (And if you do love it that much, I’d also argue you should eschew medicine entirely, get a PhD, and cure cancer instead of learning how to treat it. But that is a rant for another day.)

Why? I’m glad you asked. Not majoring in Bio*

1) will help you decide if medicine is really for you.

I know every 4th freshman in college has felt some burning, innate desire to become a doctor and save the world. They played with stethoscopes as toddlers, volunteered at the local children’s hospital during high school, and have told every teacher, relative, and college admissions officer that they’re going to become a whatever-ologist because they really want to help people. Yet despite that medical love-fest, most people have no clue what being a doctor really means. They’ve settled on the ideal of making a difference and saving lives, but haven’t necessarily explored alternative career paths or taken the time to really understand what a physician does on a day-to-day basis.

In high school, everyone takes more or less the same classes and meets roughly the same requirements. College is the best chance to learn new stuff and explore new opportunities. Why pigeon-hole yourself if you don’t have to? The path to physician-hood is a ridiculously long process that requires a lot of personal and financial sacrifice. Pre-meds too often do a disservice to themselves by not exploring other options. So delve into a new subject, not just on a superficial level or even to get that minor you think med schools will care about, but all the way into upper-division classes that really show what the field has to offer. At the same time, do all the shadowing/pre-med club stuff too. The point is to see what’s out there and what you like the best, rather than mindlessly following the rest of the sheep without a second thought.

Finally, what if you major in Bio* and decide medicine is not for you. That's better than entering med school and hating it, but you're still looking at an uphill battle. Unfortunately, a successful career in research is going to demand a hell of a lot more than your BS, and non-science employers won't be that impressed that you know about cells. Again, if you just love the natural sciences and want to pursue the next step in education, this isn't a problem, but if you're banking on med school and it doesn't pan out, things don't look as bright.

2) will teach you something new and valuable.

Ok, so you KNOW you want to become a doctor. There’s no point in even exploring another field, the ingrained instinct to save the children is that strong. If for some unknown reason you couldn’t get that coveted MD, you’d be so distraught that you’d forsake the professional world, tie up a hobo sack, and ride the rails. Well, that’s awesome, congrats on the choice. Now go find something besides bio to learn about for four years.

Contrary to popular belief, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, etc. do not equal Medicine in College. Sure, your O-chem prof might spice up his lectures by talking about the structure of taxol or have you make god-awfully impure aspirin in the lab, but you don’t get to play doctor until MS-1. And once you reach med school, you’ll have two intense years of science and a whole lifetime of literature to satisfy your urges for knowledge. Why not take the chance to put another shot in your bag while you have the time? Major in English and learn about rhetoric. There will be exactly one gazillion times in your life where being a good, persuasive writer will help you. Major in Economics, Finance, Accounting, etc., so you’ll be better able to invest in the future, understand financial markets, and read The Wall Street Journal while holding your glasses loosely with one hand so that the tip of one earpiece is touching the edge of your mouth (then bust out terms like ‘basis point’ and ‘expansionary’ and watch all hell break loose). All of eternity awaits for that medicine-only focus. Learn something cool that you can use later on and you’ll never regret missing that extra bio class on the mechanisms of something the cell does that no one cares about.

3) will HELP your chances of getting in to med school.

Even though I don’t advocate going the non-bio route purely as a way to game the system, I still find it exceedingly obvious that being a non-science major is an effective way to stand out from the crowd.

Sad though it may be, your 3.9/35 (or whatever strong combination you offer) from Look How Awesome I Am University doesn’t impress anyone on any admissions committee at any med school. They’ve seen you and a million more just like you come down the application pipeline over the years. Sure, there are amazing kids every so often that probably get in by virtue of their academic accomplishments alone, but that isn’t a feasible option for the average student. A History major, however, is relatively unique. Assuming you’ve done well in your science courses, the fact that you would bolster the intellectual diversity of an incoming class can only help. People reading your file are probably thinking “Wow, this kid did something cool and unique that will add to our student body,” not “Uh-oh, not enough science, he/she won’t cut it.” And in your interview, you’ll have the rare ability to talk about something you know more about than the interviewer. Who is Prof. Blah going to remember better, the mechanical engineer who worked on the solar car team or that other kid who did that one experiment with those flies?

4) will NOT hurt you once you reach the Promised Land.

“OK, David,” you say. “Sure, I can learn cool non-medical stuff and maybe even get a boost in the application process, but what about once I get accepted? It’s going to be all science, all the time, and my crappy Math degree is going to come back to bite me in the ass.”

Not so! There’s a reason med schools demand all those prerequisite courses in bio, chem, and physics. Those classes test your ability to work hard, internalize large amounts of information, and apply all the concepts you’ve memorized in new, unfamiliar situations. They also give you the necessary knowledge base to succeed in med school. Med schools aren’t in the business of accepting people who lack the requisite scientific background to keep up in class. Assuming you did well in your pre-reqs and got a good MCAT score, you definitely won’t be behind. If you can’t already tell, I was a non-science major in college, and I guarantee a PhD in biochem would not have had an appreciable influence on my experience in biochemistry so far as a med student.


So, there you go, several reasons not to major in Biology*. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. Hopefully the former, since I knew from my earliest moments that all I wanted to do is help people…

*This extends to Bio, Biochem, and any hybrid pre-health major that pre-meds gravitate toward just because they think it’s relevant or helps their application

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