Sunday, February 25, 2007

Premedasaurus extinctus

When I started my undergrad, I wanted to become a doctor, so I simply signed up for the "pre-med" major at my university. I didn't realize that I was jumping on to the last glimmers of a dying wave.

Musings of a Dinosaur is hosting Grand Rounds v3.23, and in an attempt to fit with the theme and thus get listed, I'm writing about the one thing that, this early in my medical career, I know about which has gone the way of the dinosaur: the "pre-med" degree.

Most "pre-med" students are aware that "pre-med" degrees don't actually exist anymore. My degree program wasn't even technically that; it was a B.Sc. in Biology, Pre-Med stream, or simply a collection of courses in and extraneous to the Biology degree requirements which happened to be common prerequisites for medical school. As a matter of fact, it was discontinued in my second year or so, leaving me slightly embarrassed and feeling without compass or sense of direc.... no, actually, I didn't really even notice.

That didn't keep me from shamelessly using "I'm in Pre-Med" to try and pick up members of the female gender. Surprisingly, this was so unsuccessful that I abandoned it in favour of pursuing getting struck by lighting while holding a winning lottery ticket and getting mugged by Chuck Norris at the same time. I figured my chances were better for the latter, and hey, who needs a girlfriend when they can say they were mugged by Chuck Norris, anyways?

In actual fact, I soon lost all enjoyment in introducing myself as a "pre-med." I found that common responses to this declaration were:

  • "Oh, so you're going to be a doctor?"
  • "You must be smart!"
  • [pointing and shouting] "Hey, look, Mom, a nerd!"

These were combined with that which anybody in pre-med has had to deal with... the one thing that dominates every action you as a pre-med do: the thought of "getting in." Almost every pre-med wonders about everything they do, "Will this help me get in?" (ie. regarding a summer job) or worse, "Oh no, will I still be able to get in now?" (ie. regarding getting busted for what you thought was a harmless prank and then finding out that your high school's administration has less of a sense of humour than you first expected... uh, fictional situation, of course). It ends up being in the back of your mind all the time and soon gets pretty annoying.

Take that and add a bit of humility (ok, fine, insecurity), a bit more not wanting to let down people who thought you were smart, and a a lot of realistic awareness regarding the admissions process and the brutal odds that are involved, and you soon find that you'd much rather not tell people that you're 'pre-med.' By my second year of undergrad I told everyone that I was taking a Biology major. I hadn't even realized that by this time my university had pretty much phased out the 'Pre-Med' stream.

Clearly, though, Vitum avoiding the term 'Pre-Med' didn't drive it into extinction. So why isn't it offered any more, and what's the alternative now? Well, I'll take this opportunity to answer a question from Carrot Juice, who took the time to get in touch with me via e-mail and ask for advice about applying for medicine. I'll start here and continue to address this question in a few other posts.

Med schools are more and more in favour of diversity these days. People with diverse backgrounds make a better medical school class, so the story goes. This, in fact, is the driving factor behind allowing 43-year-olds to begin medical school, something which a lot of people are a little confused about because after all, there's a good chance they won't have many years to practice after they graduate. So now you can have a math major who becomes a surgeon, or a economist who becomes a general practitioner. Our class has engineers, a nurse, a paramedic, a school teacher, an Olympic athlete, an entrepreneur, a city councillor; we've also got PhDs alongside students who didn't even finish undergrad. In fact, the first semester of our curriculum is in a sense a compressed physiology undergrad degree, to catch up everyone to the same science level despite their diverse backgrounds.

Thus, no longer can you get through with your basic 'pre-med' combo of biology, biochem, organic chem and expect to be an A-1 applicant. Nowadays it's all about standing out. What else would you expect, though? With Canadian med school acceptance odds of something like 1 in 11, that's what has to be your focus; making your admissions essay, your interview, your application stand out from the other 1000-3000 applicants (depending on where you apply).

It's all about diversity; being one more 'pre-med' in a pile of 3000 'pre-meds' doesn't cut it anymore. And so, as can be expected, the 'pre-med' degree ended up where most of those bland, un-unique applications end up: in the 'gone forever' pile.


The Angry Medic said...

Ooh. Over here in Cambridge we take a year out of our medical degrees (the 3rd year) and do something else that eventually gives us a BA degree. (And I'm 22 too, and not a mature student, so there's nothing wrong with that.)

Great blog, and congrats on making it to Grand Rounds! I wonder how I never found you before. Consider yourself blogrolled! Hope you don't mind the heading I've given you :)

Dreaming again said...

I have an extremely bright 17 year old ...planning the medical school route.

I need to have him read this ... especially the part of the standing out in the 3,000 applications.

Right now he's taking being smart for granted and not realizing that every person who's headed down this track is smart as well.

Mother Jones RN said...

People should never point and call you a nerd. That's mean! You sound like a sweetie and I'm adding you to my blog roll.


Kim said...


I am proud to say I already blogrolled you long before it was fashionable to do so! : D

Nerds make the best husbands. They really do.

Not that you're a nerd or anything.

Or that I'm married to one.

Or anything.

Anonymous said...

Cool post man! I enjoyed your post about the premed students being so focused on getting in.
I took the scenic route through college, became a pharmacist and decided my last year of school to apply for medical school. I am thankful that I was accepted, because that means I never have to go on another interview again (with a bunch of "what have I got that you haven't go, and how can I make this perfectly clear over lunch" pre-meds), never have to take another class with a pre-med, etc. Coming from pharmacy, my exposure to pre-meds was (thankfully) relatively short. And more than enough! Now I can jump into medical school where the playing field has (hopefully) been leveled!