On Premeds – Or Why Your Classmates Can Be Tools

The other day, I read a post by another non-trad observing that premed students tend to be selfish jerks. I’d been thinking about this for a while and figured I’d offer my thoughts, since I tend to be surrounded by hordes of them.

There are, by my reckoning, two factors that seem to partition the stock: age and work experience. Notice that I didn’t say life experience – that term seems to have become a buzzword conjured up by admissions committees attempting to make sure that matriculants at their school have all sorts of features that they believe will make them better doctors.  Lots of premeds think “I fed starving babies in Africa last summer – I have life experience”.  Sorry.  That all expense-paid two week trip to Africa your parents sent you on to pad your resume is called a vacation.  An admissions committee might believe that it was life-changing for you, but I know better.

What’s so special about work experience, you ask?  Consider the following few thoughts:

  • Unless you spend the rest of your life in Africa, none of your patients will ever be starving babies from the jungles of Uganda.  Who will the majority of your patients be?  Lower and middle-income Americans.  You think you need to go to Africa to see sad events?  How about one of the legions of homeless suffering from mental illness?  Or the steel-worker who works 60 hours a week in order to support his family, terrified because he has no insurance and just lost 2 fingers in a welding accident?  What about the 19-year immigrant girl making $8/hr washing dishes that finds out she’s pregnant and sans papiers?  How about the 350-lb diabetic guy that has end-stage renal failure and is burning through Medicare money just waiting to die?  Just about all the things premeds do in order to gain “life experience” involves seeing people like this.  But going out into the world for a few years and growing up some actually makes you get to know people like this.  Not as patients, but as friends.  You won’t meet people like that at your local premed club – you will meet them at work.
  • Having a job, paying taxes, and watching 30% of your paycheck disappear into another’s pocket might help call into question some of that idealism you were indoctrinated with in high school.  It’s easy to be altruistic when you’re thinking “I won’t mind giving away 30% of my money when I’m a cardiologist making $250,000 a year”.  But, when every week leaves you with basically nothing left over for yourself, you’ll start to get a feel for how most of your future patients live every day.  In full disclosure, I want to mention that this was me for a long time.  Before I went to college and got a job making gazillions in aerospace, I was a welder making $10/hr in a dangerous environment clocking about 60 hours a week.  I had no health insurance and lived in constant fear of an injury leaving me living out of my car.  I can tell you that in many places, this is the norm for blue-collar workers.  It’s a life I’m so thankful I don’t have to live anymore, but it’s also one that I know millions will.
  • For some reason, medicine didn’t start figuring out that health care was a team sport until really late in the game.  Get a job in any industry – from aerospace to restaurants to selling real estate and you’ll find that they all require people with different backgrounds and training to work together.  If you think you’ll learn how to work well with others when you’re an attending, you’re an idiot.  Teamwork is something learned by starting at the bottom…as a servant…and working your way up.  Otherwise, you’ll grow up to become a tool and no one likes a tool.
  • One final bonus about having a job before medicine is that you will never wonder what it’s like on the outside.  I don’t care how hard medical school or clerkship is – I will never find myself on rounds thinking that cubicle life can’t be all that bad.  I know, firsthand, how mind-numbingly boring staff meetings are and will never find myself daydreaming as to what “normal people” do for a living.  I suspect that anyone else that has languished in industry probably feels the same way.

How about age?  Why do I think age is a determining factor in the life of a premed student?

  • Age gives you a chance to experience all the stuff referred to as life.  Go back and read the post I made a few weeks ago about Charles Krauthammer.  Until you’ve lived life some, you have no idea what you’re giving up to go into medicine.  I’m only a premed, but at 33, I’m acutely aware of all the freedom, independence, and autonomy that I’ll be sacrificing if I get into medical school.  Going into medicine at 22 is absolute madness.
  • Gaining some years before heading into medicine may grant you an opportunity to do something else that changes your mind about going into medicine.  Of course, if you’re afraid of that, then you have some pretty sham motivations and are not long for this world.
  • Let’s face it.  The longer you live outside of medical school, the more chances you’ll have to find one of those spouses or same-sex equivalents.  I’m not sure I’d want to get into medical school and realize that I had to choose from one of my classmates (more disclosure – my girlfriend and future-spouse is a physician and I met her during her last year in medical school).
  • Age gives you a perspective on the world that can’t be learned in a classroom and, when you’re in medical school, you’ll be too busy to develop it.  Sometimes, it almost seems like medical students have to become oblivious to the world around them and put their emotional development on hold until they’re finished.

So, some final thoughts – why are so many premed students neurotic, selfish, and rude?  Three reasons.

  • They’re insecure.  The asinine process of application convinces students that, unless one has cleaned the Augean stables in a day or stolen the girdle of Hippolyte, they are unfit for the medical profession.  A lot of premeds suffer from a chronic feeling of inferiority because the message from admissions committees is that they are inferior and that everyone else is too.  This is the sort of thing that really pisses me off, but I suppose I’ll rant about it another day.  Insecure people find that the only way they can suppress that feeling is by putting others down.  To some degree, medicine seems to reinforce this attitude, which really bothers me.
  • They believe that others’ success interferes with their success.  This might boil down to insecurity, but it’s probably worth saying.  Many premeds think that helping someone else learn something or accomplish something lowers that chances at getting into medical school.  I find this particularly hilarious since, in many pre-health professions, their classmates aren’t premed students at all but are applying to one of the other half-dozen health career tracks.
  • They’re just kids.  They haven’t grown up and learned that they aren’t the center of the universe yet.

I don’t mean to disparage all premeds – many, including some of the traditional variety, are quite mature and a real joy to be around.  But, unfortunately, the stereotype is somewhat accurate.  Anyway, these are my thoughts – I’m sure they’ll be interesting fodder for discussion.  Anyone else have some thoughts on the premed experience?


14 Responses

  1. Spot on — especially about the part regarding being on the outside. I read a post by AnonDoc the other day where he said something to effect of “why didn’t I become an accountant?” Having been down that road, I will never end up wishing to be back there.

    • Indeed. I would rather work 60 hours a week in a busy hospital than 40 hours a week in a cubicle farm.

  2. I absolutely agree with all of this.

    I have in my assorted past worked in a factory 60 hours a week. I have worked in tech where we had a major project go wrong and pulled massive hours to get it back on track. All so the quarterly report looked right for the shareholders.

    Time and experience gives perspective and that is essential.

    • The University I am returning to has a very strong Pharmacy program. Interesting thing about pre-Pharmacy students. They are largely cooperative since they see the program as the opposition, not each other. As I will be taking all the same classes I have pulled a few strings to get saddled with them versus the pre-med students.

      • Good call.

        Most of the classmates that I associate with are older students, so the cooperative attitude is significantly higher. None of us look at one another as a competitor that needs to be beat down, lest we take their spot in medical school.

  3. Awesome post! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Wow, I really agree with what you’ve written. I notice that undergrad students in general are very naive and idealistic because they’ve gone straight from High School to university without having to live as an adult for awhile. I feel that for a large majority of them, it’s like adult daycare… the parents send them off to school and pay their tuition just to get them to do something with their life.

    Great post.

  5. However I’d like to throw in that these are very broad generalizations. Most pre-meds I’ve meet at my university are incredibly nice and cooperative. Most of them have also held many jobs, most having taken a year off somewhere inbetween just so they could pay for school. I’m not at some fancy or well known school though, just a poor state school, so that might account for the population differences.

    I have noticed that married pre-meds (and shockingly, there are many) are a bit more mature and realistic about life.

    And hey! That two week trip was so not a vacation. I saved forever and worked hard to pay for that. And I left a dire situation at home that left me in a panic most of the time.

    • To be sure, not everyone on the road to medical school is alike – my post and comments are, admittedly, directed at the stereotypical premed, which probably accounts for the majority at larger public institutions.

      And yes, I’d agree with you that married premeds tend to be more mature and realistic – for the most part, getting married takes a measure of maturity.

  6. MSO — I loved this post, though I admit I am a little biased. I’ve both worked on an assembly line and supervised people who worked on an assembly line, and I found the experience invaluable in terms of the people I got to meet and work with. Interestingly, most doctors I know just don’t get how these experiences have shaped my world view. Perhaps that’s telling?

    • OMDG – Your right, it is telling. Sometimes, I wonder if physicians had experienced the world outside medicine prior to medical school if it might alter their behavior. When I read some of the horror stories about asshat attendings, I’m sort of shocked – most of the bad and unprofessional behavior that gets talked about a lot would never fly in any sort of business or professional environment.

  7. nice written. So this may be a useless questions, bu would medical admission look positively on the views you shared or would they stick to what ‘they think’ is good/bad. Anyways good luck to all. Life is best lived without regret, but I think anyone will do what they have to do to get where they want to get, I think this but it may or may not be true. For example if someone is starving and they see you with food, they will consider out to get the outcome of that food in their stomach.

    kodus to those still alive and may you prosper

  8. P.S. another dump question.
    Should I get married/put my self in situations to mature? Will that help me on my application?lol . kidding. We have the freedom to make our decisions based on our circumstances. It truely is important to understand that everyone is different in many ways. Our upbring is different, our personalities are different, our chances are different, our religion is different. In Addition the way we mature is different. Odmedgirl may have seen a apifiny through that expereince, that wakened her. Maybe the physicans found that wakening in a different way. Man I love talking. Excuse my unintelligence.lol

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