In medicine, there is no rush!
Medicine is only available as a professional graduate degree in the US, meaning all students must complete an undergraduate degree before applying. This might seem off-putting at first, but I have learnt first-hand that this route is just as – if not more – rewarding than studying medicine immediately after sixth form college. Here is a little insight into my journey through US university and UK medical school.
When I was 17, I didn’t know I wanted to study medicine. If anything, I was adamant I didn’t want to be a doctor. Perhaps it was that I was fully committed to (read: obsessed with) track, and hadn’t yet explored my academic interests, or maybe it was my rebellious side turning against the teachers and peers who suggested I pursue a medical degree in light of my science and maths A-level choices.
I distinctly remember when my older brother – four years my senior – was applying to university, that I didn’t want to follow in those footsteps. I had a real love-hate relationship with school and couldn’t see myself pursuing it beyond the minimum requirement. But as the time drew closer, the opportunity to study in the States caught my attention and I committed to the idea of higher education as a vector to continue athletics. As we recommend to all of our students, I applied to university in the UK too. I umm-ed and ahh-ed over UCAS applications, eventually applying to four different courses (none of which were medicine) at four different universities.
During that autumn of year 13, I blindly bumbled my way through the US recruiting process. My process was very late and very quick, but I was extremely fortunate that a recruiting spot opened up at Harvard at just the right moment. Despite a good academic profile through GCSEs and A-levels, I felt inadequate to be attending such a school, but I headed out excited for what was to come. One thing I was particularly looking forward to was exploring a wide range of subjects, courses and classes before settling on my “major” – I needed that time.
I spent my first few semesters studying generic science classes. Medicine didn’t catch my attention until my second year, when I took an anatomy and physiology course. The material really sparked my interest in the human body both in health and disease. My time and experiences at Harvard taught me to love learning, and to explore my intellectual curiosities. Over the next two years, I became more sure I did in fact want to apply my academic interests to clinical medicine, and set my sights on applying to graduate medical school back in the UK.
I chose to take a year out after graduating and spent some time working as a data analyst in mechanical engineering, before becoming a healthcare assistant at a local hospital. Needless to say, I much preferred the latter! The opportunity to work on the wards confirmed to me that this is what I wanted to do, and I firmly believe this is something every aspiring medic should spend time doing. During this year, I applied to medical school and was accepted into Imperial College on a five-year course – one year shorter than their six-year undergraduate equivalent. Other medical schools have five-year undergraduate programmes and therefore their graduate programmes are four years.
At first glance, it seems like the option to study graduate medicine just delays the whole process – why would I wait four years to start an already lengthy course? It’s true that you will push back your entry into the world of medicine, but for me it has been worth it for the following reasons.
Admittedly, I didn’t know I wanted to study medicine before making the inadvertent decision to delay my medical course, but those four years gave me time to really think about what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t mature enough to make that decision when I was 17, but by 21/22 I could make a considered choice about my future. I went from being open to maybe 35 different degree titles, to being set on just one. I didn’t have to write “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was born” in my personal statement, because I was able to demonstrate how my passion for medicine has developed organically since.
Four years might seem like a drag, but you can spend that time wisely! The liberal arts education offered in the US allows students to explore a wide variety of subjects, topics and interests before narrowing down on their chosen major. I had the opportunity to study history, literature, religion and philosophy alongside my scientific interests. Not only did that enable me to learn more about the world outside medicine, but I met colleagues and teachers who gave such variety in perspective. Learning medicine is very narrow – you stick with the same 300 people and
learn exactly the same content for five or six years. In the States, each class I took was full of different students, and having that exposure to diversity in thought and mind is nothing short of inspiring. I consider these experiences an important foundation for my future communications and understanding of both patients and colleagues. Understanding the world outside medicine is as important as understanding medicine itself, and that’s not something you can learn quickly or easily.
During my undergraduate degree, I learnt about myself as a student. I learnt to learn efficiently. Studying medicine now is easier and far more enjoyable than it could have been, because I know which techniques and strategies work for me, and I know what I need and how to find it or ask for it. In particular, I have learnt I do not like studying from books, so you’ll always find me on the wards looking for learning opportunities!
If you are an athlete, you want to commit to your athletics while your body is in its prime. I am hopeful that I will be a doctor well into my 70s – mind permitting! But my athletic clock will run out far earlier than that. Giving yourself time to focus on your sport is important. I have recently committed to working only part-time as a junior doctor, so I can train and compete to the best of my ability. Studying medicine and competing at an elite level is not easy – focusing on each of these goals individually rather than side by side can often provide the best opportunity to succeed.
Three friends (all athletes) from Harvard all had UK medical offers on the table when they headed out to the US. Two completed their four years, before reapplying to graduate medicine. One stayed at Harvard for just three weeks before deciding he didn’t want to pass up on his undergraduate offer in the UK. This goes to show it’s different for everybody. I urge you not to feel pressured into committing to a lifelong career early – you don’t have to!
Delaying my entrance into medicine doesn’t bother me. In the not-too-distant future, a few extra years here and there won’t make a difference, and by that point, many of my peers will also have taken time out to pursue other interests – to do research, go travelling, start a family, etc. Doctors in different specialities progress through their careers at different rates, regardless of how quickly they try to get there. As I am constantly reminded by doctors and teachers whom I look up to, there is no rush to get anywhere in medicine – it will always be there. I am grateful for the opportunity to broaden my horizons, learn about myself, and focus on my sport before embarking on my career, and ultimately I believe I will be a better and happier doctor for it.