Different Prescriptions

Different Prescriptions

Philosophy? Dance? Economics? The path to medical school doesn't always start with science.

By Alexis Grant '03 | Photos by Johnny Hanson


There are a variety of ways to meet medical school science requirements without majoring in biology or chemistry. Some students take only basic science courses and major in another subject, while others skip hard sciences altogether and hope to acquire that knowledge later.

Most humanities-majors-turned-medical-students interviewed for this story said they don’t have problems keeping up with their science-major peers, despite having taken fewer science classes before medical school. But not all.

“Right now I definitely feel like I’m at a disadvantage not being a science major,” said Kate Ginty ’03, an environmental policy major who started at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine last fall. “But I think all that’s going to even out within the next month or two.”

Recognizing this trend, Colby recently began offering a course called Medical Biochemistry, intended for non-chemistry majors who are considering medical school. Some may decide that medicine is not for them. That can be a good thing, because the physician’s life is not something to enter into without deliberation.

James Albright ’92, now a pediatric ear, nose, and throat surgeon in Houston, began practicing after medical school, a five-year residency, and a two-year fellowship. “It’s a long road,” said Albright, a government major. “My twenties were pretty much taken up with training and school. It was eleven years after Colby before I could collect a paycheck.”

Albright sees patients three days a week at his private practice in Houston and spends two days a week in the operating room at Texas Children’s Hospital. On a recent workday, one of his patients, a toddler with blond hair, wheeled herself into Albright’s operating room mid-morning in a red toy car, her feet propelling her toward the room where she would receive anesthesia. In just 10 minutes, Albright had inserted tubes in her ears and removed her adenoids. That will help her hear and breathe better and avoid the persistent ear infections that had plagued her over the last year, he said.

How does his government major help him now? It helped make him a strong writer, a skill he said some doctors lack. But most important, he said, is the way it helps him communicate with his patients and their parents.

“I think I’m one of the only med students who thinks they worked harder in undergrad. Other guys, even from Ivy League schools, are struggling with the load, but I think it’s pretty manageable.”

biology major Doug Melzer 03, second-year student, University of Colorado School of Medicine

Albright fulfilled his basic science requirements at Colby, and he chose to go directly to medical school afterwards. But he’s in the minority for Colby graduates: nearly three quarters of those who attend medical school take at least a year off before starting the long process of becoming a doctor. “We have many students who have known they are going to apply to medical school, but they choose to work for several years before they do it,” Parker said.

Nationally, the average age of students entering medical school is 24, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Once enrolled, medical students take about two years of classes before the transition into clinical rotations. The workload and schedule can be challenging in a variety of ways. Tim Clark ’03, a second-year student at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, said his biggest adjustment was learning to take multiple-choice tests. As a history major at Colby (he also worked for the ambulance service in Waterville while an undergraduate), most of his Colby exams were short answers or essays.

“At Colby, you never didn’t know the answer,” Clark said. “It was a matter of degree —how much you knew.”

But at medical school he either knows the answer or he doesn’t. Though his first trimester was tough, Clark said that, once he figured out how to manage his time and sort through the tremendous amount of information he was expected to learn, he did well.

Medical school is a challenge for nearly everyone, regardless of the route taken to get there. Some say it’s the complexity of the material; others point to the huge volume of information. “Medical school is very difficult,” said Nick Markham ’04, a third-year student in the M.D./Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and a biology major at Colby. “Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t working hard enough.”

Indeed, medical school doesn’t leave much time for anything else. Once students become residents, they work 12- and 18-hour days, with some shifts going even longer.

Christy Person Cummings ’02, a French literature and biology major who is now a second-year pediatric resident at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, said she has moments when she realizes all her hard work was worth it. “Sometimes after a thirty-hour shift you get to play with a newborn baby and [be with] their parents,” she said, “and you realize why you’re doing [medicine].”

And yes, Cummings still uses her French. In fact, her language skills make her a better doctor, she said, because she can communicate with non-English speaking patients who visit the clinic.

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