Transitioning to grad school is not like starting over

The first two years of medical school are a veritable hurricane of information. Students spend days memorizing concepts like Charcot’s triad, primary sclerosing cholangitis, and the branches of the brachial plexus, as they accelerate towards a head on collision with Step 1 of the boards. In the aftermath of that event, MSTP students watch as their MD peers enter the clinic and put their education to practical use, while they themselves dive into research. Many times, I’ve heard prospective students and even some of my peers describe this transition as “the start of a new journey” but I’ve never really liked that term. For an MD/PhD student, beginning the research phase of their education shouldn’t really feel like starting over from scratch, and I feel that way for two reasons:

1.) The time and effort you put into medical school doesn’t instantly become meaningless the moment you step foot in the lab.

Medical school is a difficult experience, and just completing the first two years is in itself an enormous accomplishment. It’s easy to be overwhelmed when you switch gears from textbooks and stethoscopes to pipettes and absurdly aggressive C57/BL6 mice. But remember, you’ve already cut your teeth against literally one of the most difficult academic experiences in the world. For this reason, don’t be afraid to be confident. Moreover, don’t be afraid to use what you have learned. Medical school equips us with a detailed knowledge of each organ system. This gives us an advantage relative to many graduate students, and it allows us to possibly take our research in new directions that others have not yet imagined. In short, you put excruciating effort into absorbing information in medical school, so use it and don’t be afraid to take a little pride in it.

And 2.) As an MD/PhD student, biomedical research shouldn’t be a totally novel experience.

We have all done research. None of us are terrible at it. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that most of us probably enjoy it. It’s why all of us are here in an MSTP to begin with. Furthermore, by the time you enter your thesis lab you’ve probably already done a summer rotation there. So you know the mentor, the building, the equipment, and even some of your future colleagues. In short, it’s not going to be your first rodeo.  It’s not even going to be your first rodeo in that lab. It’s just another step in the journey you started before medical school even began.

This may seem like a ridiculously long rant over an innocuous sounding statement, but if there’s one concern I have about how MD/PhD programs AND students operate, it’s their tendency to compartmentalize their education. Often times I feel so much attention is unintentionally drawn to the idea of research as opposed to clinical work that we forget that the original goal of MSTPs was to integrate the two. This can’t happen if students constantly perceive the two as separate journeys. We should be trying as students to bridge that divide, not make it wider. This is why I never got too caught up in the idea of starting a “new journey”. In many ways I felt, and still feel, like I’m right where I’ve always been.

-Alex

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