Stay, Go Away, or Accelerate:
A Reflection on Choosing the Best Path to Medicine
By Ciera Sears, MD
The first thing that people say to me when I tell them that I’m a doctor is “Wow, you’re so young!” The remark is usually tethered to a facial expression conveying overall surprise, approval, or confusion as to how I achieved this goal. I admit, I don’t have your garden-variety story to becoming a doctor. Rather, I had the opportunity to experience both the accelerated combined Undergraduate/Medical School pathway as well as the traditional pathway.
A contemporary approach to medical training known as B.S./M.D. (accelerated) has become a popular route among aspiring students. In this education model, students are accepted directly out of high school into an undergraduate institution which serves as a tributary to a given medical school program; essentially, students have a GUARANTEED SEAT in the medical program upon completing certain requirements (requisites vary between the individual programs). I was fortunate enough in high school to be accepted to one of these programs, where I would go on to complete my Bachelor of Science degree in two years. It was an incredible opportunity; B.S./M.D. programs essentially eliminate the stress of worrying about being accepted into medical school; however, they come with additional stressors of their own. There is a very heavy course load requirement in order to complete your degree so quickly. I had the unfortunate experience of feeling isolated and unsupported during my undergraduate tenure. While I loved my classmates thoroughly, something always felt off….incomplete — or downright missing. Many nights I felt as though I didn’t belong in the program, so much so that others could visibly tell I was unhappy. I struggled in my courses, and often questioned whether my advisers thought to offer me the additional support or encouragement that I was craving. I took the MCAT twice during this time, failing it the first time and doing a little better the second time. Yet, I continued having doubts about the program, and if it was a place where I could be for the next four years of medical school. I even got to a point where I wondered if I truly wanted to pursue my desired profession and childhood dream.
All the doubts and insecurities related to my current B.S./M.D. program took a toll on my academic confidence. I decided to take one more year in undergrad, in which I pursued a minor in creative writing, and used the extra time to assess and apply to different medical schools and master’s programs. I knew that I had two loves, medicine and writing, and somehow I was going to do one of them! I went through the entire process: I obtained letters of recommendation from my professors and people who would speak highly of me, I listed my community service and extracurricular activities, my work experience, and I wrote the dreaded personal statement. It was such an exhausting process! I only applied to 6 medical schools and I interviewed at 3 of them, Howard University College of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, and The Ohio State University College of Medicine (all excellent programs in their own right). Howard University College of Medicine was my first interview, and from the moment I stepped foot into the halls, a great sense of belonging swept over me; I just believed that I would be attending medical school there. I was greeted with warmth and excitement, and my entire interview day was filled with people reaffirming the ideal of a family atmosphere, a feature foreign to my previous program and one that I desperately craved. One month later when I was accepted into Howard, I screamed like I had just won the lottery, and shed enough tears to water five football fields. Finally, what I had desired for so long had been validated; I knew that I was supposed to be a doctor and that there were fertile soils for me to accomplish my dreams without feeling alone or out of place. And I believed whole-heartedly that the nurturing environment of Howard University would help me to become the greatest doctor I possibly could.
Now that I have graduated from medical school and started residency in Internal Medicine, I look back on my journey and know that everything happened exactly the way that it was supposed to. I endured the grueling undergraduate accelerated pathway to being a doctor, and was able to reap the unforeseen benefits (I was the youngest person in my medical school class, graduating at the age of 24). I experienced the woes of the application cycle — blindly trusting that recommendations will speak of how great you are, studying for the MCAT (times TWO), waiting for secondary application offers and interviews, tallying every single hour of community service, etc… it is scary! And time consuming! Finally I experienced the sheer JOY and relief of being accepted into medical school and I was blessed to attend a school that I can call home forever.
So after all that, here’s my pearl of wisdom: There is no perfect, correct route to becoming a doctor. There’s no such thing as a sure pathway. In fact, you may start on one path and decide that it is not for you. You may have doubts along the way and feel like you’re pursuing the wrong career — all of that is COMPLETELY normal. LISTEN to your heart, FIND mentors to support you and advise you when these doubts arrive, and know that there are other opportunities out there if things don’t seem to be going according to plan. Whether you choose a traditional, accelerated, or international pathway, no matter how long it takes you or where it takes you, the outcome is exactly the same: someone is going to call you “Doctor”.