Ode to Freshmen: Your Health Career Starts Now

by Niaz Khan

On behalf of The Pitt Pulse, I would personally like to welcome you to the University of Pittsburgh. You have made a wonderful choice for your undergraduate experience, and I am sure you will make the most of it. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you are interested in a health-related profession. The fact that UPMC dominates the city skylines is a good indication you are at the right place.

As freshmen, you are early in your academic career, but it’s important at this point to have a general overview of the requirements for graduate school so you can begin to plan as soon as you’re ready. In every issue, this section will be particularly targeted to you. There are two items I think would be most relevant to you currently. One — classes. This is the single most important responsibility in your first year.

Second, make lots of friends. This is your first year, and you will never have it back. But this is a just a friendly reminder that you are here for an education, and your performance in class is the initial test of your ability to handle graduate school. If you get off to a good start early and develop a good study strategy, you will save yourself a lot of stress down the road.

No matter what major you pursue, you’ll have to fulfill certain course requirements by your junior year. For example, medical schools typically require two terms of biology with labs, two of chemistry with labs, two of organic chemistry with labs, two of physics with labs, one term of calculus and variable English requirements.

Science and engineering majors encounter most of these courses as part of their curriculum. On the other hand, humanities majors really have to think hard about integrating these courses into the rest of their schedule because there is minimal overlap with general education requirements.

In either case, lab scheduling can be a hassle since they tend to fill up quickly and take large chunks out of your day. If you notice that a lab is full at any point in the future, immediately contact the corresponding department and ask for a waiting list because I guarantee that one exists. As may already be the case, students usually take biology during their freshman year. Since you can’t take organic chemistry without general chemistry, you should take the latter no later than your sophomore year.

Other classes such as genetics or physiology aren’t required but are highly recommended because they have more clinical relevance and demonstrate your intent to pursue a health profession. Furthermore, certain anthropology and philosophy classes provide more insight into the humane and ethical aspects of medicine that are often overlooked by students.

The History and Philosophy of Science Department offers the highly recommended Conceptual Foundations of Medicine Certificate in an effort to expand the pre-health undergraduate curriculum beyond the natural sciences. Many of the courses that are required for the certificate can also fulfill general education requirements.

Class scheduling can seem daunting, but you’re not alone. Your academic advisor and the pre-health advisor can help you choose the right classes so that you’re in the best position to succeed.

Scheduling also has the indirect impact of affecting your time for extracurricular activities. Keeping up with classes and acclimating to a new environment is enough as it is, but if you do have some extra time, volunteering is a great idea. A lot of the success in health-related profession hinges on interpersonal skills. If you make it as a physician or nurse, it is expected that you have the requisite scientific knowledge. Therefore, the distinguishing factor is you, yourself.

While it’s great that you may spend a few hours of the week helping out in a hospital, if your description of your duties primarily involves answering phones or filing paperwork, then I am sorry to say that it may all be for naught. The ideal volunteer position is one that allows you to interact with a variety of patients as well as with nurses and doctors. People come in diverse forms, and it is necessary to be comfortable interacting with a variety of personalities.

Moreover, it is a good idea to volunteer in a field that you would like to enter, whether you’re still exploring or whether you’re completely set on something as evidence of your commitment.

How long you should volunteer can only be answered by you; how long it takes you to get an appreciation and understanding of the field and setting is the key. It is recommended though that your service be drawn out over a year or more.

Looking beyond the hospital, active involvement in student organizations is a great way to extend your volunteer experience. The Student Volunteer Outreach and Student Life, both located in the William Pitt Union and online, are great contacts to get started. No matter the brand or breadth of your volunteering, always remember and understand the importance behind it.

If there is one piece of advice I would like you to take away, it’s that volunteering often counts for more than just hours on your application. Just like in the college admissions process, more students have the requisite grades and scores than can be accepted, leading to magnification of the personal statement and the interview. Both of these components of your application ultimately drive at the question of why you want to enter the medical field. I am confident that your volunteer experiences will provide great starting points toward answering this crucial question.