What Makes the Pre-Med Track Worthwhile?

by Paul Karell

It seems to be common knowledge that becoming a doctor is extremely difficult, time consuming and exhausting, but of the many who recognize the ardor of becoming a physician, doctors and medical students are the ones who can express the most tangible understanding of the journey. Not only can these individuals accurately convey what it is like to go to medical school or act as a practicing physician, they also have their own tale of how they got there and their unique advice for aspiring medical professionals.

To delve into this insight, I interviewed Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), Dr. Musahl Volker, a sports medicine physician at UPMC, and Anurag Saraf, a sophomore medical student at the New York Medical College.

To you, what are the pros and cons of being a physician?

Adalja: “To me, the biggest pro to being a physician is being immersed in an intellectually challenging field that is constantly evolving and making real time impact. The cons involve the time one needs to devote to become a physician, as well as the increasing regulatory environment that has eroded physician autonomy.”

Musahl: “I wouldn't say there are many cons other than it’s a huge time commitment, at least twelve years of schooling/training before you start to practice. The pros would be you get to help people in their time of need and you can really make a big difference in someone's life. It is also very rewarding to surgically fix a fracture, torn ligament, etc.”

Interestingly, both physicians agreed that an obstacle in becoming a doctor is the amount of time a student has to devote towards becoming one. Time is certainly a factor that pre-med students must take into consideration when choosing their career path – four years of medical school, and at least three years of residency (with possibly more depending on the specialty) equates to at least a seven-year commitment.

Another worthwhile point to consider is one that Adalja makes concerning healthcare administration. Doctors spend years working towards their goal of ultimately helping people, but justifiably become frustrated when they are told what treatments they can or cannot administer based on administrative policy. Furthermore, due to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), physicians now have to see more patients than they typically would, meaning less time for patient-doctor interaction and an overall shorter amount of time for disease analysis.

Concerning the pros, both doctors expressed a desire to make a difference. As an aspiring physician myself, I think that this is a fundamental aspect of becoming a doctor. Regardless of the specialty, a physician is there to make a difference in another person’s life.  It is, unarguably, this desire to “make a real-time impact” that lies at the core of why people choose the medical field. 

What advice would you give to students in the pre-med track?

Adalja: “It’s important to be sure that you truly want to do medicine because it is a long commitment. Also, it isn’t necessary to focus solely on premed requirements as a well-rounded knowledge base will really serve you well throughout your life.”

Musahl: “My advice to the graduates and premeds would be to develop other interests besides just studying science. Take time to help and get to know your classmates along the way as these may result in friendships that will last a lifetime.”

Saraf: “I think the best thing you can do is find something you are passionate about and go all in with it. Passion is slowly becoming the most desired attribute in the modern physician, both from their patients and their colleagues. The journey of medicine is hard, and no one necessarily cares that you are really good at science or memorizing. But it is important to know that even on your worst day, you can pick yourself up and keep going because you have a drive inside you that doesn't stop. So, whether you volunteered at the hospital or ran a soup kitchen, both activities can be important portraits to the heart you'll show as a medical professional.”

 As conveyed by Adalja, Musahl and Saraf, not everything a pre-med student does has to be focused on getting into medical school. The task of becoming a compelling applicant may seem nearly impossible – research, volunteering and shadowing, all on top of grades can and probably does intimidate a lot of prospective medical students. However, finding something to be passionate about can be a cathartic relieve from the pre-med stress, and Pitt offers ample opportunities to further or develop interests in this direction. With hundreds of clubs and organizations including writing, music and sports opportunities, there is something available for everyone to try at the very least. Pre-med students can, and should, live and laugh like the rest of their class, as their time as undergraduates is one they will not get to relive.

How is medical school different from undergrad?

Adalja: “Medical school is much more serious than undergraduate schooling. With medical school, you are literally learning concepts with life and death significance and that will stay with you throughout your career. Medical school should not be squandered and be pursued with one’s long range goals in mind.”

Musahl: “It is different in the amount of information you are expected to learn in a short period of time and the fact that you're only learning about things that will be useful for your profession as a physician. The actual difficulty of the work is not much different then college.”

Saraf: “Medical school is a lot harder, but a lot simpler. It's harder because the (amount of) material is enormous and the time is nonexistent. We are literally learning a textbook every two months, and expected to know the facts by heart for the rest of your life. There is no big picture because every small detail could be a potential symptom that presents in your patient, as rare as the symptom is. But med school is simpler. You're there just for school, no volunteering, no competition, no exploring about your life. By the time most people get to medicine they know what they want to do (apart from picking a specialty) and no one wants to you to do anything other than focus on your classes. Also, it's a lot more supportive. Once you've made it to the first day of medical school, you really feel that everyone around you is pulling for you to make it to the end, not compete to see who can be an inch ahead of you.”

Evidently, medical school is difficult, but only because it has to be. Adalja put it well in that as a medical student, one is learning how to be a doctor, how to identify disease and how to cure it – things that cannot be skimmed over or summarized. It is encouraging to hear from Musahl and Saraf that the material itself is not in some way profoundly harder than anything seen before in college, and that the environment is a supportive one. Pre-med students may find it especially relieving to hear that medical school is simple in that it is only about the classes, not the volunteering and shadowing. It certainly may seem daunting, trying to come up with ideas on where to volunteer, how to get into a research lab or how to find doctors that will let you shadow them, but medical school is more focused on molding the student into the best physician they can be without worrying about extracurricular tasks to a high degree.  

What made you want to become a physician?

Adalja: “I’ve always been drawn to the detective work needed to arrive at a diagnosis and the ability to see the results and ramifications of unraveling a puzzle immediately.”

Musahl: “I shadowed a joint surgeon as a college freshman, and was intrigued by the work he was doing. I had a string physical science background, so being a surgeon seemed like the best combination of science, people interaction, and using my hands to create things.”

Saraf: “I want to be the person responsible for the complete care of a patient. I think it's a challenging, yet rewarding feeling to be the leader of the team that manages a person's worst day in their lives. I also was really drawn to the amount of knowledge you need to know, and how it is constantly changing and you never stop learning in your career.”

Adalja, Musahl and Saraf answered the question in different ways, and each of their answers contributes to why becoming a physician is worth the time and effort. There is no one right answer to why someone wants to become a doctor – the problem solving, the patient-doctor relationship and the ability to make a difference – all of these things and more are what make the profession worth the difficulty. 

The words of the three individuals interviewed bring to life why it is pre-meds do what they do. Why they stay up late studying for a biology exam, or say no to going out with friends in order to do practice problems for chemistry. All three, however, made a point to emphasize that college is an experience to be enjoyed as well, and not to spend the next four years in a library with only our books to call our friends. Despite the fact that the hard work only scratches the surface in undergrad, through these words, Adjala, Musahl and Saraf give students like ourselves some hope for a career that will reward us mentally and emotionally, ultimately making the years of commitment worthwhile.