Visit Mentors' Round Table to read our interviews of women in the fields of science and health. These are women of varying levels of experience and backgrounds, brought to the table to answer your questions about everything from work-life balance to financial management. Read on, be inspired, and leave them (and us!) a comment!
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The term "non-traditional" has become a catch-all phrase that medical school admissions officers use to refer to all students who have taken an unusual route to medical school. "Traditional" medical students are students who enter medical school immediately after college and are between the ages of 21 and 25. Non-traditional students have often taken a year, or several, off to work on other projects, are exploring medicine as a second career, or have taken postbacc courses to complete required medical school prerequisites. Some students already have advanced degrees in other fields. Some are in their 30's, 40's or 50's. Others are considered non-traditional because they have all ready started a family and have children.
Admissions committees are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits to having non-traditional students as part of the medical school class. Therefore their numbers are slowly increasing. While the majority of medical students are still "traditional", the non-traditional student can often bring insights and well-roundedness to a class. They are welcomed but sometimes face challenges in dealing with a system set up for their traditional counterparts.
The interview below is the account of a female, Orthodox, second year, non-traditional medical student. We hope it helps those of you considering entering entering medical school through a non-traditional path. It can also help traditional students understand and relate to their peers.
How did you choose your career?
I realized soon after I got married and pregnant that I was not going to be able to stay at home like we had planned. I had not gone to college before I was married as I truly thought I was going to be a housewife/stay at home mom. I was 22 at the time when I realized that lifestyle was not for me. I was so entranced by the process of a child growing inside of me that I could not stop reading books about it. I read all the regular baby books and then I started reading more in depth scientific articles. I thought that maybe I should become a nurse. When my baby was 5 months old, I enrolled in undergrad to do my prerequisites for nursing school. I really enjoyed our science classes and my chemistry professor encouraged me to switch to biochemistry and redirect myself towards medical school. My husband and I both agreed that I should switch majors and pursue my dream. We also decided that I would not put our family on hold, so we continued to have 2 more children while I was working towards my biochemistry degree and then 1 more the year before I enrolled in medical school (that is 4 all together).
Were there any obstacles you had to face in your training?
I have faced many obstacles. Firstly, I suppose having children is an obstacle. The pregnancies always tired me out so much that I could only take classes on the part time schedule. I also happened to have low milk supply but was dedicated to nursing my children so I hired a babysitter to sit outside my classroom so I could nurse on demand. The low milk supply meant that pumping was out of the question, and supplementing would be the end of nursing.
Much more challenging however was my brother’s tragic death, which occurred 3 months before I took the MCAT. It was actually a month before my scheduled date, but I postponed it because of shiva and shloshim (Jewish mourning). Since I was already old, I did not feel I could push off my application and take more time to recover from the tragedy. I took the MCAT that summer and did OK on it. I was accepted to medical school but my brain and heart were not there. I finally decided that I would need to take a year off before I would be prepared for the rigors of medical school. We moved to Israel and I spent the year learning and reconnecting with G-d (whom I had lost faith in when my brother had died). We also had another child while we were in Israel. She was only three months old when I started medical school.
As if my brother’s death were not hard enough, in February of my first year, my father had a heart attack and is currently in a persistent vegetative state. It is very hard to keep my mind off of him and study since everything I study seems to be related to his condition in some way or another. So, my first year and a half of school has been challenging in many ways. But, when I look at it from an outside perspective, I am so glad that I am doing what I am doing. My children are loved and cared for by both my husband and me and I am setting a very good example for them. I just cannot see myself doing anything else.
Have there been any problems in your work life or training that have arisen because of your religion?
I go to school with all white Christians. There is no diversity in my classroom except for 2 gay females and me, the Jew. I got a peer evaluation back once that said that I take too many days off for my Jewish holidays. It was anonymous so I do not know who wrote that. I had taken a few weeks off when my father had his heart attack and when I returned it was eruv pesach. (Passover eve) The school rescheduled some exams for me because of the circumstances and I suppose some students were jealous that I got an extra day to study. Had they actually been in my situation they would have known that I could not study well anyway, my brain was way too muddled with my father’s discharge to a nursing home and subsequent infection and hospitalization. Oh well.
I also was very sad when white coat ceremony was on Saturday. This was the one event I had looked forward to all through my hard work in undergrad. I could have attended by staying at a hotel in walking distance, but the most important people, my children, would not have been able to come. I was still nursing my 3 month old baby and there would have been no way to get her from the hotel to the ceremony. The entire ceremony would have been pointless to me if my family could not celebrate it with me.
What do you like best about your career? What do you like least?
I love learning about the G-d's most important creation. I do not like the speed at which we must learn all of this information. I am cramming all the time and some weeks I only see my children on shabbos (sabbath).
How do you balance family and work life?
Thankfully my husband is behind my career choice 100% and does all of the housework and day-to-day child rearing. I make it a point to spend quality time with my children. I am really the dad and he is the mom in a more classic sense.
What does your spouse think about your career?
He loves it.
What does your family think about your career?
The family that truly knows us are very supportive of my career and my husband’s role as SAHD [stay at home dad] (he also works part time). On the other hand, many family members probably think I am a bad wife and mother. Thankfully they are wrong. We have accepted that we are different than other couples, but we are fine with it and our children are growing up in a peaceful and loving home – what more could we want?
Are things turning out the way you planned or are they different? Is your career different than what you expected when you chose it?
When I switched my career path from nursing to medicine, I had 5 healthy siblings and 2 healthy parents. I did not know that my brother was going to die or that my father would be in his state. I know that these things have impacted me greatly as a person and will impact me when I am a doctor. I am much more sensitive to patients and their families than I would have been without these experiences. I only ask G-d to stop giving me real life examples, and allow me to learn everything else theoretically please.
Do you have any advice for students aspiring to be where you are?
If you want it, go for it. If you do not want to do it, then stop now because there are huge sacrifices you will need to make. Do not allow others to tell you what you can and cannot do. Make sure your spouse is on the same page. If your spouse does not want you to become a doctor, you will have a hard time making it through. Keep close to your children. Discuss your day with them and keep them involved. Find out how their days went and stay connected to their teachers. We go around our table during Friday night dinner and tell each other the best and worst thing that happened that week. Date your spouse occasionally, even if you have a lot of children and a lot of homework. Staying connected to your spouse is really important. I have a lot more advice, but I think I will stop here.
If you could do this over again would you? Is there anything you would change?
Yes – I cannot wait to be a physician. I would say that I should have started younger, but I actually think it is an advantage that I have my children already. I can go into any field I want and not be worried about maternity leave and things like that. However, being older makes me want to go into a field that has a shorter residency. The truth is, there is never enough time. I guess I would have tried to do undergrad a little faster, less part time semesters but I am glad that I found my husband and had my children before I started medical school.
Do you have any role models you look up to?
Boaz from the story of Ruth who went against the societal norm that assumed he could not marry a Moabite woman. Avigayil from the Tanach who stood up to King David and saved her husband’s life (and later married the king). R’ Natan Slifkin who wrote a very brave book that challenged current religious thought on science. My great grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, who also challenged the norm of his society in how to serve G-d. I think you can see the theme here. I look up to those who do the right thing, regardless of what everyone else thinks.
Are there any other questions you think we should include or anything else you would like to share?
I know my situation is unique but perhaps a part of it will help someone pursue her dreams. Good luck!