If you have ever been disappointed in life, someone has probably told you “Don’t worry, I believe things happen for a reason.” Well, call me cynical, but I don’t believe that. I do, however, believe in something similar: there are reasons (sometimes in your control, sometimes not) that things happen. To me, “things happen for a reason” takes away accountability in some ways, however optimistic it may be. I prefer to take charge early on and make things happen. That way, when they work out, I can say, “I did that!” Well, I’m here to tell you, there is no better time to embrace this mentality than when it comes to your career.
Now, if you are an MS1 (or pre-med, even), it’s often hard to see the big picture, and sometimes even harder to see how much the details matter. Whether your goal is to become a Global Health Leader working for the United Nations, or to become Bravo’s next Reality TV Doctor (no judgment here, I love Bravo), the sooner you get on the right track with your goals, the better. This may seem like I'm pressuring you to gun for one particular career; I’m not. You will be happy to learn that doing your best to build up your CV and experience in ANY way will help you achieve your goals, no matter what they end up being. Now as William Deming (the father of industrial quality control who, oddly, I like to quote) said, “It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best.” He was absolutely right. While making mistakes can build tremendous character, it would’ve been really nice to know what I needed to do early on to more easily achieve my career goals.
So, if I could travel back to the beginning of medical school and talk to myself in MS1, or even my pre-med self, what would I tell her? I’d tell her this…
It’s ok to be undecided, but try out everything early!
I’m sure many of your peers say things like, “Ever since the day I picked up a butter knife, I knew I wanted to be a surgeon.” Well, it’s okay, to start medical school (or even third year) without knowing what you want to be when you grow up. But the sooner you “try things on for size” the more quickly you can start making calculated changes for your future. I would tell myself “ Leila, I know you think you want to be a world famous surgeon, but maybe you should try shadowing other types of doctors, too, to see if you may like those better!” In your first 2 years of medical school, especially if you are a US medical student, you can absolutely make time to spend some time in a family practice clinic, or the emergency room, or a delivery ward. Not only will this experience look great on your CV, but it will help you figure out what you like and sometimes more importantly what you don’t like.
Network early, and often.
Before starting medical school, I was never intimidated by doctors. But all of a sudden, when I started, I was immediately intimidated by all of my Attendings and professors. They were like Gods to me. If I could go back, I would tell that girl to “Get over it! These are your future mentors and contacts.” Especially if you are trying to get into a competitive field or you are an IMG, the more contacts you make in the healthcare industry the better. Even if you meet someone at a wedding that is a radiologist at a hospital in Pennsylvania, say to him/her, “Hey, do you mind if I get your card? I would really like to learn more about what you do.” First of all, people LOVE hearing that. Second of all, you never know when down the line you may want to reach out to this person for a rotation opportunity in your residency of choice. Who knows what contacts THEY have. Now once you get that card, follow up with a nice email, “Nice to meet you, great speaking with you about xyz, blah blah blah” and check in with that person every so often: “Hey, read about abc in the New England Journal of Medicine, would love to know your thoughts.” Networking is useless without the follow up. Do this early, and do this often: it can literally take you places you never thought you could go.
Learn to adapt very quickly.
Everyone knows how frustrating it can be to study SO hard only to do very poorly. Goodness knows I thought I was busting my ass for the MCAT but ended up with the same mediocre score twice in a row. Why? Because instead of figuring out what I was doing wrong, I made excuses and blamed the test, or my stress, or the air conditioning in the room, or my pencil (yes I took the MCAT with a pencil). None of this helped me. Similar things can be said about my first term of medical school, I really didn’t change my studying from the first test to the second test…but when I was threatened with the prospect of being held back, BOY did I change QUICKLY. I learned that I needed to start with the questions and work backwards, test my progress often, and do dreaded memorization activities. If I had learned to adapt more quickly, let’s say back in undergrad, maybe I would’ve aced my MCAT back in the day and would not have had to go through the stress that came with being an IMG. ADAPT, PEOPLE!
Get curious… and pursue your questions!
You know how everyone is always telling you, “Do research.” Well, this doesn’t even mean anything to the average undergraduate. Research is a very abstract concept that usually involves mice and pipettes. Well, did you know that searching for the answer to ANY question you have is… RESEARCH? Well, it is! You may wonder, “Does wearing holiday themed scrubs around Christmas make patients happier?” Pursuing this question is actually a scholarly pursuit. Now of course, it’s best to research topics that could contribute to improved hospital costs or patient safety and satisfaction, but the point is, not all research is clinical drug research. If you have a question about something you are seeing done (or reading about), find out if anyone is working on that project and ask how you can get involved. If nobody is working on it, talk to a mentor and discuss the feasibility of a research project like this. “Research is fun, Leila!" is what I would tell the 2008 me.
Stay balanced…but keep busy (Werk. Werk. Werk. Werk. Werk.)
If this is your last summer off before medical school, or your first summer off after MS1, it may be tempting to just buy a pool pass, a bottle of rum and a magazine and be “Cool For the Summer” (thanks Demi Lovato). While it’s very important, in-fact ESSENTIAL, that you relax and recharge during your breaks, it doesn’t mean you have to be a couch (or pool) potato. Try to keep busy. Get involved in a research project, shadow a few doctors or even do a mission trip if you so choose, but keep active! Need cash? Get a job that can help you network (tutoring anyone?) This is all opportunity to build up your resume, gather life experience, and show that you are a hard worker with a lot of energy. These experiences are great to talk about in interviews someday, and they are also wonderful for meeting people that can serve as mentors throughout your career!
Your future self will thank you…
If you are just getting out of college, you may feel overwhelmed with what is about to come your way (and you should, because medical school is a BIG deal), but you have to keep your eye on the prize. Figure out who you are, what makes you happy in life, and in what environments you work best in. Meet lots of interesting people, get to know them, and keep in touch with them. Be curious, ask for help and never talk to strangers. (Oops. Wrong speech.) But seriously, do all these things, and I am telling you (from the future) that you will thank yourself.