Almost Docs: How I Found an Online Community

This was originally shared on www.almostdocs.com (which no longer exists???) in May 2018. Twitter is a great place for connecting with other folks in the medical profession, so I thought I’d share it here!


I didn’t know much about MD/PhD programs as an undergraduate. I found some resources online and met with the program director at my school, but I didn’t really have easy access to any current MD/PhD students to go to for advice as I was preparing to apply to medical school. I also didn’t know many pre-meds or join any pre-med clubs. I hadn’t planned on going to medical school until late into undergrad, so I didn’t have a supportive group that would be going through the same grueling process that I was about to undertake. So I went to social media.

The summer I applied to medical school, I made a Twitter account specifically for connecting with the medical community. Twitter was an ideal platform for this purpose because of the short character limits for posts, the ability to make public posts and follow others who do not necessarily have to follow you back, the easy ability to retweet (or share) another account’s post on your own timeline, hashtags to connect posts to those of related content, and handles that allow you to establish your identity while also maintaining anonymity if desired (for example, I started being known as only pre-MD/PhD Life). While other social media sites have incorporated some of these aspects, Twitter remains the best site I’ve found for a robust discussion within a broad community.

I began by finding other pre-med accounts to follow. I did this by searching for those that had “pre-med” in their name or bio and then going through their following list to find others. Soon some started to follow me back. We would comment in response to each other’s posts and encourage each other when things didn’t go as planned. Some of these people I’ve even met in real life. Many of these people have since started med school, finished grad school, and are now in residency, and it’s been an absolute joy to see them progress through their training. I’m glad to learn from this community that has supported me since my early days of pursuing medicine.

Yet, here I am, 5 years in and still in the graduate phase on my MD/PhD program, which is one of the challenging things about this training pathway. As a MD/PhD student, the people who started med school the same time as me could nearly be practicing physicians by the time I step into the clinic as a 3rd year medical student! Therefore, I needed to have a community of physician-scientist trainees who could understand the more unique aspects of our training that those in other tracks could not. There were a few of us who found each other on Twitter, but it was harder to find those who could provide insight from further along the training path in my early days on Twitter. I joined a local MD/PhD trainee community upon beginning my program, but that still didn’t give me a global perspective on what it’s like to be a physician-scientist in training.

There’s an added benefit when trainees from different institutions come together. They can learn about the different ways their programs ultimately train them for a career as a physician-scientist. For example, mine starts in the PhD portion, others start with med school and transition to the PhD two years in, and some have even moved part of the clinical rotations to before the PhD. There may be things that other programs do to help their students develop into physician-scientists that mine doesn’t and vice versa. Such a community can provide support and diverse insights, which can help identify ways by which our training and medicine in general can be improved.

To help facilitate this discussion, the hashtag #DoubleDocs was recently adopted by the physician-scientist trainee community to connect trainees from undergraduate to residency and beyond. It was designed to be inclusive to both MD and DO trainees as well as those who have chosen to pursue a PhD and those who pursue other paths for research training. It does not mean double doctorates, but docs who are doubly in the research and medical worlds. What is special about this hashtag is that it rose organically from the physician-scientist trainee community as a way to stay connected. Unlike other hashtags, it is intended to have a specific focus on the training aspect of physician-scientists.

Taking this a step further, I, along with my colleagues in the American Physician Scientists Association, utilized Twitter’s list feature to make it easier for physician-scientist trainees to find each other. On the APSA twitter account (@A_P_S_A), we now have public lists for students at different stages and pathways of training including pre-med, MD/DO students, MD/DO-PhD students, Residents and Fellows, and established physician-scientists who can be resources for trainees. People can subscribe to these lists to find the Twitter accounts of other #DoubleDocs.

In the span of a few days from the start of this hashtag, I made nearly 100 new connections to trainees across the globe that have a similar career goal and unique training path, which highlights the power of Twitter to bring people together. Social media can get a bad rep, but it can also be quite useful! #DoubleDocs is just one hashtag, but so many others exist that can help people find a community!


If you like my writing, please consider following my blog. There’s a link near the top of the side bar to do so. Also, feel free to like my Facebook page (MD, PhD To Be), follow me on Twitter (@MDPhDToBe), and follow me on Instagram (MDPhDToBe). I am trying my best to remain active in each of these channels throughout my training! Any questions, comments, or requests for future blog posts can of course be directed to me from any of these locations or directly emailed to me at via the connect page. Thank you for reading!

Almost Docs: 10 Reasons Why Being a Medical Student is Awesome

This was originally shared on www.almostdocs.com (which doesn’t exist anymore???) in April 2014. I’m sharing this again because it’s important to remind ourselves that what we’re doing is actually really great!


In a recent medical school class, one of my lecturers told us, “The best days of medical school are the day you get in and the day you graduate.”

We all laughed, but it was sort of a painful laugh as we hesitantly looked around the room to see how others reacted to the thought…

The underlying message of that statement that we all know too well is medical school is hard. It is way more work than you’d ever think you’d handle, which means a lot less sleep and a lot more stress. It separates you from your friends and family. The time you once had for things you enjoy seems to be sucked away. You may even find yourself in the wee hours of the night after weeks of sleep deprivation cramming for a few exams and questioning why you’re putting yourself through all of this.

And yet, it’s awesome.

It may not seem that way when you look around at your piles of books, notecards, lecture notes, empty energy drink cans, ramen packets, and building debt, but in comparison to other things, it’s pretty great.

Not convinced? Here’s 10 reasons to make you believe otherwise.


#1. You never have to worry about finding something to do.

Your to-do list is never ending, but it’s so much better than sitting around twiddling your thumbs. If you don’t believe me, set aside a free day to not work on anything for school and see how crazy it makes you.


#2. You get to do a variety of things.

Sick of studying for one M1 class? Study for another class or work on stuff for research if you’re a MD/PhD student like me. Research bringing you down? Go back to studying for your medical school classes. Don’t want to learn about the renal system any more? Good because the test is done and the class has moved on to endocrine system. You have so many things to do and study that you can always change up what you do to keep things exciting while continuing to be productive!


#3. You learn to get the most out of your time.

Do all the things.png
Do all the things.

Planning out your research so you have an incubation step during the time you have to go to class, a seminar, or TA? Of course. Studying notecards during centrifuge steps? Duh. Reading papers during breaks in classes? Always. Going through lecture notes on the bus? Yup. Add on normal people things like buying groceries, doing laundry, and paying bills and you’ve really got to multi-task. This way you’re forced to learn how to optimize your time and get as much done as you physically can.


#4. You may even get to defy the boundaries of time.

Whether you’re balancing medical school and graduate school classes, being a teaching assistant, and doing research like me, or simply dealing with the heavy load of medical school itself, there’s definitely more to do in the day than you have time for, but somehow, you can find a way to make it all work out.

Channeling my inner Hermione, I’ve had to do just that with the grad school and medical school allowing you to register for classes that sometimes meet at the same time. Luckily, I can get by without a time turner since the medical school podcasts the lectures instead and therefore maximize the number of classes that I can take at once. If your school podcasts your lectures, you can surely do the same!


#5. You don’t have to worry about finding a job for a very long time.

Where am I going to be for the next 4 years as an MD student or 8 years as an MD/PhD student? Right here. What am I going to be doing? Exactly what I’m doing now. You’ve made it through the competitive admissions process, so you don’t need to be job searching like your fellow college graduates.


#6. You learn to understand more about others than they seem to understand about themselves. 

Patients may not always tell us everything that we need to know, and we’re taught early to figure out what they’re not telling us from their history and their tendencies during your interaction. You learn to see the subtleties in a person’s ways and learn how to interact with them to get the best outcome in their health. But this can carry on to your personal relationships and help you understand more about the people you deal with day in and day out as well.


#7. You don’t have to take any more lib eds.

Yeah that’s right. No more wasting time with classes that you have to sit through thinking, “When am I ever going to need to know this?” Now the answer is “When you’re a doctor.”


#8. You get to tell people that you’re a medical student.

Med Students.png
What medical students do.

This usually impresses people and only sometimes makes them think you’re crazy.


#9. You get to meet a lot of cool people.

 Try talking to your parents or friends back home about signaling pathways that lead to T cell activation or the pharmacologic mechanism of any drug and they’ll probably just blankly stare back at you. But talk to your medical school friends about the same thing and they’ll not only understand but they’ll keep the conversation going. Medical school teaches us a sort of new language that most people don’t know but luckily your peers do. Seriously, look around the room and bask in the awe (and sometimes the terror) that you are surrounded by future doctors.

Taking it a step further, if you’re also in graduate school like me, you also get to know a lot of graduate students who are on their way to being doctors of a different type. These people share your love of discovery and become your support system through the struggle that is the PhD. Who knows, maybe one of them will even make a breakthrough discovery that changes the way we look at biology or treat disease. These are awesome people to know and you really can’t make it through without them.


#10. You get to learn a lot of cool things.

 The human body is frustratingly – yet beautifully – complex and you get to spend your life learning about it. Lucky you. While the amount that you’re expected to know about it can be overwhelming at times (and by times I mean always), you are incredibly fortunate to be living in a time when we know as much as we do. Can you believe that there was a time that we didn’t know how the heart, lungs, or kidneys worked? A time when we didn’t realize that something as simple as washing hands would decrease spread of infectious disease particularly in hospital settings? Sure, we have a long way to go, but we’ve already come such a far way, and you get to benefit from the hard work of others who once struggled to discover what you’re now learning.

So Amaze
So amaze. Wow.

If you like my writing, please consider following my blog. There’s a link near the top of the side bar to do so. Also, feel free to like my Facebook page (MD, PhD To Be), follow me on Twitter (@MDPhDToBe), and follow me on Instagram (MDPhDToBe). I am trying my best to remain active in each of these channels throughout my training! Any questions, comments, or requests for future blog posts can of course be directed to me from any of these locations or directly emailed to me at via the connect page. Thank you for reading!

Study Tips for the MCAT (More on How I Prepared in a Month)

Nearly a year ago to the day, I wrote my highly popular blog post “How I Prepared for the MCAT in Only a Month.” I wrote it with the intent to show others that the MCAT does not have to be as scary as it seems, and I’m glad it has received such a positive response! Since then, a great number of my readers have reached out to me for advice about to how to study for the MCAT. Therefore, while the test has changed since I took it, I have decided to write this follow up post to offer some more tips that will be applicable to those taking the new MCAT as well as anyone facing a big exam. Within this post, I will cover my general strategy for studying – plan, practice, and personalize – as well as address some general concerns about the exam.

Plan, Practice, and Personalize

Plan

The MCAT covers an overwhelming amount of information. This makes it difficult to even determine where to begin. Whether you have 4 weeks or 4 months to prepare for the exam, it is best to start by sitting down, looking at your schedule, and planning realistic checkpoints for your progress. When I planned, I set aside the first half to cover all of the information necessary (with equal time devoted to each section) and the second half to polish up my knowledge and testing skills. This last part is the most important – knowing the information is important but being able to apply it in a testing situation is just as important.

Practice

This is that important part that I just mentioned. You need to do practice problems and then keep doing practice problems. As I’ve written about in my Almost Docs article 5 Precise Techniques to Become the Most Effective Learner Ever, it is important to study in the format of the exam – i.e. if you were taking an exam with free response questions, then you should prepare by doing free response questions. Since the MCAT is a multiple-choice exam, you should prepare by doing multiple-choice questions.  There is a great deal of practice exams available for the MCAT. Make sure to check them out.

On top of that, do these problems over and over. Another point made in my article is that you need to learn, forget, and relearn the material to better retain the information. Therefore, doing practice exams with enough time between to forget the questions will help you get even more out of them (especially when you have to pay for the practice exams!)

One concern I’ve noticed is whether to do a complete practice test or do one section at a time. Mostly I’ve heard people talking about doing the former, not as much the latter, but both can have their benefits. In fact, I’m a proponent of the latter.

The MCAT is a pretty long exam (and it’s only getting longer). One its challenges is keeping focused and on top of your game throughout the entire test. If you read my previous post, you’ll have found that about halfway through all I could think about was what food I wanted to eat (oops). Doing complete practice tests can help you improve your endurance for testing to handle the mental strain for such a long period of time.

On the other hand, doing just one section at a time keeps you focused on the information covered in that section. If you’re studying biology this keeps you focused on biology, for example. This will especially come in handy for the last part of the strategy – personalize.

Personalize

Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is important to identify these to make your studying most effective. I did this by thoroughly going through each practice question with an emphasis on those I got wrong or those that I got right but was unsure of my reasoning. Most practice tests have explanations for the answers given – work to understand these! I kept one word document specific for taking note of these explanations that served as a personalized high yield set of notes that I looked back at as the exam approached. By doing just one section at a time, I was able to better remember my reasoning for my answer so that I could determine if it matched that given. This also helped me figure out what areas I needed to go back and study more so that I didn’t waste time looking at subjects that I was more comfortable with.

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While this is a general description of how to study for the MCAT, it can be applied to any section whether its verbal reasoning or physical sciences. The main point is identifying your weaknesses and putting your focus on those so that you don’t waste effort on studying your stronger subjects. This will make your preparation for the MCAT as efficient and effective as possible.

With that, grad school and med school calls! If you look back at my posts on the blog, you’ll notice that there hasn’t been one in quite a while and those two things are to blame! If you have any questions about the MCAT that would be helpful for me to address to help others, feel free to put them in the comments or send me an e-mail. Happy studies!

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This is just the beginning!

If you like my writing, please consider following my blog. There’s a link near the top of the side bar to do so. Also, feel free to like my Facebook page, MD, Phd To Be, and follow me on Twitter, @MDPhDToBe. Any questions, comments, or requests for future blog posts can of course be directed to me from any of these locations or directly emailed to me at mdphdtobe@gmail.com. Thank you for reading!

Why Medicine?

Q (from ask.fm): Why do you want to become a doctor? Did you ever consider any other profession?

For a time in my life (primarily during the med school application and interview process) I HATED this question simply because I was asked it oh so often. But really I LOVE this question. I love it because it makes me sit back and think about why I’m doing what I’m doing.

I’ve seen the quote “Medicine is for those who couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” by Luanda Grazette spread throughout twitter and time again by premeds and med students alike, and I simply do not agree. At least with respect to my own situation.

Since I have begun seriously considering my future (which started in late elementary school since I have always been nearly too obsessed with planning out my future), my career goals have consisted primarily of medicine, pharmacy, and research though at a younger age interior design and architecture were also top candidates. During this time, politics and business leadership also drew my attention briefly because I felt I could make a difference in those positions.

Making a difference. That’s the source of all of these career goals (minus architecture and interior design… I just wanted to make pretty houses). In medicine and pharmacy, I could make a difference in individuals’ lives through improving their health. In research, I could potentially discover something that would make a difference in our fundamental knowledge that could be applied to making a difference in many lives. In politics, I could make a difference by instituting policies that had a larger benefit for the nation with special interest in healthcare policy. And in business leadership, I could help bring a company success and target the goals of the increased revenue to giving back to others with particular interest in nonprofit charitable organizations.

As I explored these career options, my interests became more refined but I took something from each one. My interest in pharmacy holds true as I hope to have my research relate to the development of therapies. My interest in politics holds true as I am still particularly interested in healthcare policy and hope to be able to use my position as a doctor to educate others and make a difference in the way our healthcare system is set up. My interest in leadership holds true as I take the leadership skills for business and apply them to some day running my own lab. In fact, it is pursuing these other interests that I believe will make me a stronger doctor.

So why medicine specifically? First of all, the human body is beautifully complex and it is an amazing challenge to understand and seek to control its processes and especially its pathology. It is a challenge that I find absolutely invigorating and I believe it will keep me enthused about my work until the day I die. Second, it connects me to others and gives purpose to my work. It allows me to help others achieve their most basic need – good health.

I can imagine myself doing many things, but I have CHOSEN medicine because it is simply the best choice for me.

Why I majored in chemistry

Q (From ask.fm): Why did you choose to major in chem? What did you plan to do with your chem degree?

In high school, I wanted to do pharmacy. I shadowed a pharmacist and she told me that chemistry was very important to know as a pharmacist. So, I began by taking AP chemistry in high school and I fell in love with the topic.

AP chemistry 1When it came to choosing my college major, I actually intended in following in my older brother’s footsteps of majoring in both chemistry and biochemistry because I knew that biochemistry would be applicable to my future. As I could only list one major as my top choice on my application, I just randomly put chemistry first and biochemistry second, and ended up getting placed in the College of Science and Engineering with the intention of majoring in chemistry.

I hoped to then add on the biochemistry major as well, but with it being in a different college, the College of Biological Sciences, it was a challenge to meet the requirements of both colleges and complete both degrees in four years. Therefore, I decided that instead of actually adding in the second major, I would simply take all of the upper level classes related to biochemistry/biology as I desired to know what their upper division students know without their excessive introduction to biology courses.

Throughout college, my interests shifted from pharmacy as a professional career to research pertaining to the development of therapies and further to clinical medicine to complement that research. It was that interest in therapies that kept my interest in the chemistry major as chemistry is the basis for drug design. I knew I would later be able to shift my primary focus to more biological sciences but I believed the background in chemistry would make me a better biologist.

While I’m no longer doing just straight-up chemistry, I do not regret the decision to keep that as my major. I’m lucky that my university was flexible and allowed me to take classes outside my major rather freely, so that I was able to have a broad education in the physical and biological sciences that well prepared me for my future.

Chemistry Senior

Activities for Medical School – Which are important?

Q (from ask.fm): I will be applying to medical school in the next few years and I was wondering how to keep track of my activities. What activities are “important”? What are med schools looking for? How far should I go back (i.e. high school, summer vacations, etc.?) How should I organize the info for AMCAS? 

The activities that are important for your medical school application are most importantly the activities that are important to you. They’re activities that can reveal something about your character and they’re activities that you’ve devoted yourself to, perhaps even by taking a leadership position. These don’t necessarily all have to be medically related. For example, I was in marching band, pep band, and a sorority. I listed all of those on my application and selected marching band as one of y most meaningful activities. Medical school admissions committees want to see that you can be devoted to something, which I sure did by becoming a leader in the band and president in the sorority.

While not all of your activities have to be medically related, it is a good idea to shadow doctors, volunteer at a hospital, or find another activity that can give you first hand exposure to the kind of work that you’ll be doing as a doctor. These experiences won’t just add to your list of activities, they can help you get stories to include in your application essays and interviews that will strengthen your argument for why you want to be a doctor. Medical school admissions committees will want to see that you’re aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

As for how far to go back, medical school admissions committees generally only care about what you did since you started undergrad.That being said, I did include some activities from high school only because I continued to be involved in them throughout college such as volunteering at a hospital, which I began early in high school and continued until the end of undergrad. General rule of thumb, if it ended before you started undergrad, don’t include it unless it’s really good.

Also, note that the work/activities section is for just that – not hobbies.

To keep track of your activities, you can write a curriculum vitae (CV, basically a longer version of a resume) and save it to your computer. Then you can periodically go back to update it (google “curriculum vitae” and you can find some good resources on how to make one). With each activity on your CV, it would be good to include a description of the activity and how you were involved in it so that you won’t forget. This can be useful for other areas as well such as to give to a letter of recommendation writer so that they can know more about you and write a stronger letter.

What kinds of activities are MD/PhD programs looking for that varies from regular med school (except research of course)? Does volunteerism, clubs, travel, etc. matter as much for MD/PhD? Also, what “counts” as a publication & what’s worth including on your resume?

Generally, MD/PhD programs require that the medical school admissions committee accepts you in addition to the MD/PhD admissions committee. This means that you need to woo the general medical school admissions as well, which will be easier if you have more activities than just research.

For any admissions committee, there are no set requirements for things such as activities. All of the admissions committees that I’ve ever experienced look at each applicant as a whole rather than checking your activities off a list to make sure you’ve fulfilled different categories of activities. If your activities can show the committee that you know what you’re getting yourself into such as through volunteering at a hospital, you can be highly devoted to something such as being highly involved in at least one organization for an extended time, and you enjoy taking care of others, it doesn’t matter what specifically are these activities.

While a solid research experience is essential for MD/PhD admissions (generally, at least an equivalent of a year of full time research is expected), simply working in a lab can be enhanced if you have something to show for it. For example, I was awarded a summer research fellowship and an undergraduate grant for doing research in undergrad. This showed that I had enough promise to get rewarded for my work.

Another way to enhance your research experience is to be published. Generally, in science and medicine, a publication is any paper in which you’re named as an author and is published in a peer-reviewed journal. Getting your name on a paper shows that you’re not only being exposed to research but you’re being productive enough to contribute to a paper. But don’t worry; a lot of people don’t have any papers published by the time they apply to medical school.

I’ve also been asked what extracurriculars I included in my application. Therefore, here they are:

(*Most meaningful)

Volunteering at a hospital*

Visiting kids in the hospital as Cinderella on my 7th anniversary as a hospital volunteer. Instagram: MDPhDToBe, June 26, 2014
Visiting kids in the hospital as Cinderella on my 7th anniversary as a hospital volunteer.
Instagram: MDPhDToBe, June 26, 2014

University of Minnesota Men’s Hockey Pep Band

Research in a genetic engineering lab

Working as a cashier at Target

Receiving an undergraduate research fellowship

Earning an undergraduate research grant

Being a leader in a sorority

Working as a receptionist in an apartment building

Research in a medicinal chemistry lab*

Cancer and Cardiovascular Research Building Instagram: MDPhDToBe, August 4, 2013
Cancer and Cardiovascular Research Building
Instagram: MDPhDToBe, August 4, 2013

Being a leader in the University of Minnesota Marching Band*

Minnesota Marching Band Instagram: MDPhDToBe, September 27, 2013
Minnesota Marching Band
Instagram: MDPhDToBe, September 27, 2013