Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"Is medicine right for me?" Interview series

(This post is quite long, so once you reach the end of this article on the main page, click the link to continue to the rest of the post.)

This will be the first in a series of information interviews regarding medicine and related fields. This is one part of my quest to find out more about medicine as a profession – to see if it is right for me. Hopefully, this information will help you in the same way. Even if you aren’t interested in medicine, there are a lot of tips that will help you through schooling in general.

This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hyeamin Yoon, a new medical student at Queen’s University; her undergraduate degree is in neurosciences from the University of Toronto. Despite her modesty, she is a pretty smart cookie graduating with distinction. As well she was very sociable on the onset of our talk, yet she claimed shyness later in the interview.

I asked her some questions regarding: her choice of medicine; her study habits; her extracurricular activities; some preconceptions about medical school; her choice of Queen’s as a Medical school; and some more stuff just popped up during the interview.

Although I did not record the interview, just to keep things comfortable, I did take notes. I will be sharing the salient detail here. I will paraphrase what she said. I will not take the first-person voice, for I don’t think I could reflect her tone and manner that well.

On with it!

Why did you chose medicine? How do you know medicine is right for you?

Even now she is not 100% sure about medicine, but she has had many influences in her life that have moved her towards medicine.

While admitting the “cheesiness” of her answer, she stated a strong desire to help people and apply problem-solving skills. She also mentioned that she is very ambitious and is always looking for a challenge; for example: a demanding career in medicine.

Influences may have included her aunt and uncle, both physicians who live in Korea; they have always portrayed medicine as the “best job ever”. As well, she spent many years living in the Philippines with her family. Coming across the difficulties facing many of this country’s citizens gave her a desire to perform medical mission trips in the future.

Through all of her decisions, even if made with uncertainty—such is the nature of life—she has not regretted any of them.

What sort of extracurricular activities did you take part in?

[I ask this question just to get a feel for the sorts of extracurricular activities that pre-meds may engage in.]

She described volunteering at a home for the elderly, where she took part in feeding patients that couldn’t feed themselves. She volunteered at a soup kitchen. She was also a Co-Vice President for a club at UofT that invites the top 15% of students (academically) to join. She mentioned being a Director of a club, but I did not write down the club’s name. As well, she played an active role in her church—incidentally her father is a minister. As a side note: Because of his prowess in Tae-kwon-do, my father has dubbed him the “flying minister”.

She also was a key part of the Korean-Canadian Literary Forum 21; helping to translate poems and other literature from Korean into English, then took a role in securing grants for this organization.

Her research experience consists of working in a neuropsychology lab for two years—receiving the prestigious NSERC award in the second year—and in a social psychology lab as a lab manager during her final year of undergrad. (She acquired this position through her hard work, mentioned in the “Words on extracurricular activities” section.)

What sort of study tips can you offer? And how did you manage the work during your undergrad? How did you manage so many extracurricular activities?

Hyeamin did not offer study tips in a specific sense, but more guidelines for survival. She made it very clear that while she was still a “nerd”, she had no love for studying—it simply had to be done.

She relied on her family, mostly her mother, and her friends for emotional support during trying times. Sometimes, she just went out with her friends to unwind.

She was quick to mention that all of her activities actually gave her a lot of pleasure and motivation throughout her undergrad, and took away from the boredom of studies. She wasn’t sure what it was about her involvement that drove her to work hard for these organizations, maybe it was the adrenaline rush from the deadlines or the potential to meet new people. These clubs weren’t joined for her resumé’s sake, but out of sheer interest. [My note: This may contrast with many stories people have heard of other pre-meds, or actions that others undertake—her point was quite refreshing.]

Words on extracurricular activities

She found clubs to be a perfect place to make new connections and meet new people. Of course not all would become “best friends”, but she loved this sort of interaction. She says that she is shy [which I do not believe], which makes clubs ideal for meeting people; it’s very hard to not meet people in a club.

She added, from her experience, if you work hard for a club, you will get noticed eventually: maybe by an executive member or faculty supervisor. This sort of hard work may lead to bigger opportunities, such as executive positions or job offers; both of which happened in her case. [I don’t want to just gloss over this point, while there is not an immediate effect with your hard work, most of the time it will have a long-term payoff. It reminds me about a blog post: On Speed and Greed at IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com]

However, she wanted to give everyone a word of caution: Do not get addicted to your clubs. In joining too many clubs, she found herself stretched too thin and her grades were affected accordingly in her last semester. “Something’s gotta give.” She played off the stressfulness of her situation; however, if I were in her position, I would have felt very overwhelmed.

Please click the little timestamp in the bar down there to continue reading. It should say 11:41PM

A word on looking out for number one

She also touched on a point that I didn’t realize until one or two years ago. You can still be interested in clubs and organizations, while simultaneously looking out for your future and building your resumé. An older Joshua would have said those ideas were mutually exclusive; it is important to know that you can still care about others, while still looking out for yourself. Sometimes my mom says to me: If you never look out for yourself, you won’t be around to help others.

Words on medical school acceptance

Basically, she said there are no guarantees for getting into med school. There’s no magic formula, there aren’t certain tasks you can do to ensure your acceptance.

She knows some people with no leadership experience and only did research and sports, and they were accepted. While others that fulfilled their “checklist”, but did not get in. The acceptances can be extremely subjective, based on university and simply the person reading your application.

The take-home message: Don’t feel pressured by all of those preconceptions about medical school, all you can do is work hard. [That sort of sucks to hear, but sometimes that’s the way things are. This doesn’t mean we are totally helpless though. Work to do well academically and extracurricularly, it will make a difference.]

What would you have changed about your undergrad?

Hyeamin says that she wishes that she was more focused in her extracurricular activities. Instead of taking on so many clubs, she recommends working hard for a couple or few clubs.

She is not sure how this will look to medical schools: Either they like the number and her varying interests, or it looks like she is scattered and isn’t committing enough to each one.

On a related note, she mentioned before that you should try not to spread yourself out too thin with clubs, because it may affect other areas of your life—academically, for instance.

She also wished that she talked to more people about medicine and medical school. She says in some ways, she felt uninformed and there were some “blind jumps” along the way. [Luckily, you are reading this post so you are getting some more information, but I recommend you get out there and talk to people and research your stuff.]

Why did you choose Queen’s for medicine?

During her interview and orientation week, she noticed that the students and faculty of Queen’s are refreshingly friendly and vibrant. Even to the point that she was a little overwhelmed with the activity and atmosphere during her orientation. During her classes, she notes that the students seem pretty laid back. They are still competitive, but in a very different way than UofT.

In terms of actual learning she likes the clinical program (actually learning to practice medicine). Many universities don’t start clinical exercises until 3rd year, but Queen’s starts in first year. Even in her first 3 weeks, she mentioned that they have had mock sessions of patient interaction and diagnosis; they will be moving to real patients soon. If she were to volunteer abroad (like a mission trip), she would have more practical experience to bring to the table.

Queen’s also has a mandatory research project in any medical field – from social psychology to molecular biology – which she likes the idea of. Her interest in research has grown from her previous experiences, so she will be able to investigate them during medical school. And her interest in social psychology will be further satisfied.

Queen’s also has the smallest student numbers in Ontario: 101 students (aside from Northern, but they are a new med school). Western and McMaster have roughly 130, University of Toronto is much larger at 208.

This may be better or worse, but Queen’s medical school (unlike most others) has no midterms, all of the marks are based on the finals at the end of the semester. [There may be some assignments; frankly, I don’t remember and my notes are a little unclear in that area.]

What’s medical school like so far?

Compared to fourth year, the classes are much earlier at 8:30. There is a lot of material covered during the lectures – more accurately an “insane amount” of material. She emphasized the need for self-directed learning (no wonder they ask you about it on all med school applications). Even during lectures, some professors list topic headings and have “Self-directed learning topic” written below. [Yeah, that’s gross.]

There are a lot of lecture hours. She said it was like first year again, because as you enter the upper years, the lecture hours usually decrease. Oh, and there are still labs.

There are still a LOT of parties that go on. [I asked, “With drinking and the like?”] The answer is ‘Yes’. People in med school still party hard, maybe even harder.

Tips regarding preparation for and applying to medical school
  • Try to stay well-rounded.
  • Try to take a leadership role, it is more interesting and it looks better [Sorry that sounds a little harsh, but we have to stay realistic too. Don’t take a position just for the sake of a title though].
  • Make yourself sound interesting. When you apply, there is a certain amount of self-marketing that you have to do. That amount is a lot. If you have a certain unique activity that’s even better. Play it up!
  • Visualize and plan for the future. Imagine what your ideal resumé would look like, and work towards making that happen. This sort of planning will keep you on track. [This reminds me of Goal-Oriented Living. This is probably one of my favourite tips.]
  • If you want to secure a research position – volunteer or paid – you have to get researching and talking to professors early. You are going to have to be proactive about it. Her approach is to offer to volunteer, get to know them, then approach them for a paid position.
Two addendums to that last point: (1) She readily admits that her method is a little slower, but she likes having them get to know her first. (2) She mentioned that she heard from some professors that they actually like taking on paid staff over volunteers because they can boss around the hired staff, while they feel bad for pressuring volunteers.

The take home messages (that I got): You have to get out there to secure any volunteer or paid positions. You can still like volunteering somewhere, while still thinking about your future applications. Work hard in whatever you do, it will pay off—sooner than you think. Research your possible future!

If you got anything else out of this, or want to mention something, feel free to comment!

If you enjoyed these learning tips and motivational strategies, maybe you'll enjoy the other posts. Please bookmark this page (Ctrl-D) or check out the archive/categories to the right. Better yet, tell a friend! (Click the envelope below this.)

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At 8:59 PM, Blogger Shan said...

You did a good job translating this casual interview into print.

"Flying Minister" - Amusing!

Hyeamin sounds like a very sharp woman. I hope I can implement some of this knowledge into my life.

At 10:29 PM, Blogger Azim said...

Thanks for the post, it's good to get an actual interview and questions. I think, especially reading the first half, a lot of it already rings true and I feel as if I know where she's coming from at the very least.

One thing I would add is to always do something you enjoy, whether it's in your pursuit of a career or in an attempt to get involved. If you hate it, chances are, you're not going to do well.

Finally, I hope you include a reference to this in your apps next year. And speaking of apps, and from experience this time, get them done by the second week of September. Trust me.

At 11:17 PM, Blogger Joshua Hwang said...

Shan: Heh, it wasn't actually that casual, but thanks still. Hyeamin is pretty sharp, and refreshingly driven. I hope you can use this knowledge as well.

Azim: This theme of doing what you love has been coming up a lot in my life recently. I just interviewed one of my professors and now I have some more reflection ahead of me.

Thanks for the tips on the apps. I think I'm going to start moving on them after midterms even.

At 8:37 PM, Blogger Azim said...

Don't start too soon though, because really you want to include as much about experiences as possible.

I've been thinking a lot back and forth, and although I know for a fact I want to go to medical school, I'm wondering if I should take some time and do a Masters first - in the field I want to specialize (i.e. vascular physiology). It's tough though, because by not applying you risk missing out on getting in, but the experience in a specific field is invaluable, especially in residency search....

At 11:22 PM, Blogger adeel said...

Hey Josh, watch out, if you keep this up, this blog might earn a few links and go the way of your last blog.

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Joshua Hwang said...

Hey Adeel,

Good to see you are still alive and kicking.

I have no clue what you mean by "earn a few links" but I hope this doens't go the way of the old blog--by which I assume you mean fade into the abyss of dead sites.

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