D. Robin Jaleel knows she’s followed a weird and wonderful path to med school. At 39, she is the oldest student in her class at Morehouse School of Medicine. She’s raising a 3-year-old daughter. And while many colleagues discovered they were destined for medicine while still in their teens, she took a less direct but more high-fashion route, first working in production for designer Vera Wang’s bridal collection.
A psychology major at Emory University, Jaleel moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design after graduating. An internship eventually led her to Vera Wang, where she loved working with those $20,000 dresses.
“In many ways, it was a dream job.” But it didn’t feel like enough, she says. "I wasn’t helping people.”
So in 2011, Jaleel moved back in with her parents, with an eye toward studying nutrition or medicine. “I took one anatomy class, and did really well,” she says. “And from there, it felt like everything else about moving toward med school started to fall into place.”
Jaleel is something of a rarity: About 90% of medical school matriculants say they knew they wanted to study medicine by the time they finished college, according to participants in the 2018 Matriculating Student Questionnaire (MSQ).
But Morehouse leaders say students like Jaleel are an essential part of each medical school class. “We have [many] young students who have never been out of school,” notes Ngozi F. Anachebe, MD, an associate dean at Morehouse. “Nontraditional students balance that out. They keep things in perspective.”
Morehouse certainly is not alone. Other medical schools also recognize the value of trainees who first tried other paths, from the National Football League to professional ice skating. These career changers can bring well-developed workplace skills, a broader awareness of patients’ varied lives, and a deeper understanding of themselves.
“Students who enter medical school with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and talents will help us prepare a physician workforce that meets the demands of our increasingly diverse patient population.”
Lisa Howley, PhD
Senior director of strategic initiatives and partnerships, AAMC
Students with a range of life experiences are good for medical education and the delivery of health care, says Lisa Howley, PhD, senior director of strategic initiatives and partnerships at the AAMC. “Students who enter medical school with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and talents will help us prepare a physician workforce that meets the demands of our increasingly diverse patient population.”
Still, for those who switch careers, the road into medicine can be tough. They often need to navigate a steep learning curve, they must be able to offer compelling descriptions of their unusual career journeys and how they’ve come to medicine, and, at times, convince themselves that they can make it in a demanding career.
The life skills advantage
Many medical school career changers understandably fear that their detours may put them behind their straight-path classmates. But schools say they do as well as other students and they quickly realize that their early careers are a strength, not a weakness.
“I was anxious about not being as well prepared,” says Kalle Fjeld, 28, now a second-year student at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. “But I’m doing fine. I have a little broader view of the world.”
That broader view came in part from Fjeld’s first career as a pastry chef. Even though she loved making cakes for inns and bakeries, she says, she found herself yearning for something more. Her father is a doctor, and she’d toyed with the idea of medicine in high school but decided the sciences weren’t for her. When she started considering the field again, Fjeld enrolled in a biology course at a local college and did well. “Turns out it wasn’t science I hated,” she says. “It was high school.”
So she moved back in with her parents and spent the next 18 months grinding through required premed courses. Still freelancing in pastry, she also worked as a medical scribe in an emergency room to boost her application. And she helped care for her mom, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her range of experiences added up to make her more comfortable with other students, faculty, and patients. “That time was spent engaging with all types of people. It surprises me sometimes how at ease I am,” she says.
Nathan Butters, who entered medical school at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine at age 41 after becoming disenchanted with his legal career, is grateful for his communication skills. He says the hours dealing with divorce and estate disputes have paid off. “It’s an advantage to know how to talk with people when they are going through difficult times,” he notes. “And the critical-thinking skills are very similar. What’s the problem? And what’s the best way to approach it?”
“Every applicant we accept here has a special story that they are bringing to this community and to future patients. That means looking well beyond academic metrics.”
Janice Gallant, MD
Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont
The minute she started med school, Jaleel saw how her prior experiences — like creating schedules — gave her a leg up. Just juggling childcare takes dexterity, and Jaleel says she manages with lots of help from her parents. She’s grateful for that and for all she’s learned from her prior life. “As a mom, you know how to handle sleep deprivation,” she says. “And working in an office teaches you basics in efficiency — how to manage your time, how to keep up with paperwork, how important follow-up phone calls are. That all comes very easily to me.”
Schools are mindful of such strengths earned out in the real world. “What we are most looking for is readiness,” says Janice Gallant, MD, associate dean for admissions at Larner College of Medicine. Her students’ average age is 25, she says, a bit older than the 2017 national average of 24, and about 80 to 90% have taken some time off before medical school. (Nationally, about 63% of 2018 MSQ participants have taken at least a year off before entering medical school.)
“Every applicant we accept here has a special story that they are bringing to this community and to future patients,” she says. “That means looking well beyond academic metrics.”
The grit to get in
While many schools are committed to a holistic review of applicants, career-changing students often face a longer path toward admissions. They often have to go back to school and take science courses like organic chemistry. And they need to prepare for the MCAT® exam, which most respondents to an AAMC survey say takes more than 11 hours per week over the course of several months.
From there, they have to build applications that effectively tell the story of why they chose medicine after first pursuing another career. Jaleel, for example, knew she looked strange on paper — a psych degree, followed by work in the fashion industry, followed by a series of waitressing and bartending jobs while she went back to school. She applied to medical school three years in a row before getting accepted.
“I just kept adding to my application, ending up working in clinical research in PTSD through a program at Emory, and adding letters of recommendation,” she says.
Nathan Park, 30, who left a career as a bass player in a pop-funk band, also found applying to medical school tough, even though he’d been premed at UCLA. Back then, he and his band won a five-year recording contract during his freshman year. The band, called Seriously, performed at hundreds of concerts around the country, with Park somehow fitting schoolwork around touring. When the contract was up, the band was offered another three-year deal, but Park decided he wanted a different lifestyle. “I knew I had come to a fork in the road,” he says.
“The hardest thing was coming back into competitiveness as a premed applicant. … On down days, I’d think, ‘Maybe my window for this has passed.’”
Saint Louis School of Medicine
Reviving his hopes for medical school meant building an application that showed he loved medicine as much as music. While his grades had been good, they weren’t great. So he enrolled in a postbaccalaureate program to prove he could do better, and he worked as an EMT, an ER scribe, and research analyst to boost his profile.
“The hardest thing was coming back into competitiveness as a premed applicant after we called it quits with the band. On down days, I’d think, ‘Maybe my window for this has passed.’”
Now a fourth-year student at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, he’s glad he stuck it out. He’s even formed a band with fellow med school students to blow off steam, aptly named the Palpations. “Music will always be part of my life,” he says. “And medicine is about working as a team, and that is exactly what a band does.”
A softer spot for patients
Perhaps most importantly, medical school faculty say nontraditional students tend to be a little more understanding with patients. Medical students “are driven by nature and high achieving,” says Anachebe. “So when a new medical student meets a patient who can’t seem to get it together, they stumble. They say things like, ‘Why don’t you just quit smoking?’ Older students are more realistic.”
“It’s not that they are [naturally] more empathic than younger students,” says Martha Cole McGrew, MD, executive vice dean at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. “But their experience is broader. They’ve likely been exposed to more people from different cultures, with different backgrounds. And that’s important, because patients come from all walks of life and backgrounds and cultures.”
That’s certainly true for Quante Singleton, 32, a fourth-year student at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. He spent a decade as a firefighter in Atlanta before fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. Singleton greatly appreciates the opportunity he had to bond with colleagues working in dangerous situations. “Those people put their lives on the line every day to save other people,” he says.
But it was an orthopedist who finally gave him the inspiration he needed to apply. A serious knee injury sidelined him, “and that doctor cared so much about helping me get back to my work,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do that — to help restore function in people’s lives.”
His experience continues to be an advantage. Doctors, he says, usually see patients only in exam rooms. “But I’m accustomed to seeing people in their homes, at their most vulnerable moments, from gunshot wounds to cardiac arrests. It gave me an entirely different perspective on life, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.”