Looking back on my medical school days, the students that still stand out tend to be those that were just a little different. There was the student who sat at the front left who always had the most up-to-date gadgets, asked a ton of questions and was always the first to assist the lecturer when their slides or computer malfunctioned. I recall the student who on the first clinical skills session taught many of us how to draw blood the right way. And I can’t forget about the stoic guy with the buzz cut who would always hush the class when we were getting too rowdy.
So, who were these folks? They were all nontraditional students in the sense that they were older and had careers prior to entering medical school. The first gentleman was in his mid-30s. If memory serves me correctly, he previously worked in the tech department on Broadway. The second student worked as a nurse for 5 years before deciding she would switch careers. The last gentleman served in the military prior to entering medical school. He was married and had two precious kids. These students added a very unique and valuable touch to our class which enhanced the rest of our learning. They were problem solvers, leaders, and were not afraid to ask tough questions.
The average age for matriculants to both osteopathic and allopathic medical school in 2016-2017 was 24 (according to both AAMC and AACOM data). Far and wide, medical schools greatly appreciate what these typically more mature students have to offer to their environment. There is no substitute for the real-world experience these students bring. Experience allows one to understand work-life balance, finances, recovering from failures, prioritization, etc. The list keeps going. The maturity and diversity that non-traditional students contribute to the classroom can’t be replaced.
The nontraditional route offers unique challenges. First will always be self-doubt. In my opinion, this is the most crucial barrier to overcome. If you don’t have confidence in yourself then you will not be ready for the nay-sayers. As a nontraditional student, you may battle with the time it will take to begin practicing and the length of time you will have to practice once training is done with. Returning to school can be intimidating since the classroom environment has evolved from the simple notebook and pen to more technologically advanced and interactive sessions. It may also be tough sitting in a classroom with younger and (quite frankly) sometimes less mature co-students, professors, residents, and even attendees. Nontraditional students almost always sacrifice a lot to follow their dreams. This may mean taking a huge pay cut (or I should say pay elimination), relocating, or putting off family plans. Returning to school will be challenging, but once you have convinced yourself it is completely worth it then go full steam ahead and don’t look back.
So back to the students I previously brought up. What became of them? The first gentleman struggled during his first year and had to take a few years off from school d/t health issues with his wife. He ultimately returned to school and graduated with his MD. The second student was very successful during her clinical years, feeling right at home on the wards. She did however run into a few behavioral problems primarily due to the fact she was used to doing things a particular way and was not afraid to let the (sometimes younger) nurses and residents know the “right way”. Our last student graduated with little issues academically. He did face some social stressors and got divorced during medical school. Last I heard, he and his wife remarried (each other) and are now again a happy family with their beautiful kids. There were other nontraditional students in my class and I recall at least 3 of them going on to become AOA (Alpha Omega Alpha) honorees. This is the most prestigious award for medical students.
My advice to nontraditional students is to first count the cost. Medicine is a great and rewarding field and you likely have unique qualities you can add but make sure you prepare for the many challenges that will come. Capitalize on your nontraditional path to medicine and use this as a strength. Despite your experience and qualifications, stay humble. Do not be the “know it all type” that thrives on making others feel inferior. Prioritize wisely. You will need to remember that others around you (spouse, parents, friends, children) will have to learn to gradually adapt to your new lifestyle and it may not be easy for them. I wish you the very best of luck on your journey.
This blog was written by Dr. Daniel
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