Thursday, 24 February 2011

five months into med school...

Wow, it's been so long since I last posted something... I had even forgotten that my last entry was about leaving science... now I am already five months into med school!

It's been an intense period of many emotional states, and I thought I'd summarise them briefly. I have to admit, the first few months were hard...
Before I started, I had certain expectations / fears, some of which were met / not met / dealt with, so I can now comment on them retrospectively. Maybe it will help someone considering graduate medicine at a somewhat mature age (possibly even a scientist!) know what to expect… and not to waste any time with these things!

First of all, I was looking forward to learning a lot more about biology and physiology. Being a chemist by training who then became a molecular biophysicist, I had never received an introduction to these topics on a university level. One positive aspect of med school would be to receive this, which would certainly make me a better scientist (If then for any reason med school should not be for me, the outcome would still be somewhat successful).
Starting to study biology and physiology, I realised quickly: There is so much to know – I want to know everything – there is not enough time!
After eleven years in science, I got used to knowing my area of research in great detail. Suddenly I knew next to nothing about things, and it was obviously impossible to get to the same level of expertise on everything in such a short amount of time. I found myself spending a lot of time investigating details, because I was simply not used to covering things on a seemingly superficial level (also why should I have to do that? I really wanted to know!!!). Knowing how much detail there is to everything, I felt faced with an insurmountable amount of knowledge to absorb. The speed with which we were introduced to things did not help either: biochemistry students would learn about a particular topic in a whole year’s lecture series, and we would race through it in less than ten lectures and still be expected to know a lot more than the basics.
I realised that there was a gradient of satisfaction regarding the amount of information absorbed and how much education people had received before: People straight from A-level seemed happiest, but the more people had studied, i.e. undergrad, master's, PhD, post-doc, the more they knew how much there is to know, therefore much they didn’t know, and that caused some degree of dissatisfaction. Given my position in that spectrum, I became pretty frustrated, too!

Another thing I was SOO looking forward to was to be taught again... to sit in a lecture theatre with some kind of expert passing his/her pearls of wisdom onto me. That would be a welcome change to sitting google-ing or pub-med-ing things on my own (which sometimes felt like re-inventing the wheel)!
How wrong I was!!! It is absolutely not the case that someone delivers any information to you on a golden plate… How sad! Even though there are lectures, they are far from ideal. Thank god I know how to google stuff! I was very surprised that there was little attempt made to bring people to the same level at the start of a lecture, how badly structured most lectures were, and how it felt over and over again like someone had just emptied a huge bucket of undigested information over your head! In cases where I already knew the subject being taught, I was surprised how convoluted the topic was presented, how simple things were made to look much more complex than they actually were. Sometimes I knew that crucial pieces of information were missing in order to understand what was being said.
All these problems mean that the students have to spend the great majority of their time picking up the pieces of information and organising them, bringing them into some format that can be understood and then learnt for exams. Again it felt like re-inventing the wheel! With up to 30 hours of coursework every week, there just isn't enough time to do write proper notes on everything… This was another source of great frustration.

Finally, I was worried that I would find it hard to learn things by heart, something that I had not done in years. Also, I knew that most people on my course would be a lot younger than me (I was 30 when I started), and I was worried what this would be like.
This expectation turned out to be true. At the beginning of the course, I felt like I was slower than the other students, in particular the 18 year-olds, who seemed to have a much better memory. Thankfully, this situation changed, and after a lot of studying over Christmas, my mind is now much closer to the way it used to be during my undergrad. What a relief! Even though I am still waiting to reach full capacity again (I hope this is possible!), I am now more confident that I will be able to memorise enough in order to pass the exams. And I have a major advantage: I know what I want to retain for my future career, what I might need, because I have already had the experience of studying and working a job.
Regarding the age difference: I am the 4th oldest out of nearly 300 people! I am even older than most of the graduate medics, who average around 24. I thought telling people my age would not be a problem, but I realised that they do look at me differently because of it. Well, there is nothing I can do about it, so I don't worry any more! ;-)

A few final remarks on something I had not seen coming:
Students in Cambridge are not the most respected of all people. There is this preconceived idea that we are lazy, stupid, and have lots of free time to wait around. Even people who did a medical degree themselves seem to think that. For that reason we are sometimes not dealt with professionally. There are double standards everywhere! Also, there are a lot of fragile egos in charge of students, who would rather put you down than admitting they don’t know the answer to a question. So far, I have not found a way to successfully deal with a person like this and it can be quite demotivating.
Thankfully, many of my graduate peers find this frustrating as well. One of them put this very nicely: we have all had successful careers before, therefore the opportunity cost of us being here is very high. Hence the higher expectations. But the only way is to keep calm and carry on. Always good advice!

However, despite all these frustrations, I am truly enjoying this degree. Everything is so interesting! I have already found that I look at the literature with a much wider perspective, and I am sure this will be useful when I come back to science one day!


  1. Nice blog!
    I played with the idea of doing precisely that graduate course in medicine- for exactly these reasons (broadening horizons, new challenge, being the forever student, etc)-but the embrace of science was too firm :) How do you envision coming back to it one day?
    Viele Gruesse

  2. Absolutely! ;-) I don't really see myself as having left science, more as taking a detour in order to be able to put a different spin on my research in the future. While watching my fellow co-students becoming doctors, I realise that I have already been moulded into shape, as a scientist. It's too late for me to shake that off ;-)! I really like medicine, but will definitely keep the science going.

    Thanks for your comment! ;-)

  3. Ah, interesting observation of yours- that of having been moulded into shape! I've done a fair bit of biophysics, and whenever I do more cellular stuff, I think of it in biophysical terms - like rates of production, concentrations in the nucleus/cell, avidity effects and so on... one almost needs to (temporarily) reset one's memory and pretend one knows nothing at all, in order to learn the most, without other words, while experience focusses the mind, it also narrows it!
    What I really wonder, though, is how one goes back to science (as a PI ultimately) after having spent a few years without publications-unless more postdocs ensue, which then really must yield some rather good papers? Maybe I should start my own blog- for all these Gedankenspiele :)