Episode 57:

The Best PreMed Majors transcript

“This is the Pre-Med Podcast, episode 57. I’m your host, Doctor Dan. Today, I’m talking about the best undergraduate pre-med major, then and now.

For many years, I’ve always said that you should stick with a major as an undergraduate that you are passionate about, something that you really enjoy. Doesn’t matter if that’s art, and it has no interest or career direction, that is at least getting just a bachelor degree of art by itself. Definitely what worked for me is no longer my advice, which was some topic of interest … mine was honestly biology … that you would be dedicated enough to actually finish the degree. In other words, I was really only getting the degree to get into medical school. I just wanted to be a doctor. It was that simple.

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Over the cascade of research and the years through the process, my advice has now changed, and so I needed a formally updated podcast on this subject. Most likely, you already have a major selected, if you’re in college. For many folks, you may have changed it more than once. That is a pretty common experience. A colleague I work with that is a doctor states that she chose her major because it was the fastest way to graduate. That’s not a bad strategy. Unfortunately, if she hadn’t got in to medical school, or had problems in residency or beyond, there would be nothing to fall back on.

Today, I’m going to outline what I feel like are the best undergraduate pre-med majors, at least some major considerations for you as you select a major for undergrad. First, a little background data. Two thirds of all medical students have an undergraduate degree in one of the sciences, biology, chemistry, even engineering can be counted in some statistics. Most of it is biology or the chemistries, such as biochemistry, maybe even physics. Those account for the largest individual accounts of particular degrees. One third of all the medical students have a liberal arts degree, and that would include all other categories that are basically non-science-based. Could be art, history, geography, you name it, political science is in there, other types of humanities.

Then the numbers really begin to trail off. I have done a research paper that has literally, out of a couple hundred people that filled out one of the studies that I did, I have a paragraph underneath the data section in one of the tables outlining all the different majors. Literally, medical students have every kind of major in your whole course catalog.

I don’t want you to get the idea that you need to change your major based off of anything I’m saying in this. Talk to your career counselor or your pre-med advisor, if you have one. Otherwise, consider these tips that I’m about to go over.

I do still stand by my guns to think that, hey, if you were just trying to get into medical school, you really should pick a degree that you feel like you can excel in. That takes into account the particular university you’re selecting. A lot of times, universities are chosen based on their geography and how close they are to family and friends. That’s why I chose mine. I honestly don’t think I could have hacked it at a big school. I wouldn’t have fit in a major combine that puts out 100 pre-med graduates every year. I don’t know how I would have fared in a larger environment. Consider the fact that you could probably get better grades at an easier school. If that’s the best you can do and you know it, you might strongly consider that.

That said, a small unknown school or university out there, if you got straight-As from there, that’s not necessarily going to carry as much weight as somebody that went to a harder school that has low-As, high-B average. The experience is different. The preparation for medical school is different, specifically in the types of standardized test questions that they use. When you get to medical school, they’re going to use these nationally standardized exams, oftentimes.

If you go to a small outlying school like I did, yes, I got a great GPA that was basically about a 95 average, and I did have a C in there, which is a lot of hard work, right? It was a small, out-of-the-way school where I could excel like that and look good on paper, just being honest with you. That didn’t mean I was ready for the types of questions that they ask in medical school, where someone else I know went to A&M, a big combine hard school to get into. You have to be top ten percent of high school to get an interview. I was not that category at all. I could go more into those details elsewhere, like offline, for example. I didn’t have a great high school reputation.

Now let me get into the more sophistication recommendations, besides the passion and dedication that I would promote. That’s what works for me. Now having masterminded with others and done research, the recommendations have changed. I think the biggest recommendation I would have, if I had it to do all over again, was I would select an undergraduate major that was skill-based, something that taught a trade.

If you look at the American education system and compare it to our peers internationally, we don’t do so hot. Have you ever noticed that? Perhaps you’re coming from a wealthy family that has had top-rated primary education. That’s great. Many people don’t have that. What’s missing, however, even if you go to a great primary school all the way up through high school, is that so many of our graduates from American colleges and universities can’t get a job. Why is that? Because they don’t have a trade, or they haven’t become specified enough and haven’t learned a particular craft that is in demand, that is unique enough.

Let’s say even you get a business degree, a bachelor’s. They’re kind of worthless almost. Even an MBA is now getting to the point where MBAs are often worthless. They’re a dime a dozen, more often. As degrees go more online, sometimes the credibility of those programs can go down. They’re still not a bad option. I’m not against a master’s in business administration. Don’t hear me the wrong way. I’m saying that many people are unemployed that have a bachelor in business, even though it sounds real good.

I would look at certificate programs, different ones that might give you a license or a technology program. Some examples are radiology technician, ultrasound technologist, surgery technician. Think along those lines. Yes, for medical school, you still need to get a bachelor degree. You may investigate your local universities to see if you could get a general science degree in biology or chemistry, or something like that, and maybe even physics, but include along the way a certificate program. It might mean an extra year of undergraduate. It might not. If you are just trying to get out of college as fast as possible, you may lean away from those. Look at your overall statistics.

If you want, I can email you or post online the strength assessment form, where you need to get a good numerical, or at least objective, look at the strength of your medical school applications and say, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not very strong of an applicant. Maybe I should spend the extra year getting the certificate program. That way, if it doesn’t work out in medical school, I have a job.” Because I’ve personally been unemployed both with an MD, when I switched residencies, and with a bachelor degree in biology. Both of them are useless degrees if you don’t have the license, or certificate, or a job, or you don’t get into medical school, and you’re in between and caught out there. I wish I had been a pharmacy technician or a pharmacist, or something else like that.

I will say that you don’t want to announce to the program, or certificate program, that you necessarily want to go to medical school or you’re using it as a stepping stone, because they’re looking to keep people in their field. We’re all in high demand. I wouldn’t go in the first day applying to a program, telling them what your overarching definite major purpose is.

Other degree programs I would consider would be nursing. Don’t overlook it. We need a lot of male nurses as well. You may shoot for a nurse practitioner or physician assistant school so that you can get a master-level education. Those are very much in demand and going up all the time. They are growing as well. Those paraprofessional fields alongside being a physician are definitely going up as demand goes up and availability goes down.

The last I save, because it is my favorite. I went into medical school just like you, just wanting to help people, wanted to be real clear about how I was going to do that. Was somewhat naïve out of necessity, because there wasn’t a podcast. At the time I was applying, the medical schools didn’t even have their course catalogs online. You literally had to call or write them a letter in the mail, snail mail … email was not around, really, or at least it wasn’t used like that very much … and you had to request a physical medical school catalog be mailed to you. Okay? What I’m getting at is I went in naïve with limited access of what healthcare would really be like.

You don’t have that limitation now, although medical school is still very much a black box, and it’s impossible for you to predict or really guess what you’re going to truly love until you get in there. In fact, I can guarantee you that there are whole specialty fields within medicine that you have never heard of before, and that’s including if your dad or mom is a doctor. I promise you, it’s so big that you’re going to learn about fields that you might be interested in that you have not yet had exposure to.

Having said all that, I’m interested and passionate about medicine. I’m glad to be a doctor taking care of patients every day. It’s great. I even love research, because it allows you to help a greater number of people than seeing a patient one-on-one, one at a time, if you can make an impact and change the field. I’m still very optimistic and hopeful about the future of medicine, and love teaching medical students. It’s fun. I got to do it yesterday.

Having said all that, if I was not going to do medicine and, for whatever reason, changed my mind, I really feel like the next biggest professional field of interest would be psychology, doing cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. There are a number of ways to get into that. Of course, you could think of it in the hierarchy of getting a PhD in psychology. That’s a lot more years. There’s a thesis involved and such. I would at least shoot for a master’s level LPC, a licensed professional counselor.

There are other ways. I don’t really recommend going the social worker route, if you have the heart of physician, though I don’t take anything away from social work. They do great work. If you really have the heart of a physician, a dedicated, serious pre-med, I think that you get better psychotherapy training in a psychology program rather than a social work program, because they’re different entities, though within the Veterans Affairs system, you can do psychotherapy … and in other systems … as a social worker, that’s not specifically what they specialize in the most. They use the whole systems, the network, the community resources, and such like that, though they have some psychotherapy skills.

If I had it to do all over again, I would have done exactly what I have already done. If I was an undergraduate pre-med and I was on the fence about whether I wanted to get into medical school, or something came up in the meantime … like a family issue, or wanting to start a family, I wanted to take a break … keep in mind that this is your life and that our education system in America is broken. They’re going to have you pay a whole lot of money, or borrow a whole lot of money, for a degree that does not translate into a job.

You need a job at the end of the day. Yes, we love patients, but you will find that you are going to be hired to see people and work. It is a job at some point. I think that is beginning to crystallize with me at this phase in my career. I enjoy that, and I feel like I’m ready for it. It also helps bring my pre-med advising full circle into that perspective, to say, “Hey, you need to really shop around. If you’re interested in the healthcare professions, that’s fantastic. Pick up a certificate or a technician curriculum and credential along the way while you’re getting your undergraduate education.”

Some people can work part-time in medical school, believe it or not. I knew a pharmacist that went to medical school, that after the first year of medical school, during the summer break, he worked for three months as a pharmacist. He may have been a pharmacy technician, I don’t really remember. It’s been several years now. He made good money for his family while he had the summer off. I think most of us wished we could be doing something that productive. We sat around with a lot of education, a year of medical school under our belt, on a summer break like a college student, with a degree that was useless. We’ve all been there. You’ll be there at one point in the future. You’ll at least understand what I’m saying.

All points being equal, do what you love. If what you love relates in any way to one of these certificate or lower-level degree programs that can be a job for you, if somehow you needed to take a break from the medical education pathway, you will have done you and your loved ones a great favor. With the Pre-Med Podcast, I’m Doctor Dan.”