Baby Got Post-Bacc
April 2, 2009 6:40 PM   Subscribe

I managed to complete my rinky-dink English degree online without quitting my job or tearing out MY hair. But now I need a few semesters of full-time, brick-'n-mortar hard science and I'm not sure how to swing it.

I received "the call". It told me, "Dude, go take your pre-med requirements!" But there are confounding factors. I have a decent full-time job. I also have a fantastic part-time preschooler (I'm divorced with 50/50 custody). I have a great support network (awesome long-term live-in boyfriend, close siblings/parents/friends). I'm pretty sure I could tackle med school without dying or plotzing. Money DURING medical training isn't an issue (there are state/federal/military loan repayment programs and massive-but-worthwhile loans). However, I'm not sure how I should hack going back to school full-time to complete the pre-med stuff. I'm considering several options:

- Live frugally, pour the bulk of my income into my 401(K) or a 529 plan, quit job when designated fund reaches a certain level, live on proceeds during pre-med year.

- Live frugally, pour the bulk of my income into a savings account, so on and so forth.

- Attempt to obtain part-time work at a school with generous student tuition benefits, quit job, work/learn at fabulous new institution (not bloody likely, I know).

- Quit job in lieu of part-time under-the-table work (bartending, etc.), use this and boyfriend's income to finance post-bacc year (also lowers my income on next year's FAFSA).

- Sell my body to science: become a gestational surrogate (a silly whim... but it's $20K+ and pregnancy was super-easy for me).

Were I alone, I could sleep on my parents' couch and take out loans. But with a small person depending on me for 50% of his PB&Js and Garanimals, I need to think this out VERY thoroughly before I proceed.

Well, Mefites? Thoughts? Alternative ideas? Personal stories? Encouragement? Brutal naysaying?
posted by julthumbscrew to Education (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Why try to do it all in one year full-time? It seems likely you could take two courses at a time at night while keeping your current job. (Note: I am not a pre-med, but I teach intro bio to them and know about their plight)

You need 2 semesters of intro biology, 2 semesters of inorganic chem, 2 semesters of organic chem, maybe some physics, stats, calculus if you never had any of that as part of general distribution for your BA.

Do bio and inorganic chem Fall and Spring year 1. Schmooze up your professors as much as possible--go early, stay late, make sure they learn your face and name, because they will write your recommendations.

That summer, take a mathy thing or two.

Do organic chem Fall and Spring of year 2. Doing it without another course is a really good idea.

Along the way, besides the prof schmoozing, find a grad student who might like to have some extra help in the lab on the weekends. Find a doctor to shadow. Do some volunteer work at a hospital. Make sure you really want to do this, and make sure your application will reflect you really want to do it.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:08 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know, when I first figured out that I wanted to give up law and become some sort of a biomedical scientist, I thought I'd have to do a year or so of full-time, post-bac brick-and-motor training too. I am now poised on the brink of doing grad school applications, and I haven't yet had to leave my day job.

A lot of the freshman and sophomore-level science classes can be done at night through your local community or commuter college. You can knock out majors' biology, majors' chem, o-chem, anatomy, majors' physics, and maybe even microbio that way. (Of course, you have to get A's. Getting a lot of B's or, god help you, C's from a community college can be the kiss of death for post-grad study, I am told.) There are tons of hopeful, 30-something and late twenty-something premeds in my night science classes. By and large, they are smart, motivated, and awesome. Math classes can be done online through 2nd quarter calc. Sometimes, you can even find credible biostatistics classes online.

It does help to supplement the community college science work with some upper-division work from a good research school, of course-- you want to show that you can get As even when the competition is stiff. In a typical quarter, I take one or two community college night classes, one day class at the local research university, and do a small amount of volunteer research assistant stuff with one of my old professors. This is a stiff load, but I still manage to work 80% FTE at a place with more-or-less normal business hours. It can be done.

Another thing to consider-- many schools have special masters degree programs designed for people who want to transition into medicine from a non-life science background. As a matriculated student, there will be options for student aid that won't be available to you if you're nonmatriculated or getting a 2nd bachelors. Here is a list of some of them.

Good luck with this!

(On preview, second hydropsyche about the physician-shadowing. That's a prerequisite for admission at a lot of med schools.)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 7:17 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh-- and one other thing. Given that a lot of the things you have to take are prerequisites for other stuff that you have to take, it probably wouldn't be realistic to try and knock out everything in a single year, even given unlimited resources.

Majors' bio requires some sort of chemistry as a prerequisite, generally. O-chem requires a year of college general chem. Physiology and genetics require bio. Biochem requires o-chem and calculus, and while biochem's not necessarily a prerequisite for med school, it's highly recommended and it will help you to do well your first year.

So: Grin, suck it up, and realize that this is going to take a while. The good news is that the stuff you're about to study is completely awesome. As you travel this path, you will occasionally find yourself washing underwear at 3:00 in the morning, cursing life, and having heart palpitations about whether you forgot about 1,2-hydride shift on your last exam. However, there will also be times when you will be near-paralyzed with the deliciousness of the life sciences, and you will feel terribly, terribly bad for all the poor sods out there who don't know how hox genes and mitotic spindles work.

Again, very best of luck.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 7:33 PM on April 2, 2009

Best answer: Speaking from experience here: I did one year of the post-baccalaureate, pre-medical program at Columbia before I realized I hated it (and that blood and I are Not Okay), so I know a bit about how this sort of thing works. The program I attended at Columbia was intended to be full-time, but that was because you took the same courses as regular undergrads. People who do that program are aiming at the top medical schools in the country, not just wherever they can get in, and they routinely make it. If you don't particularly care about getting in at Yale, you can easily make up your own course of study and do it wherever you like, at whatever pace you like. Just don't come crying to me when no school in the top fifty gives you a second look.

Totally look for night classes at local campuses. Doesn't have to be community college either; a lot of state schools have continuing ed campuses scattered across their respective states that cater to people like you. You'd also get to put State U on your transcript rather than BFE Community College. This actually makes quite a bit of difference. My dad has been on the admissions committee at an unranked medical school, and they routinely get north of 1000 applications for 150 spots. Every little bit helps. Your non-traditional background will make you interesting, but that won't help you unless you're also competitive.

But let's get one thing straight: this is probably going to take three years, not one. hydropsyche is basically right about the requirements you need to take, but I should emphasize that you need a year inorganic chemistry before you can take organic chemistry. As organic is the prerequisite for taking the MCAT, this is pretty much non-negotiable unless you've already had inorganic.

Here's the schedule of the program I started, assuming you haven't had any of these already:

Semester 1: Calculus, Chem 1, Chem lab
Semester 2: Physics 1, Physics lab, Chem 2
Summer 1: Physics 2
Semester 3: O-chem 1, O-chem lab, Biology 1
Semester 4: O-chem 2, Biology 2, Biology lab
Summer 2: Statistics (optional)

Ah, but wait, I said three years, right? That's because there's a lag year during which you take the MCAT and apply to medical school. You take the MCAT in the spring/early summer after your finish organic, and apply to medical school that fall for admission in the following year. Ergo, this just takes three years, and that's that.

The upshot is that this is really only seven or eight credits a semester. You can do that at night and work a full-time job. Childcare might be an issue, but hey, people do this.

Something to think about before you take the plunge though: this is going to take a long time. You're looking at three years before you can start medical school, which itself is four years, and then two or three years of residency. This means that if you started this fall you'd get your first "real" job no earlier than 2018-19. I don't know how old you are now, but if you're thirty-five, this means you're basically starting your career at forty-five. Depending on where you go to med school, this could easily involve $150-200k of debt. Doctors make a lot compared to the national average, but many of them start in the $90-120k range, and at that level of income you'll be paying off debt for at least ten years, so 2028-29 (or age fifty-five if you're thirty-five now). If you want to start at more than that you'll need a specialty, which is another two to three years, unless you want to be a surgeon, which can take as many as ten years in residency. Meaning you'd start around 2025.

Is that really something you're willing to deal with? Because it's something that medical schools look at. It's increasingly hard to get in to medical school if you're much past your early to mid-thirties. Remember those grueling resident hours that get talked about in the media so much? Twenty-four hour shifts were commonplace last time I checked, and you'll do two of them in a 60 hour period. How easy do you think that's going to be when you're forty? It's hard enough on the twenty-somethings who go straight through. Age is something admissions committees consider when they make decisions about who is most likely to finish the program.

Just some things to think about. Unlike law or the humanities, where there really isn't a guarantee of a job afterwards, the problem with medicine is that it just takes so damn long and requires so damn much of you both personally and financially that finishing it out is incredibly tough. Finishing law school is a piece of piss if you're decently smart. Finishing medical school is not.
posted by valkyryn at 8:11 PM on April 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with valkyryn mostly. I'd stress that calc and gen chem can probably be done anywhere any time, and that since they are prerequisites for two two-semester sequences you should try to start them ASAP.

Organic chemistry will be the proof of the pudding for your application. It is the most med-school like class, and it has considerably more uniform standards (it functions as a weeder many places -- it's much easier to let undergrads get a C- in O-chem than to try and convince them they aren't cut out for it). Admissions people routinely zoom to the grades in O-chem.

Places I've seen don't require gen chem for intro biology, but I could see if it had been many years since you thought about a molecule why you might want to do that. Also, labs are commonly two semesters. Because of your very real time trade-offs I wouldn't worry about stats, and only about biochem if it works out well. Not doing biochem narrows your application field a bit, but I would check and see if places that require it (like Michigan) might be happy with you taking it in the year you apply.

The big question is going to be why you're doing this, and making sure that you know what you're getting into. Not just that it's hard, but what it will be like day-to-day and why you want that. There was a 41 year old in my first year class, so it's not impossible. There are service-type fellowships available, but the living-money from those isn't great; consider that with your 50% of PB&J. The military stipends are a bit better IIRC, but then you're in the military. They might also have age restrictions.

Doing one class + lab at a time:
Summer semester: calc 1
Fall 2009: gen chem 1, lab
Spring 2010: gen chem 2, lab
Sumer 2010: physics 1, lab
Fall 2010: O-chem 1, lab
Spring 2011: O-chem 2, lab
Summer 2011: physics 2, lab
Fall 2011: bio 1, lab
Spring 2012: bio 2, lab -- take MCAT

That puts the MCAT further from O-chem (I have no thoughts on the MCAT; I'm a freak), but lets you take O-chem earlier, which will let you know sooner if it's not going to work out. My understanding is that MCAT is less important for older applicants (they know you haven't been taking multiple choice tests lately), but that you need to show competence in your classes and obtain some recommendation letters showing that you're committed, smart, and capable. Starting school in the summer/fall of 2013 is pretty far out. You can definitely compress that a year by doubling up (for example, taking bio with gen chem and biolab with physics), but that would be pretty hard for a part-timer schedule-wise. Doing labs as a part-timer is hard; they take a lot of time and aren't super flexible since they have to do a bunch of setup-breakdown for them. My state school shows o-chem lab as being 2PM-6PM, but you can pick the day of the week. Your physical presence in large lectures is pretty optional OTOH.

Obtaining $ for a single compressed year (+ application year!) looks a bit more attractive, but only saves you 2 years and might cost you quite a bit both in tuition and lost wages. My state school (which is an expensive flagship - total cost of attendance for an undergrad in-state is $20k/year) shows the cost for doing the continuing-ed version as about $11k and their post-bac pre-med as $20k. If you could do a chunk of those hours (gen chem, calc, maybe physics) at a less expensive community college you'd save even more. Add in the lost wages from being able to work at least part time, and you're in a better position to be able to support your kid in the drawn out version. Adds more gray hairs though.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:18 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two of my closest friends in the world went back and did pre-med and med school after getting degrees in history and classics, respectively. Neither of them did a one-year intensive program, and they both got into good med schools.

Unless you really want to do an intensive program, I don't see a lot of advantages for it in your case.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:48 AM on April 3, 2009

I should have mentioned that I did take organic as a post-bacc/pre-grad student at a large land-grant college. My orgo lectures were 8-9 am (easy to go to work after) and labs were 7-10 pm. I took stats at night one semester and invertebrate zoology the other. It was very workable with a (completely mindless, fairly flexible) full-time job. (I also skipped over the prerequisites for all these classes--my grad school didn't care, but I understand med schools would).
posted by hydropsyche at 12:56 PM on April 3, 2009

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