Looking for advice for a 27-year-old that wants to go to med school
January 3, 2014 4:56 PM   Subscribe

I currently work in software engineering (my background is in finance and computer science) and am thinking seriously about giving med school a stab. I'm less interested in getting into the reasons (though if you have comments on that I'm open to it), and more interested in advice and resources on making the transition. I feel terribly old to do this, but there's no time like the present, right?!

It seems to me like I need to take: 2 sem bio+lab, 2 sem physics+lab, 2 sem chem+lab, 2 sem orgo chem+lab. I have 1 sem of bio+lab from college and I played out of physics a semester of physics, which it seems most med schools will accept, leaving me with 6 classes (with lab) that I need. I'm a minority (hispanic), I went to an ivy league undergrad with a high GPA (3.7) in 2 degrees (finance, computer science), and work for a name brand tech company. Right now I've enrolled at a local extension school for chem 1+lab (to make sure that I want to do this, etc), but I'd love resources on not making any obvious mistakes as I get my pre-reqs and put together my application. My current thinking is to save up money for a year or two, take a class a semester (so hopefully in that time I can knock out chem 1 and 2, and perhaps bio 2), then drop my job (or go part time), take orgo and physics and study for the MCAT. Does this seem smart? I'm a California resident, and it seems like California has lots of great medical schools.

I'm also interested in methods for paying for medical school (short of massive student loans!). I know that the military is an option, but I would like to avoid that. Are there other ways to mitigate the cost?

What do I need to know?

And am I too old to do this? It's daunting to think of not starting medical school until I'm 29/30, but I know that I will go crazy eventually if I stay a software developer and well...life is short, right? Gotta go for that gold ring.
posted by anonymous to Education (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It will be a good idea for you to get volunteer experience in medical care (a community clinic, or similar) both to help you be sure you're actually interested in patient care and because your med school interview will lean a lot on why you want to be a doctor. Just remember that taking chem is a means to an end, not the end.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 5:04 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

As many an AskMe answer has responded in the past: you'll be 29/30 regardless. Do you want to be on track toward your goal or adrift somewhere else?
posted by the jam at 5:11 PM on January 3, 2014

I don't think that your age will be an issue. It's not unusual to enter medical school in your late 20's-early 30's. The following may be out of date, but if you take your science prerequisite classes one or two at a time, you might be disadvantaging yourself. Med schools want to see your performance with a heavy load of difficult classes. It's not that hard to get great grades if you only have one class, even if you're still working. That's at least how many schools used to look at it.

You can mitigate costs by enrolling in a program where you promise post-residency years of practice in a medically undeserved area in exchange for loan forgiveness. You won't have a lot of choice regarding where you end up for those years, but you'll get paid in addition to getting loans forgiven. Being a primary care practitioner will make you more attractive to those programs.

Medical school admissions are very competitive. Get used to the idea that you'll likely have to apply to schools outside of California. In fact, some people move to states with low populations (like Montana or Idaho) in order to have a better chance at getting admitted with fewer competing state resident co-applicants.
posted by quince at 5:26 PM on January 3, 2014

You're not too old, at all.

The National Health Services Corps has scholarships and loan repayment plans, in exchange for serving 2-4 years in clinics in low-service areas.

Touch base with your alumni association and career services office at your alma mater for additional advice and resources (there may well be a number of MD alums in your area who would be happy to at least chat). This is a big part of what they're for.
posted by rtha at 5:33 PM on January 3, 2014

You need to know that changes are ahead: med school admissions will soon be requiring a year of biochemistry, and the mcat will focus more on psych and sociology.
posted by Dashy at 5:36 PM on January 3, 2014

Lots of med school students are older. 29/30 isn't even considered "old."

One thing I would do is talk to the pre-med advisor of whatever school you take your classes at, because the advisor will tell you all the things that pre-med school students "know" but aren't explicitly documented (eg, that many med school admissions are rolling and by the "application deadline", most of the seats are already filled). It might be helpful to enroll in an MCAT class and do other "pre-med" things simply so you can surround yourself with other people also going to med school so that you keep yourself on track. Talk to your college classmates who went to med school as well for advice.
posted by deanc at 6:06 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Re: age - There were people in my med school class who were 38 and 41. You won't even be close to the oldest person in your class, I'm betting.

Keep in mind regarding National Health Service Corps that the funding was cut for it during the Bush administration, making it HIGHLY competitive, unfortunately. I know some very deserving people who applied for it who didn't make it in. Like, it is hard to imagine who would make it in if these people didn't make it. In my opinion, the best way to mitigate costs for med school are 1. go to a state school so your tuition is as low as possible, and 2. apply for any and all scholarships you qualify for. I did not get in to my state school but I should have just waited another year to reapply. I did manage to make enough per year in scholarships that I didn't have to take private loans, so that helped a lot. Just had to write a lot of essays.

deanc makes a good point about talking to the pre-med advisor. If you don't have easy access to the pre-med advisor then go to www.studentdoctor.net and all the information you need is on the forums there. At least when I applied, you had to get your AMCAS application submitted as soon as possible after the application opened. Like, many people would submit on the very first day it opened, June 1st. This is in contrast to other types of schools where as long as you submit your app by the deadline in the fall, you'll get equal consideration.

I strongly second c'mon sea legs' exhortation to shadow a medical professional for as much time as you can. I am biased, but I suggest that at least part of your shadowing time be spent in an emergency department if possible, or at least in a hospital rather than just an outpatient setting. The majority of med school and residency will be hospital/inpatient time, so I really think it's a good idea to have exposure to what that is like. There are significant downsides, but if you find them tolerable, this can be an incredibly rewarding job. Feel free to PM me for more info. I work in academic medicine.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:17 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

By the way, I think your background as a software developer will make you an awesome candidate for medical school.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:19 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Critical - check the California state university/college course transfer guide to make sure that the universities you are considering applying to will accept the courses you are taking. If you apply to University B with a University A biochemistry course but they do not have a formal transfer agreement in place, they will not consider you to have met the requirements. Submitting a formal request for credit is possible, but is something you really want to avoid by planning ahead (they cost money, are a pain for the institution, and are often rejected - if they want to accept the course it will be in the transfer agreement).

Read the MD admissions guide at every university you are thinking of applying to very carefully, then come up with a concise set of questions and email the Undergraduate Medical Education admissions office at every university that you are even considering applying to. Keep your questions to two or three - you can always contact for more details.

Use a salutation that includes the name and title (Dr, Ms, Mr) of the admissions officer. They get a lot of emails, but answer every one. Make a spreadsheet for all the answers. If they say they can't help you with any of the info (i.e. military service options), ask if they have a suggested contact for you.
posted by variella at 6:22 PM on January 3, 2014

It's not too late to start med school at all. There are some people who are almost 40 and are just starting in my med school class. The average age of med school matriculants has generally been rising, and in fact, applicants who have had "real-life" experience can be looked upon quite favorably. If you have a good reason for making the switch and can demonstrate commitment and spin your previous experience positively in interviews, you can definitely get in and do very well.

Beyond taking the necessary prerequisites, you can demonstrate interest by getting long-term, consistent clinical exposure, be it via volunteering at a clinic, being a medical scribe, shadowing... and so on. The "long-term" aspect is pretty important-- many medical schools that I interviewed at had a sort of point system in which the quality and duration of the involvement was taken into account. That is, quantity of activities was not enough-- they wanted to see that the applicant had long-standing commitment.

Med schools, particularly research-heavy schools (which many CA schools are), like to see that the applicant has done research in some sort of capacity. It doesn't matter what type of research-- it can be in anything. If you do have research experience under your belt by the time you apply, you will invariably be asked about it in all your interviews. Not doing research won't necessarily count against you at some schools, but at the top 30-ish schools it is almost an unwritten requirement.

The culture of medical school is quite different from that of a software developing company. My SO is in computer science and I can't imagine him or any of his friends ever, ever wanting to memorize things in the way that med school demands. My impression is that people in medical school are more type-A / super conscientious compared to those in fields like physics, math, and computer science. You might find the transition tough-- everyone finds the transition challenging, but I got the impression that students who had studied physical science and engineering found the memorization harder. (Keep in mind though, I'm only a first-year... so maybe this is just me projecting as a disgruntled physical science major, ha.)

What the posters mentioned above with respect to minimizing student loan debt is correct -- you can serve for a number of years in an underserved area (typically in primary care) and have your loans reduced or forgiven.

There are also some medical schools (usually top schools) that are pretty generous with financial aid or merit aid. Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, for example, is tuition-free. Mayo is also very generous. WashU and UChicago have some good scholarship packages for a substantial proportion of their incoming classes each year. Granted, these schools are hard to get into and landing a scholarship can be somewhat of a crapshoot, but wanted to point out that this is one way to graduate with no or relatively little debt.

Most people don't work jobs in med school as it is fairly demanding, but I do have some classmates who tutor or work for Kaplan test prep and that helps cover their living expenses.

The MSAR is a good resource if you want to look at statistics like requirements, GPA, MCAT, average student indebtedness at graduation, number of applicants interviewed / admitted, and so on for specific schools. As dashy mentioned above, many schools are now outright requiring biochemistry as a prerequisite, and others "strongly encourage" it. A small number require two semesters of mathematics (which I guess you would already have anyway).

One more resource: the non-traditional student forum on the student doctor network could be a good place to start because you can read about the paths of students who didn't go "straight" into medical school.

Good luck!
posted by gemutlichkeit at 6:41 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

That volunteering thing is serious, they really expect it of you. My sister, who had a master's in biology and many years of experience as a researcher at a major university was told she needed it, so she volunteered at local hospital for 6 months. She graduated from Duke Med School at age 45.
posted by mareli at 7:57 PM on January 3, 2014

It is definitely not too late but you need a gameplan. Med school admissions are crazy competitive and there can be a stark difference between what they officially say is okay and the reality. California does have great schools, but I wouldn't bet on getting in - you need to cast a broad net.

What you really need is experience. Medical schools want to see applicants with a lot and varied experiences. Don't just shadow one doctor for a day.

Very few people get through med school without massive loans. There are forgiveness programs as someone mentioned - but only you can determine if that lifestyle is one for you.

One thing to keep in mind is there are so many candidates with stellar gpa's that it's impossible to have that be the thing that differentiates you. They will take note of your science gpa - the gpa of those pre-reqs. That is an extremely important number. But don't lose sight that you need to present yourself as someone who brings more worth than good grades. All of that experience really does matter.
posted by Aranquis at 7:58 PM on January 3, 2014

Yeah, age in and of itself is not an issue. My wife graduated med school at 31; she was definitely on the older end, but there were older students than her.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:16 PM on January 3, 2014

I just wanted to say that my
cousin did just this - engineering to med school at 30. He's now in his 2nd year I think. Age-wise you'll be fine.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:23 PM on January 3, 2014

Another tip: since as mentioned above, California schools are extremely competitive, you should look into other states' schools where you could become a state resident while attending medical school there. Some states require you to have a non-academic purpose for living there for more than a year before you can be considered in-state for tuition. I know that at least when I was interviewing, I noticed that Connecticut was a state in which you could become in-state after a year of paying out-of-state. It's a huge selling point as this would save you tens of thousands of dollars in loans, which by extension saves you thousands of dollars in interest.

And to clarify after reading the follow up answers, yes, I meant that you need an extended period of volunteering/working/shadowing in a healthcare setting, not a brief or one time thing. 3-6 months of doing something weekly would be very useful. The research thing is also a good point and will definitely be something the admissions folks will be looking for. Find research that plays to your strengths - you don't have to do bench science. There is research on usage of medical software that could really be up your alley. You can do both these things (the volunteer/work/shadowing in a medical setting and the research) while you are taking your time off to study for the MCAT. If you want to earn some money while doing it, you could look for a job as an EMT/tech in an emergency department.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:15 PM on January 3, 2014

I can't give you practical advice as we aren't in contact but someone I went to school did exactly that (same age and everything, plus had 2 kids!!), and just graduated, so it is possible!
posted by lifethatihavenotlivedyet at 2:42 AM on January 4, 2014

Lots of good advice and perspectives among the answers. Your question doesn't go into what specifically is driving your interest to go to med school, though a few have talked about the volunteering/experience before applying aspect as very helpful for clarifying where one might fit best in the complex landscape of health care jobs and whether it makes sense to go for the MD.

Along those lines, I'd also suggest that your current background in CS and finance actually offers a really strong skill set that can be very impactful in health settings--so if your drive is coming from interest in improving human health and making the world a better place, you can do that without becoming an MD. Health informatics, the changing emphasis for institutions to showing "meaningful use" of electronic medical records by tracking outcomes, lots more. There are at least a few academic programs along these lines too if you dig a bit.

Obviously if your question is deriving from the urge to do clinical work and hands on healing, it's a different story--but if you find that the prerequisites or the volunteer exposure or the cost just don't make things line up for you, there are less obvious alternatives that might also appeal. Good luck!
posted by Sublimity at 6:43 AM on January 4, 2014

If you are (presumably) making a living right now, I would sit down now and figure out how you will pay your living expenses during prerequisites. I just did what you are suggesting (successfully) and will start in the fall. But the whole thing is structured not so much for young people as for those who do not have to work to pay bills. For example, those who can take any cv-boosting activity at any hour without considering lost income.

Even if you have savings or family/spouse, do not take the money question lightly. Plan it out.

Financial worries were much worse than the academic stress for me.
posted by skbw at 2:30 PM on January 4, 2014

Also regarding age specifically...I'll go against the prevailing mood a little. I left my regular job at 29 and experienced a small detour before starting prerequisites at 31. So I was a little older than you. I do agree that you absolutely have plenty of time to do it...but I will also say, frankly, that during this year especially, 35/36, I started to feel a little old as I sat in interviews and went on tours. Some invisible wheel had clicked, not the biological clock, but say one of those lamp timers that you plug into the wall. At 30, I felt no different than my friends aged 22. The same cannot be said now.

(Yes, I know that there are plenty of people older than me in med school. I am speaking of my subjective experience.)

So. You do have time. But don't schlep it out too many years. If I had not made my detour, I would have been able to borrow money, do a full-time postbac in a formal program, and do everything a lot more smoothly. I wish I had done that. Don't schlep it out a course at a time unless you really have no choice. I did it, but it really wasn't pretty.

Feel free to memail me! Do it soon before I retire this username pre-career switch. ;-)

OldPreMeds is an adjunct/alternative to SDN's nontrad forum.
posted by skbw at 8:00 PM on January 4, 2014

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