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Graduate Matters

Does having a graduate degree help if you want to attend medical school?

Three medical practitioners share their experiences.


Editor’s Note: Three former academics who are now pursuing careers in the field of medicine discuss what aspects of their graduate school experience helped them during their time at medical school. Their thoughts are being shared in a Q&A format for easier readability.

What motivated you to apply to graduate school?

Sébastien: As I was finishing my bachelor’s degree, I had applied to medical schools across Quebec and Ontario. At the time I had barely considered graduate studies as I didn’t think a career in research was for me. However, owing to my close relationships with faculty in the department of biology, I began to be intrigued by basic research as I could see how passionate my professors were about their work. Up until that point, I had only done clinical research, which I enjoyed and imagined I preferred to basic research. However, I didn’t know whether I actually disliked basic research as I hadn’t even tried it. I approached my clinical supervisor at the time, Dr. Anne-Louise Lafontaine, about the possibility of complementing my clinical research experience with more traditional bench work, at which point she referred me to Dr. Philippe Huot, my eventual graduate supervisor. Following unsuccessful interviews at two medical schools, I determined that wholeheartedly embracing the scientific ethos of discovery – both personally and professionally – would be a worthwhile endeavour.

Susan: Since my undergraduate studies, I have always enjoyed research. With the desire to pursue graduate studies, so I applied in the final year of my undergraduate degree.

George: I developed long-standing interest in science and medicine. My parents had engineering backgrounds, so as a child, I was interested in machines. Once I had exposure to human biology and physiology, I was so fascinated by the human body – possibly the best machine that exists – that I was driven to do research in science and medicine.

In what ways did your experience in grad school prepare you for the application and interview process of medical school?

Sébastien: I was lucky that Dr. Huot is a physician himself. On top of the rigor, perseverance, intellectual honesty and work ethic one would expect of both a medical doctor and a scientist, he exemplified the soft skills I lacked in my previous application cycles. I recall a meeting we had in anticipation of an upcoming interview where he reiterated to me the importance of active listening, which may sound like a given, but nonetheless requires active practice. He taught me to remain open, both mentally and in terms of body language, and reminded me to not apply my heuristics to others. I also learned to refrain from judging others’ experiences from the outset, but rather to embrace their stories fully, and only then apply the lens of my accumulated knowledge. These lessons in humility were reinforced throughout my graduate degree by repeatedly unsuccessful experiments, despite what seemed like reasonable experimental protocols at the time. Failure of this sort was rather novel to me, as during undergraduate studies I found the path to success much less abstract; if I studied hard, put in the work, success was almost assured.

Susan: I never thought of graduate studies as a preparatory step for applying for medical school, but in hindsight, there were two ways that I became prepared for my medical school applications. First, the exposure to clinical challenges supported my fascination of neuroscience and neuro-regeneration. I was very lucky that my graduate project was closely correlated to a clinical condition, furthering my exposure to the field of medicine, its successes and challenges.

The medical school application and interview process is designed to ask the applicant about real-life examples and about the applicant’s understanding of, exposures to and goals for a career in medicine. Because of my graduate studies, I had many real-life experiences that I could easily discuss in my application.

Secondly, through graduate studies, I found that my collaborative skills were strengthened over time. There, I learned the necessary skills to engage team-members, such as technicians and senior trainees, so I can learn from their knowledge and experiences. There is a strong emphasis of the Canadian Royal College of Physicians and Surgeon on the CanMEDS framework, and this is reflected in the medical school application process. Being a collaborator is one of the seven CanMEDS roles.

George: I don’t think the graduate degree per se prepared me for the application or interview process. Generally, the medical school admission committees are looking for people who can do well in things they do. If you have a graduate degree, they will look at how productive you are as a researcher or scholar, e.g., the number of presentations or publications. There are other qualities that are important to all applicants: communication, management, advocacy, collaboration skills. Don’t forget the most important things to bring forth in the interview, be professional and be truly passionate to help people.

How did your graduate school experience prepare you for the medical degree?

Sébastien: During my undergraduate degree, I had become accustomed to a rather hectic, erratic schedule. While this afforded me freedom to do as I pleased, it also resulted in a schedule that did not always meld well with others. In graduate studies, I had to adhere to a more conventional full-time schedule, with “overtime” as experimental needs dictated. While this transition resulted in some growing pains, it was arguably conducive to accomplishing tasks I would rather not tend to. More importantly, I think that re-learning to adhere to a regular schedule – something I had not had since high school – forced me to plan ahead. I had to pre-determine when I would work on what, as well as compile and re-evaluate my priorities daily to meet deadlines rather than proceed in the ad hoc fashion that I had previously. An accompanying lesson in this process was learning to work for others rather than just for myself – something inherent to any health profession. I no longer had the luxury of only having to attend to things I thought were important, but instead had to report to superiors and make sure that I could accommodate to their schedule as well. I believe that the time management skills as well as professional accountability I have gained through graduate studies will be instrumental in successfully completing my medical degree.

Susan: There are two ways that, in hindsight, graduate school prepared me for my medical school and residency training. First of all, currently, there is a huge emphasis on practicing “evidence-based medicine”, which means applying research evidence into everyday medical decisions. Graduate work also has a huge emphasis on reading large number of research articles and critically appraising these research studies into one’s own research project. Thus, this is a direct translation of my learning from graduate studies into medical training.

Secondly, through graduate studies, my level of independence has matured significantly. Although I had supervisor and colleagues to help me, the studying, design and implementation of experiments were mainly an independent process. I often considered myself a team-leader of a one-person team. At the same time, I learnt to recognize my limitations such that I can engage my supervisor and colleagues appropriately. Training in medical school and residency often required this balance between independence and knowing one’s limitations, so I found my transition into medical training less daunting.

George: Through graduate school, I developed more confidence. Through six years of graduate training, I learned to be independent (e.g., work on projects from start to finish completely on my own), to communicate well with my colleagues as well as with people outside of the science field (e.g., through collaboration, teaching and giving presentations, writing articles), to be able to think critically and look at things from different perspectives. These are all important qualities to practice medicine and also what the medical school admission committees look for.

Any advice for students thinking of doing a graduate degree prior to a medical degree?

Sébastien: Beyond merely padding an application to medical school on paper, I truly think that graduate studies can be a valuable experience for pre-meds. More so than an undergraduate degree, graduate training (if done right) ought to reinforce the analytical and academic proficiency required of the modern medical practitioner. Similarly, in my personal experience, graduate studies helped me escape the, at times, toxic world of pre-med undergraduates. In doing so, I was able to explore alternatives to what I had previously considered the only viable career for me. While graduate studies reaffirmed my assumption that a career in pure research is not for me, it opened my eyes to the plausibility and excitement of pursuing research as a complement to clinical activities. Moreover, through repeated failed experiments I learned humility, a trait that ought to be central to physicians. Physicians are expected to be experts on the human body and disease, but at the same time it is important that they be frank, at the very least with themselves, as to the limits of their knowledge and capabilities. Afterall, peoples’ lives are on the line.

Susan: My only advice is to pursue a topic that truly interests you even if you do not apply for medical school. While pursuing the graduate degree, please do not rush the process simply to complete it in time for medical school applications. There is so much to be learned through graduate school, which builds one as a person rather than just an item on one’s curriculum vitae; if you rush the process and do not gain the lessons, it can easily become evident to your colleagues and in your application process.

One question that medical school applications often ask is “Talk about the time you have failed.” In graduate studies, experimentation often fails, sometimes failing countless times; hence having to talk about how one learns from failures becomes easy after pursuing graduate studies.

George: The most important thing is to find a nice supervisor. My graduate supervisor was very supportive. He spent hours with me on my grant proposal or manuscripts, going through word by word. This is especially helpful during my early years in graduate school.

Next, find a field that you are interested in. It is okay if you change research areas, but make sure you like the topic that you will be spending at least a couple of years on. If you are absolutely certain that you don’t like research or bench work, then don’t pursue graduate school, you will regret it.

Finally, make a commitment and show perseverance. Research experiments may not work regardless of how hard you try. It’s okay because experiments are trials, they are not guaranteed to work. What is important is that you keep trying, even if all you have are negative data or publish your work in low impact journals; these do not disadvantage your medical school application.

Other comments to add about your graduate school experience as it relates to medical school preparation or medical school training?

Sébastien: Enjoy the ride!

Susan: Never forget to go outside of academia and experience life, and I’m not talking about going to conferences that are outside of your city! During my graduate school days, I participated in volunteer activities, travelled, developed hobbies, and dabbled in part-time work in the entertainment and event planning industries. I happily talked about these experiences during my medical school interview and even today, with patients and colleagues. Your wealth of life experiences will build you as a person and shine through in future endeavours.

George: Stay healthy: eat well, sleep well, take vacations, remain active and enjoy life. Also, find time to volunteer, especially if you can work with underserved people/community. Your physical and mental health serve you a long way both inside and outside of your career, no matter what you choose to do.

Sébastien Belliveau finished a master’s degree at McGill University and started medical school at McGill University in fall 2019; Susan Fan completed a master’s degree at the University of Toronto and is currently a resident in family medicine in Ottawa; George Liu earned his PhD at the U of T and, is currently a resident in psychiatry in Toronto.
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