After interviewing at a dozen schools, I was looking for some experiences that wouldn’t blend together with every other interview day. The last interview of my medical school applications didn’t disappoint.
The initial questions were very matter of fact. Where did I attend high school? How big was my class? What was my rank? Where did I apply to college? Where did I get in? My interviewer probably does not believe in this arbitrary distinction between college and high school years. I liked this. Why are applicants discouraged from putting high school accomplishments in AMCAS? Why did my Mayo interview tell me that my hospital volunteer hours accumulated during high school don’t really “count”? If it’s a matter of timeliness, then why can non-traditional applicants lay claim to early college accomplishments? It’s silly.
He then asked whether I found college easy. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for. Truthfully, college wasn’t incredibly easy, but in some ways I found it less stressful than high school. I get more sleep. Not everyone around me is interested in science and engineering and gunning for the next step in academics.
I think he was trying to figure out if I was a genius or a hard worker. He started talking generally about geniuses he knew, and I assured him I was not one. He talked about hard-working people who did well in their respective schools and end up in the bottom half of Hopkins. After all, half of students are in the bottom half. I thought, that’s sounds too familiar. That’s what everyone said about my college. And a little about my high school. I tried to deflect the line of questioning.
He asked me to characterize my friends. I saw that he, as a seasoned interviewer and someone trained in the humanities, likes to read into a person in a circumscribed way. He didn’t ask me how my friends would describe me. That cliche interview question I never got. Rather, he probably believes that the people with whom you associate says something about you, whether it’s homophily or something else.
I told him about my suitemates, who are mostly but not all premeds. I mentioned their shared interest in breaking and street dance, a very fleeting interest I briefly shared with them. I mentioned their diverse disciplinary interests, from biology to economics to anthropology. Without much intending to, I name-dropped my roommate’s big-name anthro thesis adviser, someone who I’ve never met, but someone who my interviewer, as a historian, knew professionally.
He asked me what I’d like to be doing in 15 years in terms of professional style, not specialty necessarily. I replied, firmly, academic medicine. He asked why. I named several reasons. The first is the intellectual stimulation. The second is the chance to advance human knowledge. The third is mentoring others, a job perhaps as important as one’s scientific accomplishments.
And the fourth reason I was unafraid to mention because I thought I might take this opportunity to say something bold but something I believed in. There’s a very low chance that I’ll end up going to Hopkins on account of T not getting an interview, and on the account that they wouldn’t have financial aid for her anyways. I originally signed up for the interview on the off-chance that she would get an interview, because I (errorneously) thought that AirTran had given me a free round-trip voucher, and because I wanted to have a weekend getaway anniversary celebration with T in Baltimore, exploring the inner harbor, hipster art museums, and quaint restaurants. All of that didn’t happen. I justified flying to Baltimore because I was getting tired of working in lab and wanted to escape for a day. I like traveling.
The fourth reason I want to enter academia is that I desire recognition. I want to do something for which people whom I respect will recognize me.
The following is an elaboration I didn’t actually say.
I want to do something that has the potential for permanence, trans-generational recognition.
I recall that in high school, I read a philosophy slam essay written by a student whose fame on the school Lincoln-Douglas debate team (made a handicapped girl cry in a debate about disability rights?) preceded my own participation by four years, someone who would graduate summa from the Huntsman program at Penn and become a Rhodes scholar, someone who was the subject of a hilariously epic studentdoctor.net forum post last year. Joyce Meng wrote,
the meaning of life is the struggle of an individual to overcome anxiety of mere existence and death to find the will to live. The will to live is manifested in the quest for permanence and self-worth, the antidote for death. Although perhaps no one can reach absolute permanence and self-worth, the attempt always brings the individual closer, motivating him to find self-fulfillment and enjoy the pleasures of life.
Her essay resonated with me because I don’t believe in an after-life or reincarnation. I am a humanist. But people have a natural inclination to want to believe in something eternal. We are optimistic and think there could be something better than where we are now or who we are now. My outlet for those inclinations are a drive to do something that earns respect and recognition. I know, realistically, that most scientific accomplishments (and the investigators who do it) get forgotten. That doesn’t change the most primal of desires, however.
My interviewer liked the answer. Not many people my age, he noted, realize the underlying human drive for recognition. Such sentiments are apparently common in academia, though some may be reluctant to admit it. At least in my previous exposures to academic medicine, self-promoters abound.
He asked me whether doctors get recognition from their patients. Yes, but of a different kind.
He asked whether there are any downsides to medicine. I said something along the lines of how medicine can be life-consuming, how other parts of your life can get left behind. To be good requires commitment. So many doctors have relationship troubles. He asked, does being good at medicine require more effort and time than being the best at, say, a law firm? Hm, no, I said, I suppose it takes lots of hard work to be good at anything.
Ah, yes, that’s the key.
We have the privilege, the luxury, of being able to try hard at what we want to do. So many of our fellow human beings do not have such an opportunity; they have to do things that they need to in order to get by, and they’re too exhausted in the little remaining free time to pursue their real passions. Coming from a background of advantage, from an elite college, from academia, we have few such restrictions.
That is why doctors so often work past the typical retirement age. The love the work so much. I noted that the late heart surgeon Michael Debakey practiced into his 90s. My interviewer, having served on some committee with Debakey, chuckled and described Debakey’s kind-southern-manners-but-powerful-don’t-cross-him personality. That was cool.
Despite all I said about academia, he understood why I didn’t apply to MSTP programs. I haven’t found my inspiration yet. I don’t know in what direction I am headed. He cited all the MDs (non-PhDs) who have been great scientists or won the Nobel prize. I nodded knowingly, because at sometime or other I’ve perused the Nobel autobiographies of a bunch of the MD-only Nobel winners, e.g. Richard Axel, Harold Varmus, Michael Bishop, Joseph Murray, Barry Marshall, Robin Warren.
At the end, I asked my interviewer what he thought I should be considering when choosing between medical schools. The answer was long and vague, because there is no good answer.
Choose more with your gut, he concluded, than with your head.
And good financial aid will preclude much anxiety in your future.