How to cure our premed problems

If premed is a highway, I stayed on the service road. I never felt truly like I was premed: I was in DS freshman year and never caught a whiff of organic chemistry. But for most of my life, I thought I was going to be a doctor.

After rational consideration of this childhood notion — not to mention a year on the premed track — I have decided otherwise. The fears and concerns that I had for the past two years — feeling as though I were deciding my future too early, not feeling I had found my own passion — are the same that afflict many of my peers. The archaic premed process, burdened with seemingly useless classes that do not truly represent what the field of medicine is like, is due for a check-up, and Yale could do its part to catalyze the process.

It is truly a shame that I have yet to meet a student who is confidently premed. The unnecessarily rigorous and unfair process makes perfectly normal students pursuing an honorable field quake in their flip-flops.

This lack of confidence produces fewer premeds than ever before. According to the Office of Institutional Research, 17 percent of Yale’s Class of 1975 went to medical school. By 2002, that number stood at 6 percent. This poses a potentially serious problem for our generation unless some changes are made. It could mean fewer qualified physicians to take care of us as we get old, maybe fewer physicians overall.

It seems all too common — and tragic — that the sons and daughters of our generation’s doctors are becoming lawyers and investment bankers. Why is this? Because a generation to ponder career paths reveals that it is often illogical to be premed. A doctor’s earnings are often the same or less nowadays than the average lawyer’s or investment banker’s.

It is incongruous that though medicine, law and business are comparable professional options in terms of earnings, the undergraduate paths to get there are so disproportionate in difficulty. The liberal arts institution, while advocating a non-preprofessional mission, puts premeds in an uncomfortable gray area. One can major in just about anything, take the LSATs, and get into law school. Medicine, on the other hand, seems to require a life-long commitment at the undergraduate level that is inconsistent with today’s employment trends. In our protean job market, in which Yalies work in investment banks for two years without any intention of staying in finance, it seems unreasonable to require the current level of commitment and intensity from premeds.

Why is it that when I showed a premed friend what I was reading last week, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” she winced? It was because she was reading organic chemistry. Being premed here is a catch-22: The science major premeds feel they are missing out on Yale’s better-known humanities and social science programs; the humanities and social science major premeds feel they have taken few Yale classics. Being a humanities or social science premed is worse than double majoring: there is absolutely no overlap, and one of your concentrations is decidedly not fun. Being a history of science, history of medicine major presents a popular compromise, since it counts some science credit, but it feels like a contrived discipline to many.

Fortunately, this quandary has a viable alternative. The Mount Sinai School of Medicine has an innovative “Humanities and Medicine” program that specifically admits humanities and social science majors early in their college careers. Accepted students fulfill a bare minimum of premed requirements and study organic chemistry and physics during their junior summers, on stipends. Likewise, Columbia’s College of Physicians & Surgeons recently eliminated the asinine mathematics requirement for admission.

In the meantime, Yale could do its part to facilitate this trend by easing the already insecure existence of the premed. Many premed humanities and social science majors who have to fulfill their language requirements feel about as much academic leeway as a double major in architecture and EP&E. Yale could amend its foreign language requirements for humanities and social science premeds by only requiring beginner-level proficiency. Or Yale could lessen degree requirements. Would 10 history credits instead of 12 really make someone less than a history major? It would certainly add some grateful leg room.

Premed requirements were arbitrarily created in the 1920s, and as the actions of Mount Sinai and Columbia show, they can be just as rationally amended. This will require a reevaluation of the existing requirements by U.S. medical schools, but in the meantime, the administration could make some changes that would show us why Yale continues to be such a progressive place. If it were to make the premed student that much more confident, it would be well worth it.



Steve Engler is a junior in Saybrook College.

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