BAYEFSKY: Pre-meds, both thinking and doing

As junior and senior pre-meds begin to prepare for the upcoming medical school application cycle, they feel a mixture of excitement, trepidation and relief. All that time struggling with problem sets, those frenzied afternoons in lab and the evenings clustered around peer tutors will finally be weighed, measured and hopefully not found wanting. The process also sparks some introspection about what it means to be pre-med at Yale, how pre-meds have chosen to spend their hours and what regrettably fell by the wayside. But unlike other students preparing for life beyond Yale, pre-meds face a harsh critique from many of their peers — that they and their chosen course of study were not sufficiently “intellectual.”

This critique seems to be something about which humanities and science majors agree. To humanities students, pre-meds don’t spend enough time thinking about the most interesting and pressing political and social issues. To science students, many pre-meds don’t have the scientific curiosity to pursue a single discipline in-depth or to dedicate the years in lab needed to tackle a particular scientific question properly. These criticisms might actually be accurate — if the determinant was a dichotomy between abstract thinking and doing, with the pre-med being lumped in with the latter descriptor, acting only as an automaton.

As a pre-med humanities major, I hear the judgment from both sides. I watch my fellow humanities students spend luxurious hours pondering the great questions, reading the great works and gaining a background in literature, history and philosophy that will serve them well in the academic staff rooms and political parlors of the future. While the applications of humanities courses may be less immediately apparent than those of pre-med classes, humanities students can assure themselves, “Whatever I decide to do after college, I’m learning how to think.” To the English major who can curl up in bed with Shakespeare and (legitimately) call it a productive night, being pre-med may seem like an intellectual sacrifice.

“Pure” science majors and teaching fellows can also contribute to a pre-med’s sense of unease. How many times have I been told that I must only want the answers to the homework questions, and don’t really care about the science behind the course material? The charge is harsh, namely, that pre-meds aren’t interested in course content at all. Given the obvious intertwinement of modern medicine and science, it is highly improbable that a pre-med would complete the full set of required courses without having a genuine interest in science. But nevertheless, these comments may make some pre-meds worry that they haven’t focused enough on the kind of scientific inquiry valued by their science peers.

How can pre-meds defend themselves against the charge of being intellectual dilettantes? We shouldn’t begin by keeping quiet about our statuses as pre-meds in front of the wrong company, or seeking out the comforting presence of our pre-med study buddies. Instead, it’s time we all stop being so critical about each other’s academic choices. Pre-meds aren’t the only targets of negative stereotyping. Humanities students are typecast as being confined to an ivory tower, with no clue about their futures. Science students are portrayed as insufficiently cultured, lacking the savoir-vivre of their better-read humanities counterparts.

But no major or academic route has a monopoly on “intellectuality.” We are all struggling in college to balance acquiring knowledge and pursuing our passions with our hopes for a fulfilling future. Whether majoring in humanities or the sciences, the pre-med will have managed to combine a passion for learning and doing. Think of the pre-med who spends her summer at a Ugandan hospital grappling with global health issues, or the one who volunteers in a local hospice struggling with the ethical care of the dying. And even the pre-med hunched over a late-night problem set with a third cup of coffee is absorbing problem-solving skills that will help her in medicine and beyond. Translating our preparation at Yale into a lifetime of intellectual curiosity and achievement will be no more or less challenging for a pre-med than for any other student, whatever her calling. And 30 or 40 years from now when your doctor is helping you weigh the pros and cons of a medical procedure, or squeezing your hand as you wake up from anesthesia, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that she isn’t a complete intellectual lightweight after all.

Michelle Bayefsky is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at michelle.bayefsky@yale.edu .

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