Preparing for Pre-Med and Pre-Health
Thinking about a career in health care but not sure you want the fast-paced and high-pressured lives of the doctors in Grey’s Anatomy, ER and Scrubs? Don’t worry!
You’ve got plenty of options even if you don’t want to endure the rigors of medical school. (And, if you want to become a doctor, you don’t have to be a surgeon to be successful–the blood and guts that go along with surgery just make TV shows a little more gripping!) There are many different majors and programs for you to pursue that lead to a wide variety of health care careers that are personally and financially rewarding.
A career in health care covers a broad range of professions and occupations. These include medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, veterinary medicine, psychology, public health, hospice care, speech-language pathology and social work. And, you don’t have to be involved in the “clinical” side of things. Health care is a big business, and there are opportunities to be involved in management, such as health care administration, as well as policy-making, including public health research, planning, advocacy, and administration. Also, each of these areas has various sub-specialties.
So, if you feel you’re cut out for a future in health care, you’ll eventually need to ask yourself some questions: Do you want to treat patients for physical or mental problems? Would you prefer to work with patients directly or be in a management role? What’s most appealing: private practice, a hospital-based setting or a research facility? Don’t feel any pressure to sort out your entire life now. These are just a few ideas to help you identify your areas of interest.
What can I do in high school to prepare for a career in health?
Dr. Laura Thompson Coordinator of the Health Fields Advising Program at Furman University recommends high school students interested in health sciences do four things:
First take “a full course load for all four years of high school. Take as much math science and English as possible.” Good communication skills are indispensable.
Second take as many Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses as possible. “If you perform well in these courses you may even receive college credit which will allow you to move more quickly through the required college courses.
“Third demonstrate your “leadership skills by holding office in student organizations.” When you’re working in a fast-paced emergency room private practice hospital administration or pharmaceutical company your clients and colleagues will expect a take-charge attitude.
Fourth volunteer in the field and Thompson says demonstrate “your ability to function successfully outside your socioeconomic group.” Nursing homes clinics and hospitals are good places to look. In college you may find opportunities to shadow a doctor or assist in medical research.
What should I study in college?
Once you begin college your advisor will direct you to your school’s requirements for the health field in which you’re interested. Typically colleges don’t classify pre-med or other analogous areas as majors. Rather students seeking to attend a professional school will often have to take a certain minimum number of credits in specific areas such as the sciences.
Some schools have specific pre-med and pre-health programs which while not formal “majors” give students access to an advisor who: ensures they take all of the courses required for medical or other professional health school; helps secure internships; and prepares students for the arduous testing and application process required for professional school in these areas.
If however you’re drawn to one of the areas that don’t necessarily require attending a professional or graduate school such as nursing nutrition physical therapy psychology social work health care administration or public health you probably won’t have to take the same amount of science courses.
Some areas like nursing offer a number of different routes. For example nurses can become licensed practical nurses by attending a two-year certificate program. However a four-year bachelor’s degree is generally required to be a registered nurse and command more money responsibility supervisory authority and job options ranging from inhome care for people with life-limiting illnesses to working on trauma cases in a large hospital. And to get the bigger bucks in a specialized area of nursing such as a nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist a master’s degree and/or experience will be required.
Some health care providers such as physicians pharmacists and dentists must earn professional degrees before being permitted to practice. In some other areas extra schooling may be required to distinguish yourself as a certain type of professional. For example psychologists generally need to receive a graduate degree while social workers do not. Likewise public health administrators need a master’s degree in public health (M.P.H.) but health educators do not.
Consequently you should be prepared to study hard throughout and quite possibly beyond college. As Hendrix College biology professor and pre-med advisor Mark Sutherland explains, “Don’t get discouraged if you find the course material challenging; almost everyone does. You will wonder several times during your undergraduate and professional or graduate school years if it is worth it. But if you find excitement and fulfillment in providing health care it certainly is!”
One college I’m considering says it gets 90 percent of its pre-med students into medical school and other professional health programs. Should I try to attend this school?
There’s a lot to be said for a college that succeeds in getting most of its students into medical or other professional health schools and for your desire to maximize your odds of being accepted into such a program. However Sutherland warns, “There is no nationally standardized format for calculating acceptance rates to professional schools so the numbers reported by one school may have little relationship to numbers reported by other schools. You should be very skeptical of extremely high numbers. A school may report a 100% acceptance rate because its one and only applicant was accepted so this number tells you very little about the quality of their preparation program.”
The acceptance percentages at some of these schools are very high because the students in these programs who aren’t going to “make it” are politely told to pursue a different major or withdraw from the pre-med track. So just starting in these programs doesn’t ensure that you’ll get into the professional school for which the program is geared.
Donald Taylor, the Dean of Benedictine University’s College of Science encourages students and their parents to consider a number of factors in deciding which undergraduate college to attend if the student has the intent of going to medical school (or some other professional health school). These include the number of graduates placed in professional school per year the types of pre-professional advising and mentoring each school offers and the opportunities for hands-on learning experiences in the medical field.
All of these careers sound great! How do I decide which one to pursue?
There are many factors to consider when selecting a career path. First and foremost you should consider the stress and hours required of some health positions. Do you want a stable 9-to-5 job or are you willing to put in 12-hour days in an emergency room clinic or nursing home without the luxury of turning off your pager occasionally? Remember that the higher-paying posts will require more schooling. For example, according to Donna Shaffner Daemen, College’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions: “to be a competitive candidate for higher-paying nursing positions with more responsibilities you’ll need a B.S.N. and a master’s degree.”
Also consider your personality. If you nurture your friends and family you’d probably be great working directly with patients as a Doctor, Nurse, Social Worker, Psychologist or Hospice Provider. If you like to follow the news and debate public policy about family planning or health hazards like toxic waste and infectious diseases you might enjoy a career as a Public Health Planner or Administrator. If you prefer working with professionals or business people you might pick a medical specialty like Anesthesiology or Radiology or go into Health Care Administration. Or you might decide you’d like to do medical or pharmaceutical research.
Finally while you shouldn’t choose your career path based solely on the monetary rewards you should consider the pay relative to the amount of work stress and education you’ll have to endure. You’ll also need to factor in your ability to pay back loans for college and professional school (if you expect to have any) and support yourself and any dependents you may have in the future. Keep in mind however that there will be a broad salary variation depending on where you work. A salary of $50,000 in Brooklyn N.Y. isn’t the same as $50,000 in Topeka Kan.
What is the outlook for health professions?
Are some fields more promising than others?
It’s hard to make any general statements because of the high amount of specialization. However with our population growing older an abundance of health professionals will be needed in coming years. “The demand will be high for all types of doctors as a large portion of the medical workforce retires,” says Sutherland. (The baby boomers have already started retiring and moving to warm climates!)
Anticipating this demand Taylor adds, “The Association of American Medical Colleges proposed to increase the number of new M.D. students by 5000 annually (which translates to roughly a 30% increase in enrollment) to ensure future healthcare needs are met.”
The outlook is promising for other health professions as well. The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 8 out of 20 of the occupations projected to grow the fastest by 2014 are in health care and that health care will create more new wage and salary jobs than any other industry between 2004 and 2014 about 19 percent or 3.6 million.(Registered nurses alone are expected to create the second largest number of jobs by 2014 and with baby boomers increasingly unable to care for their parents and unwilling to put them in nursing homes employment for home health aides like hospice workers is expected to rise by 66 percent! You can look up your occupation of interest at the Bureau’s Web site here.
The Bureau also publishes the average income of health care professions here. Remember these statistics are based on the average of all work levels so the average beginning salary will be lower. Also the compensation is affected by level of education and your particular specialty. In any case the average compensation for many of the health care professions is quite good.
Still uncertain about which health profession you’d like to pursue? Don’t worry. Remember most have the same basic undergraduate requirements and colleges rarely require you to declare (much less stick with) a major on your first day. Use your first year or two of college to get some science credits under your belt and sit in on specialized classes in nursing pharmacy physical therapy nutrition public health or any other areas in which you’re interested. If you do this volunteer in different fields and spend some time chatting with your advisor you’re sure to select the career option that’s right for you!
Laura Nathan is a graduate student in the Bennington Writing Seminars and a freelance writer editor and teacher.