“Non-traditional” is the word most often used to describe medical students who took a different route besides going straight from highschool to college to med school. Those of us determined to pursue this dream when over the age of about 25 are lumped together as “outlyers”. Admission committees juggle our commitment against the economic reality of the expense of our medical education and our life expectancy. If we do achieve acceptance, our colleagues don’t quite know how to relate. Often we’re older than our professors, and the less secure among them may (subconsciously?) lash out in their need to maintain the upper hand. Residency programs aren’t sure if the time they’ll put into training us will pay off in the long run – after all, someone like me will begin actual practice at about the age many docs are looking at retirement.
But even with the jaded eyes of one who fought long and hard against prejudice and sometimes outright discrimination, I maintain that there are huge upsides to being an older student in medical training. Here are my top four.
- We’ve lived. We’ve lived long enough to find balance, know self motivation, and have proven commitment in real-life experiences. We don’t need to be taught compassion. We understand at a visceral level what it takes to keep going when things get tough. We don’t need hand-holding. All those “real life” lessons not yet learned by someone spending their first 25 years of life in an academic setting have already been experienced and assimilated. We’ve lived.
- We don’t take abuse. This is a biggie. With much focus these days on creating a medical education experience less dominated by an autocratic mentality, I confidently say that I don’t take abuse. Its not an entitlement thing. Its a real life emotionally healthy thing. And the icing on this particular cake is that this all happens in reality – you can try to bully me. But it will have absolutely no affect on my psyche.
- We can relate. Having lived, having carved out our own emotionally healthy well-grounded life in the real world, we can relate deeply and authentically with our patients. We understand the fatigue of a new parent. We never forget the ending of a marriage or the time we couldn’t pay the light bill. We know the fear of a medical mystery, teenagers in trouble, and aging parents. All that life stuff our patients live with every day, we can relate with having lived rather than from reading a textbook or listening to a continuing ed guru. All that relating makes us much more effective physicians.
- We’re in touch. There’s a pretty good chance that we’re in touch with our weaknesses as well as our strengths. We know where our biases are and how to work around them. We know how and where to reach out for help when we get stuck. And having lived just a little longer, we’re a whole heap less swayed by the latest push to fulfill someone else’s idea of our dream. We’re in touch with our insides, our outsides, and stay fairly well in balance even when life stuff kicks our backsides.
If you’re a person with the dream of being a doctor one day, never feel like you’re “too old”, or that its “too late”.
If you’re a “non-traditional” medical student, embrace who you are and keep going. The medical profession needs you!
If you’re sitting on a medical school admissions committee, mentoring a potential med student, a med school professor or clinical director or attending, please remember that we will learn from you whether you make the process easy or hard. We will pursue our dream whether you support it or throw up every possible roadblock. And we will bring compassion and competence to our practice of medicine whether or not you see our value.
No matter what path you’ve followed in your pursuit of medicine, if you’re a “non-traditional student”, we need you. Medicine needs you. Patients need you. You’re in the right place.