Episode 19: Grad School Dropout

Joni Krapec joins us to discuss what to do if you’ve fallen out of love with your PhD program and want to go to medical school instead. Is it okay to stop early? Should you sweat it out even if you’re miserable?

If you have questions for us, please send them to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com.

[Music: Stephen Asma – Check It]

Episode 19 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Hey everybody. Welcome to another episode of the Pritzker Podcast. I am Ben and I am joined once again by Joni Krapec. Hey Joni.

Joni Krapec: Hey Ben, how are you?

BF: Good. Joni is a Director of Admissions and of Financial Aid at the Pritzker School of Medicine and so she is practically an expert at what we’re talking about today. We’ve gotten a question from a listener. I got this over email, and she’s actually a PhD student right now and the question is as follows: She is a nontraditional student like I mentioned, she is in a PhD program, and has always wanted to go to medical school but she isn’t really sure where she stands in her program and she is thinking about stopping the PhD program right now and just taking a Master’s and then entering medical school after she is finished with that. So Joni, if you could talk a little bit about any other applicants that have been in this situation and how Pritzker views not finishing out a PhD versus going through with it and maybe taking a few more years just to finish it out.

JK: Sure. I will actually start with one point of clarification for listeners just in case this is something that pops into their minds because it does relate to this question. If a person is thinking about applying to medical school and realizes that they need additional coursework in order to improve their GPA and their overall competitiveness for medical school, do not start a Master’s or PhD program knowing that you’re going into it for a year and then you’re going to quit and apply to medical school. I’ve heard of people doing this with Master’s in Science programs, MPH programs and PhD programs. That is not the way to do that. If you need to improve your GPA, there are post-baccalaureate programs specifically designed for that purpose where you finish out the program and it helps you to improve your credentials for medical school. So if you already know you just need to improve your GPA, do not start and stop a degree program just to get a couple more classes. That does not look good at all, so go to those special programs.

BF: I imagine it makes the programs themselves very pissed.

JK: Yes, and don’t forget that you need letters of recommendation, which is why you don’t also go into programs and just really irritate those people directing the programs. But the applicant who emailed her specific question that we’re going to answer right now is someone who, from my understanding, went into this PhD with full intention of completing their PhD and having a career in research and is now reevaluating that decision. So we have had people in this situation before and what we are basically looking for is for you to explain to us kind of what your thought process was going into the PhD program and how you know that medicine is the right choice for you. We’ve had people who through their PhD experiences have gotten more and more involved in clinical work, maybe they were doing translational research, found that they really wanted that clinical side, that side was very compelling to them so they start doing volunteering, shadowing, hanging out with doctors to see what the whole medical professional is all about. And they make a very well informed and conscientious decision that they want to be an MD as opposed to being a PhD. In those situations, obviously we’re looking to see not only that you understand why you want to be a physician and are able to explain that to an admissions committee but also that you then handled your PhD program in a professional and respectful way. So what we look to see is that you had conversations with your thesis advisor or with your academic advisor depending on how far along you are in your PhD to basically put this out on the table so that you’re not doing something that kind of undermines the integrity of the work that you were doing while you were in your PhD program. So we’re looking to see that you’ve explored medicine and that you’ve been professional in the way that you respond to your PhD program and your decision to potentially leave that program. We often look for, and are concerned if we do not see, a letter of recommendation or evaluation from the director of the department that you’ve been working on with your PhD. A really good letter from someone like that, usually it talks about their disappointment perhaps that you’re not staying because they think that you’re bright and could do great things with your PhD but that you’ve handled yourself well, that you’ve come to them, discussed this decision with them, and it has been a dual effort of when you were going to separate from your program and pursue your medical degree.

BF: Sure. That makes sense. It seems like you can treat this almost like any regular job that you’re leaving to come to medical school. You need to leave things on a good note and not piss anybody off and make sure you’re fulfilling any duties that remain. If you do not then make sure that people are okay with you leaving and don’t leave under bad pretenses, I guess.

JK: Exactly. It’s really important to gain some of that clinical experience to know whether, and Ben I’m sure you can talk about this, my understanding is when you’re involved in research and you’re on this PhD track, there are days that you feel like, “Wow, I’m not making tracks anywhere. Maybe this isn’t the right choice for me.”

BF: Yeah, there are years like that, more so than days.

JK: So it’s really important to know whether it’s simply a low spot in your PhD work which we all have regardless of the careers that we’re in, or whether this is truly not the right fit for you and showing us that you’ve gotten some experience within the medical profession and given this decision enough time is something that will only serve you well. But to answer the question very simply, yes, we have had people who have done this and the best way to do it is to be responsible, professional, and really explore that this is the choice that you want to make.

BF: Sure. Makes sense. Thanks Joni.

JK: You’re welcome Ben. Thank you.


BF: So thanks again for listening to the Pritzker Podcast. To hear more, visit iTunes or pritzkerpodcast.libsyn.com. We also hope that this is an informative resource for you and if it is, we’d love for you to send us an email to tell us about it. You can contact us at pritzkerquestions@gmail.com and also you can comment on our podcast page directly on iTunes telling us how we’re doing.

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