Episode 41: Love Thy Parents: Mythbusters (Part 3/4)

Your parents have questions. We have answers. Love Thy Parents is a series dedicated to all the fathers and mothers out there. Applying to medical school can be confusing for applicants themselves; how do you think parents must feel?

In this Part 3, we’re busting myths related to having a son or daughter apply to and ultimately medical school.

In the final installment, we’ll talk more about what it’s like to have a son or daughter in medical school.

If you have questions for us, please send them to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com. Or, call (773) 336-2POD and leave us a message.

[Music: “The Area” used with permission from Eliot Lipp. “Shiggidy” used with permission from Greg Spero and GMG.]

Episode 41 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Hello, everybody. Welcome to another episode of the Pritzker Podcast. This is Episode 41, and today we’ll be continuing our “Love Thy Parents” series in which we are offering advice to parents of people who are thinking about applying to medical school or actually going through the application process right now. Today, we’ll be covering some common myths that parents have about potentially having kids entering medical school. In previous episodes, we’ve talked about financial aid and the application process itself, but today, again, we’ll be talking about just myths about having kids going through that process and actually entering medical school. So I’m joined by Sylvia Robertson, who is part of the admissions team here at Pritzker. Hello, Sylvia.

Sylvia Robertson: Hi, Ben.

BF: How are you doing?

SR: I am doing just great.

BF: Awesome. And we’re also joined for the second time by Judy Chen, who is going to be helping us out with some of the hosting duties here at the Pritzker Podcast. She is a third-year medical student, and we talked to her in Episode 39, I believe? Hey, Judy.

Judy Chen: Hi.

BF: How’s it going?

JC: Good.

BF: Welcome again to the Pritzker Podcast.

JC: Thank you.

BF: So, let’s jump into some of these myths. Sylvia, I know you’ve been working in this field for a long time and you’ve probably encountered some of these myths that parents have, so can you talk about some big ones?

SR: Absolutely, Ben. And I just wanted to thank you again for making this opportunity available for future med school students to love their parents. I think that one of the most common myths is this notion that once your son or daughter enters med school, that they become a doctor right that moment, and a part of the confusion about that is how much money they really have, the idea that they’re going to be a doctor so they’re on easy street from the moment they enter med school. And it really could not be further from the truth, really. Even if they are fortunate enough to be getting very large scholarships, they’re still living on a student budget and need to budget their resources as a student. Perhaps you’ve heard before the saying that “If you live like a student now, you’ll be able to live like a doctor later. But if you live like a doctor now, you’ll live like a student later.” And so families can be very helpful in understanding that their med school student is still limited in their financial resources, and that in reality that will continue throughout their residency years and perhaps into a few years of their first job as they begin to pay off the loans.

BF: I think that’s a great one. That’s a great one. What else?

SR: Well, how does that make you feel that I just said that, though? It shouldn’t be depressing because the money is going to be there. It’s still a good financial choice to go to med school. But families need to understand that med school students are not rolling in money. Judy, are you rolling in money?

JC: Definitely not.

SR: What kinds of choices are you faced with?

JC: Personally, for me, it’s a lot of things like learning how to manage your finances in terms of fitting in some time for fun and doing fun things with your friends, things like going snowboarding on a weekend or something like that, but trying to see how you can manage your finances so you can afford to spend a hundred dollars one day but maybe cutting back on some of the other things. Bringing your lunch for three weeks to kind of save up the money.

SR: Absolutely.

JC: Yeah. And I feel like our Financial Aid office is definitely very helpful and they are always there to kind of give advice or kind of help you through that, and I feel like that’s been one of the really helpful things about Pritzker.

BF: I mean, at the same time with this myth, I think, in the medical profession, I feel like you’re almost never on easy street, or it takes a long time to get to that street, you know, because I feel like a big myth, not only for parents but just for the lay public in general, and also people who might be thinking about going to medical school themselves, think that they’ll go to medical school for four years and, bam, they’re going to be rich. And it just doesn’t necessarily work like that especially because a lot of people, most do residencies, a lot do fellowships. You’re not making a ton of money during that time. You have a ton of loans to pay off, you have a ton of medical malpractice insurance to pay for. And the sense that doctors are wildly rich, I think, is kind of a misnomer. I think there are some rich doctors, but those people who have too much money to know what to do with, I think, are few and far between.

SR: Right. And I think the good news is that you can understand your goals coming into med school. And even if your goal is to work in an underserved area in the lowest-paid areas of specialties, there are resources there to help you be able to pay off your loans and to live a very comfortable lifestyle. But I think you’re absolutely right, Ben, that there is this perception that doctors are just very rich.

BF: Right. Yeah, so, myth busted.

SR: There you go.

BF: What’s next on your list?

SR: Well, I think that there is sometimes the idea that the medical student’s life will be just like their schedule was when they were in college, and so that they have some flexibility in their schedule, they have long breaks, and they control their time. And so sometimes parents expect that their son or daughter can still call them at home as often as they used to, or think that their son or daughter who used to be able to come home once or twice a semester, sometimes there’s confusion that there may be semesters when they’re just not able to do that because they really no longer control their time. It’s not just a during-the-day academic schedule anymore but responsibilities that can go around the clock and covering the weekends, too. Judy probably has a good idea of that now as a third-year med school student.

JC: Yep.

SR: Can you speak to that, Judy?

JC: There are certain rotations, especially during third year, for example, like internal medicine where you are part of the team and it’s very important that you’re there for your patients. And as we all know, people just don’t get sick Monday through Friday from 8 to 5 during the day. And so being part of the team and wanting to take the best care of your patients means you go in on Saturday, Sunday, or you stay until ten o’clock some days, and I feel like having parents understand that that’s kind of what’s going to happen, and especially having my parents be really supportive about that, has been very helpful for me in being able to kind of talk to them about that. So I feel like that’s one of the things that have kind of even strengthened my relationship with my parents is them knowing that I have stressors in my life but being able to kind of explain to them what’s going on.

SR: Judy and Ben, what about during the first year of med school? What were the stressors during that year that perhaps changed the way you were able to interact with family and college friends or high school friends?

BF: Well, for me, I think it was–it’s a different type of stressor than third year is because third year you kind of have to be physically present for what seems like all the time (at least from what I understand; I can’t really speak to that personally). But I think during first and second year, there still is a time element; it’s just that the time that you spend is spent reading books, going to lecture, going to lab, studying outside of class, and stuff like that. So I think the time factor is still very much in play during first and second year as well.

JC: Yeah, I agree. And I also think, at least for me, first year was very different from college. I didn’t do a basic science major in college, and so coming to medical school in some ways was kind of like stepping it up: having to learn how to be a graduate student, having to learn what it takes to be that next level of student and what your responsibilities are. And sometimes it’s hard for your friends back home who are not going through the same thing to kind of understand that and just to kind of understand that there’s a disconnect in the realities. Some of them may be working and they have different stressors in their life. It’s very different but it’s not anything that you can’t get over.

BF: All right. How about another myth, Sylvia? I know you have one more on your list.

SR: Sure. I’ve seen this for years, and I think it’s encouraging that families have so much faith and trust in their med school students and that they so quickly see them as future physicians. And often, that translates in families asking their medical school students for medical advice. You’ve been in med school now for two or three years, and you do know more about medicine than a non-medical person would, but often our students talk about being in positions where their families are asking them for advice, and that’s a difficult position to put a student in and they’re just not ready to give you the kind of help that you need.

BF: Yeah. I think that’s often the case partly because, for some people in medical school, they’re the only medical entity that some parents know or some family members know. And so you become like the de facto physician for the entire family sometimes. And then people come to your White Coat Ceremony and they see you wearing a white coat, and they see you using a stethoscope and learning how to do all of that physical exam stuff and, bam, they expect you to be able to diagnose some heart murmur or something. I don’t know. Judy, you might have gotten more of that now since you’ve been seeing patients during third year. Is that right?

JC: I actually got most of it during my first two years. My aunts or my mom would call me and be like, “Oh, I’ve been having this weakness in my arm and I don’t really know what it is. Can you describe to me what I should do to treat it?” And I’m like, “Uh, I only know basic physiology.”

BF: I can tell you about the histology of the heart…

JC: Yeah, exactly. And you really want to help because in some ways you do feel like you do know more and that, because you are empowered and they see you as someone who is more knowledgeable than they are, that you want to fit that role. But I feel like in a lot of ways, the best thing that I was able to tell them was, “Just go to the doctor. Please, go to the doctor.” And in the end that’s what they have to do.

BF: Yeah. I mean, I have experienced it, too. I haven’t even done any clinical medicine yet, but I’ve had situations where family members ask me about something and I say, “I don’t really know that,” and they almost take the tone of, “What are they teaching you in medical school? Shouldn’t you know that already?” It’s weird. And even now, even outside of medicine, I’m studying lung cancer for my PhD–my PhD will be in Cancer Biology–and so I’m therefore my family’s cancer doctor, basically. Anytime they have something show up on their skin that they think might be melanoma or they feel some, I don’t know, something on their back or something, I’m the person who always ends up checking it because I’m their “cancer doctor”.

SR: Well, I know you’re both going to be extraordinary physicians. Your families just need to wait a little bit longer.

BF: Yeah. So I think the take-home message here for parents and family members is that, while your son or daughter is in medical school, they are indeed medical professionals, but they haven’t had adequate clinical training to make diagnoses potentially or to make treatment decisions and stuff like that, so it’s important to wait until they’ve gotten to that stage of their career to be making such expectations of them. But like Judy said, we’re in medical school to help people. So we like to help, but we don’t have that knowledge yet.

I think another myth that parents often have, especially during the application process or the time leading up to the application, is that they think so highly of their son or daughter, and they have seen such good grades and MCAT scores coming from their son or daughter that, surely, medical school should be simple to get into. And I think Sylvia, you probably can speak more to this, but that’s certainly not the case. I think the percentage of people getting into medical school versus those who apply is pretty small, right?

SR: Right. I don’t know the exact percentage. I know that success in the med school application process requires much more in preparation than just academically. And so I do think that sometimes parents are confused when their son or daughter has done very well academically and then meets barriers in the med school application process. It is a long and difficult process for every applicant and their families. And we really do understand that in many situations, it is a family application. The parents are watching for that mailbox just like the applicant is. So I do think it’s important to use resources available to learn what’s required to be a successful med school applicant and support your son or daughter as they prepare in all areas of their life, not just in academics.

BF: Yeah. I think you made the point that it’s not just about your academic record but it’s about doing extracurricular stuff. And it has gotten more competitive over the years, I feel like. What is it, like 35,000, 40,000 applicants every year, Sylvia?

SR: I think it’s just right around 40,000 right now.

BF: Right. And it’s tough to say, “Oh, you have a 3.95. You’re definitely going to get in somewhere.” It doesn’t necessarily work like that.

SR: No. I know that we do not even invite for interview over 300 applicants each year with perfect grade point averages and MCATs of 36 or better. It just takes more than the numbers to be successful in the process.

BF: And I think Pritzker isn’t necessarily unique in that respect. It’s not just like if you have a great MCAT score and you have a great GPA–schools don’t have a checklist of things that you have to accomplish necessarily. It’s more of a complete package that they’re looking at.

SR: Right. You don’t want your doctor to just be smart. You want them to have strong communication skills, strong leadership skills–

BF: Yeah. You want to be able to talk to them.

SR: That’s right. Exactly.

BF: You don’t want to be creeped out by them.

SR: Exactly.

BF: Judy, did you have any experiences like that when you were applying from dealing with your parents?

JC: I guess I was a little lucky in that my parents never expected me to go to medical school. For them, it kind of came as a surprise, and so they weren’t really as aware, I guess, when I was doing most of the preparations. But I do feel like, for them, they did expect me to do well because they felt that I always did, and when some schools didn’t take me, I think it hit them sometimes a little harder than me because I knew that this is a very competitive process, and for them it’s, “Why didn’t you get in? I don’t see why they would take other people over you.” And I think in some ways, maybe having let them into the process a little more might have allowed them to have the same kind of insight that I did into the process and maybe helped them get through some of the hurdles of it a little easier.

BF: Right, right. I think it’s probably tough for any parent who has had a kid do well in high school, do well in college, and then get rejected for medical school. And it’s like, “Is there a mistake? What are they looking at?”

SR: Right.

SR: Almost every applicant to med school is going to get rejected by some med school. I don’t think there’s more than, oh, maybe 40, 50 applicants a year who get in to every med school–

BF: Yeah.

SR: –that they apply to.

BF: I think it’s the beginning of a new phase of their life because you don’t get in to every residency you apply to, you don’t interview at every residency you apply to.

SR: Right.

BF: You don’t get into every fellowship. So it’s different from college, I think, in that respect as well.

SR: Exactly.

BF: It’s just much more competitive.

SR: But none of those decisions by the school or the residency or the fellowship should diminish what you’ve accomplished. You can still celebrate that and realize that you’re on your way to becoming a doctor.

BF: Right.

SR: And celebrate that.

BF: Right.

JC: Yep.

BF: And sometimes it’s tough to tell what a medical school is looking for, too. I think a piece of advice that I always have for applicants is that they’re not necessarily rejecting you for any concrete reasons. It might just be that they already had someone accepted into their class that was just like you and they don’t necessarily need a person like that anymore.

SR: Well, I know there’s nobody like you and Judy.

JC: Thanks, Sylvia.

BF: Well, I mean, I appreciate that, but–

SR: I know what you meant. I know what you mean.

BF: You might have already accepted a white male from Naperville who went to the University of Illinois, you know, and so that would just make for a boring class to accept the same kind of person over and over again.

JC: I also always thought of it as if the school didn’t accept you maybe, and knowing what the school is like, sometimes it might not be the right fit considering that they are looking for a certain personality. If they didn’t accept you, there might be a reason to that.

BF: Sure, sure.

JC: Maybe you’re just not the right person.

BF: It’s for your own good. So, yeah. I don’t know. Judy, what other myths have you experienced, if any? And if you don’t have any, that’s fine, too. We can stop our conversation here.

JC: I guess just the only myth that I always kind of ran into was the idea that there is a prototype that you have to be as a medical school applicant, that there’s a list of things that you have to do–biology major, that you have to have published a paper in undergrad, or that you have to have worked extensively at a hospital for several years, or something like that–in order to be a successful medical school applicant. And coming from a major that was very different, having dabbled in the arts and things like that and actually decided to be a medical school applicant fairly late in the process, I feel like I can personally say that that’s not true, and in many ways it makes actually more interesting conversation on your interview trail when you’re not a molecular biology major and you’ve done other things. And so I feel like, for parents, especially, to try not to push your kid into being that prototype or what you imagine that prototype needs to be, because in a lot of ways, that might be hurting them actually to not let them explore the things that they want to do and to be the person they want to be in college.

BF: I’m reading some of these comments on studentdoctor.net, because we had posted some solicitations for people telling us myths that their parents had had. So one of the questions I asked was, “What were they confused or misinformed about?” and this person on the forum called “Doc Bell”, his or her response was, “Everything. They were confused or misinformed about everything.” But they also relate this sentiment that “smart kids always get into medical school”. So he or she says, “Someone told my mom that if I was a state resident and hadn’t failed any classes, I would pretty much be guaranteed an interview at my state school,” which obviously usually is not the case, depending on the state, I guess. Another person says, “I second the sentiment of not understanding how competitive it is. My entire family thinks that I should’ve gotten in, and when I explained to them that even with the perfect statistics you might still not get in, they just don’t get it.” So I guess just a reiteration that these are myths that some parents hold, I guess.

SR: And it puts parents and the student in a difficult position. My advice to those students would be to get expert advice so that you can have advice from someone other than yourself sharing information with your parents. I think that that would just maybe ease some of their concerns and confusion.

BF: As can listening to previous episodes of this podcast, I might mention here…

SR: I agree.

BF: Well, good. I think that’s good advice for people, Sylvia and Judy, and I think we’ll wrap it up here. And I just want to recommend that if you are applying for medical school and your parents are confused about this process, please have them go back and listen to the previous two installments of this series, the “Love Thy Parents” series, and even have them listen to the rest of the entire podcast. There’s a lot of good information here that I think will help parents and applicants alike understand the entire process. So, Judy and Sylvia, I want to thank you guys once again for coming on.

JC: Thank you.

SR: Thanks, Ben. Take care, you two.

JC: You too.

BF: Nice to talk to you guys.

SR: Bye-bye.

BF: Bye.

JC: Bye.