18 June 2015

“I didn’t get into med school. Should I do a master’s?”

Biology is the most popular undergraduate major in the United States, and I think the major reason for that is that an awful lot of people want to be physicians. And they’ve been told a biology degree is the best route to get to med school.

Even in an institution like mine, which has had great success in getting people into med school (which the university trumpets often) has a good percentage of pre-med students that are not accepted into medical school.

And let me tell you, the dream dies hard.

Because people tend to privilege childhood dreams, a lot of students will not let go of the idea of getting into medical school. One of my colleagues, seeing a student with a dangerously low GPA, asked the student getting advised, “What do you plan to do?”

“I’m going to med school.”

“With that GPA, you’re not going to get your bachelor’s degree!”

Consequently, in my role as grad program coordinator, I talk to quite a few students who didn’t get into med school, and who say they want to do a master’s degree in biology as a way to get into med school.

I caution on that plan of attack, for several reasons.

1. A MS in biology is primarily intended and designed to be a stepping stone into a Ph.D. in academia or a research-related job, not an M.D. in the health professions.

2. Because of (1), faculty have little experience mentoring students to be successful into getting into medical school. They are academics, not health professionals, and they are not connected to the profession you want to enter. They don't know what makes for successful med students.

3. Many biology graduate programs have very little human biology in the curriculum, less so than an undergrad program might have. So there is not a lot of the material that pre-meds are most interested in.

4. Because of (1 + 2 +3), pre-med students who are trying to get into med school who try master's program are often unhappy and quit the program before completing a degree.


Some students have completed a master’s and successfully transitioned into med school that way. The problem is that I don’t know what percent of students that works for. I’ll bet it’s low. Unfortunately, pre-med students, who are often working on the sort of “Believe in yourself!” ethic in middling anime series, they will believe they’re the one that can beat the odds.

One of the other pieces of advice for those students is: always check with the people who run the program you want to join. If you want to join a medical school, as the medical school if a master’s degree will help get you into medical school. They will have a much better sense of the patterns and decision process than a grad program coordinator will.

It’s not as useful to ask the master’s program coordinator. The grad program coordinator has a potential conflict of interest. A grad program coordinator usually wants to bring in more applicants and more students into the program. Departments are evaluated on things like headcount and credit hours generated. Pre-med students are often reasonably sharp academically, notwithstanding not being let into med school. There can be a tendency to for a program coordinator to say, “Come on in, the water’s fine” even if it’s not the best move for the student because the program can benefit from a warm body.

Finally, I asked this question on Twitter (click link to see some of the responses):

Would you tell a student with BS in hand who didn’t get into med school to do an MS as a back door into med school?

The overall response so far has been mostly, “No,” with several people adding, “It depends on why they didn’t get into med school.” But certainly the overall advice seems to be that pre-meds who didn’t get in have better options than doing a master’s to further their career.

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