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An extra year of medical school? Sign me up

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category. 

sandglassesThe process of training to become a physician is a complex and mysterious process to most outsiders, but there are two things that everybody seems to know: 1) how expensive it is, and 2) how long it takes. (One of the first things people ask when I tell them I’m a first-year medical student is, “So, how many years do you have left?”)

Because these issues represent major barriers to entry to the medical profession, some medical schools have begun piloting MD degree programs that are designed to be completed in three years rather than the traditional four. The benefits are easy to see: By shortening the training by one year, students save on a year of expensive medical school tuition and are also able to contribute to the health-care workforce one year sooner.

In a climate where much of the discussion is about how we can shorten and streamline medical education, many people are surprised to hear that I, like many of my Stanford classmates, will actually likely choose to take an extra year during medical school - for research, service, or an additional degree. Given that I also spent two years working between college and starting at Stanford, my inefficient path will have added three or four extra years on to my education when all is said and done.

Am I foolish for condemning myself to years and years of training before actually starting my “real life” as a doctor? For me, the thought process behind extending my training an extra year is actually very simple: I just really like being in medical school. How many other opportunities will I have to take classes in medicine, law, and statistical programming – all in the same term? When else in my life will I be able to soak up wide-ranging experiences from general pediatrics to neurosurgery, without committing to either?

To be sure, I don’t view these experiences as being part of the “most direct path” to becoming a competent, successful physician. But from a selfish perspective, they might help me better find a career path that suits me well. And from a societal perspective, I like to think that these larger life experiences will help to shape and define my unique set of values, philosophies, and skills as a caregiver to people in need – a framework that goes beyond the highly standardized requirements for medical training.

This is not to say that years of additional time are the best thing for everyone. I admire and envy those people who already know what they want to do and how they want to do it, and three-year MD programs offer those people a chance to make much-needed contributions to society as quickly as possible. However, to the degree that longer programs allow us the flexibility and independence to develop ourselves, I believe that they are an invaluable option for many aspiring doctors.

Nathaniel Fleming is a first-year medical student and a native Oregonian. His interests include health policy and clinical research. 

Photo by Leland Francisco 

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