MSHQ 117 : Dr. Tom Peteet shares his Non-traditional Premed Path

Session 117

Session 117

In this episode, Ryan is speaking with medical resident, Dr. Tom Peteet, as he shares with us his non-traditional path to medical school. From taking Liberal Arts as his premed and treading on a teaching career path prior to his transition to medical school, learn more about Tom’s experiences and frustrations along the journey and listen to some great pieces of advice he has for students especially who share the same path as he did. Tom has also been writing articles for

Here are the highlights of the conversation with Tom:

Tom's Aha! moment when he knew he wanted to be a physician

  • Learning the word “metastatic” as a young kid
  • Did hospice volunteering in college

Going to a Liberal Arts school as his premed

  • Getting involved in the Teach for America program, a placement organization to place college grads and intercity schools across the U.S.
  • He was placed in St.Louis and did teaching for 3 years
  • 35 sites that people go to through this program

His path as a nontraditional student:

  • Took premed classes in physiology and anatomy
  • Took his application long due to his teaching job
  • Getting recommendations from everybody took a while too

His experience in medical school:

  • Went to UMass Medical School
  • Getting frustrated with the transition being the lack of interaction with other people
  • Seeing the lectures were not as advanced as he thought to be
  • Going through the transition in the first couple months
  • A big source of support knowing that the school is open to non-traditional applicants

UMass (University of Massachusetts) requirements:

  • Graduated from high school in Massachusetts; or
  • Have been a full time resident for 5 years

Getting involved with community engagement projects in UMass (ex. juvenile detention center)

Narrowing down his residency towards his medical specialty:

  • A toss between psychiatry, family medicine, and internal medicine
  • Ended up applying in family medicine and internal medicine
  • Preferred an urban setting, small programs

Tips to those who on their transition to residency:

  • After your 1st year, you have  lot more freedom to explore what aspects of medicine you're interested in.
  • Maintain connections during your first year with faculty you're interested in and other residents doing interesting projects – They will help you immensely!

Tom's other creative outlets through writing articles for KevinMD

Where he gets his creative juices from:

  • Been writing since he was a teacher
  • Getting a lot of ideas from Twitter
  • Reading blogs on KevinMD
  • Inspired about medical topics (ex. medical records

His plans after residency:

  • Sleep!
  • International rotations and spend a couple years abroad working within a medical school in residency and teach
  • Collaborating with US-based institutions

Programs for physicians going abroad:

  • Harvard Botswana Program
  • Global Health Fellowships

Some pieces of advice for premed students:

  • See as much health care as you can. Spend more time in a hospital and around that culture of medicine.
  • For nontraditional medical students, seek out people as much as you can who have had their experiences and talk about how they've integrated that into their medical practice.


Links and Other Resources


Dr. Ryan Gray: The Premed Years, Session Number 117.

Hello and welcome back to the Medical School Headquarters Podcast; where we believe that collaboration, not competition, is key to your premed success. I am your host, Dr. Ryan Gray, and in this podcast we share with you stories, encouragement and information that you need to know to help guide you on your path to becoming a physician.If you're struggling with the MCAT, go to and download our thirty page report all about how to succeed on getting the best score that you can get. And if you're planning on taking the MCAT 2015 anytime soon, and this is being recorded in February, 2015, go and register as soon as you can because spots are filling up faster than expected and a lot of students are a little bit out of luck if you know what I mean.

So in today's podcast we're talking with a resident. And this resident is going to talk to us about his path, why he did what he did as kind of a nontraditional student, and what he wants to do in the world. And I'm going to talk to Dr. Tom Peteet all about this. Now Tom happens to be a friend of ours; he's a friend of Allison's, and he has some interesting articles that he's writing on KevinMD who we're going to have as a guest- we're going to have Kevin Pho on the podcast next week. And Tom has been using this outlet of his writing for KevinMD- the website, to kind of- like an outlet as I said. As a kind of a creative outlet. And so we'll talk about why he does that. And he's going to talk about some of his tips for students that are on their path now.

Tom, welcome to the show, thanks for joining us.

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah, thank you.

Dr. Ryan Gray: I want to talk about way back when, or whenever it was, when you had your ‘ah-ha' moment that you knew you wanted to be a physician.

My ‘Ah-Ha’ Moment

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah, actually you know I think for me it was sort of a series of inevitabilities in some sense. I think when I was very young, I remember being at the kitchen table and learning the word metastatic, because my father who was a psychiatrist was taking a phone call from a patient, and he sort of stepped down into the basement and was gone maybe ten or fifteen minutes and then came back up and sort of talked about how the person had metastatic disease and really needed to talk to their doctor. And I think that made a big impression on me, just to see someone who had a career that was really sort of important on like the deepest level to a person, and would sort of take out their own time to give back in that sort of way. So I think that was sort of the first time for me.

And then there were a couple of other things that sort of seemed to make it fit. I did some hospice volunteering in college, and that was another sort of experience I had where I felt sort of very connected to people in a way that made me want to sort of go into healthcare a little bit more.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay. Those are all good examples of early exposure, especially with your dad being a physician. It's interesting to hear physicians now, or premed students or medical students, who had parents that are physicians and are physicians now. And so I don't know if they have specific numbers, I've seen very random numbers- some high, some low about percentages of medical students that have parents that are physicians. But it's definitely an impression that gets left on you when you watch somebody do that for somebody else.

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah.

Dr. Ryan Gray: So having that early exposure, did you go into undergrad knowing you were premed and go straight into medical school?

Undergrad Journey

Dr. Tom Peteet: Kind of. So as a freshman I decided I would sort of dive right in and I took Organic Chemistry in my first semester, and it was very hard.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Organic Chemistry your first semester?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Who gave you that advice?

Dr. Tom Peteet: I don't know if anyone gave me that advice, I think I just kind of did it. I said, “Oh I just want to.” I think my plan was just sort of- I was always interested in science so I felt like, “Hey, I really want to take Physics anyways and Chemistry,” and I actually thought I was going to be a Chemistry major. So I said, “Oh I'll just do all the premed because it's something I'm kind of interested in and then try to fill in the gaps later.” But as it turned out I actually finished about 80% of it in undergrad and got more interested in Physics and Philosophy and started really getting into Philosophy; and pretty much did most of my classes in that, and just sort of finished up some of the premed on the side.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Interesting. What led you off of that? What was it that interested you?

Liberal Arts

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah, so I mean I think for me it was sort of I found a way that sort of my mind- I was able to write and think about a lot of ideas and sort of study something where I had a lot of creativity, and it was also very analytical. So I think those two things combined made Philosophy really interesting. And I went to a sort of Liberal Arts School and premed wasn't something- it wasn't a big culture, it was just sort of something that I mean maybe a couple dozen people were doing. So it wasn't as if I was a part or not a part of a particular premed community. There was just a couple of us kind of doing the classes. And yeah, I think it was hard- in hindsight, that it's interesting that the premed curriculum has very little to do with medicine. It's sort of like a test of your endurance and your stamina, and sort of your intellect to a certain extent; but I don't think that it is necessarily a test of if you'll be a good doctor. I think it's a test of if you're able to pass a test to get to medical school, and then pass those tests to get to residency. But I think the classes themselves have a pretty weak correlation with what you're actually doing on a daily basis.

Dr. Ryan Gray: That is true, that's a good point. So it's interesting- so you went to a Liberal Arts School?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah.

Dr. Ryan Gray: As a premed, knowing you wanted to be a physician. So run me down real quick if you can remember your thought process; so if there was any of choosing to go to a Liberal Arts School that maybe would have put you at a disadvantage being premed. In most people's minds, which I mean we can talk about how it is really not a disadvantage.

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah. I don't know, I mean I think it's sort of hard to go back that many years to when I was applying to college. I think it was just sort of the people that I surrounded myself with in high school and some of my teachers. It just seemed like they felt like, “Oh you're the type of kid who would like to go to a Liberal Arts School; you could sort of thrive there.” I guess because I was a little bit more like social and thoughtful and had pretty broad interests. So I think I sort of got- sort of put in that camp a bit, and I said, “Oh that seems like a good camp to be in.” And so I applied to Liberal Arts Schools. A couple bigger schools, but then sort of on the campus tours I got a better sense of, ‘Yeah, this is sort of the type of vibrant, smaller community that I want to sort of learn in.'

And yeah, it sort of felt like a combination between a small summer camp, but also sort of like a math club. It sort of had both of those things going for it.

Dr. Ryan Gray: So it was a nerd summer camp.

Dr. Tom Peteet: It was basically a nerd summer camp. And yeah.

Dr. Ryan Gray: No that's good, because I think a lot of high school students get caught up in, ‘I want to be a doctor, so I need to go to the top “Best Premed Undergrad” to get into medical school.' And I like your story of going to the campus on a tour, and touring it, and going, “You know what, this fits me and this is where I want to go.”

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Awesome. So you go through undergrad, you kind of divert from premed it sounds like. Did you not apply to medical school right away?

Teach for America

Dr. Tom Peteet: No I didn't. Actually in my senior year, I heard about a program called Teach for America; which some of the listeners might be familiar with, which is sort of a placement organization to place college grads in inner city schools across the US. And I sort of heard the story about the mission of the organization, and I got very compelled by it and I thought, ‘Oh it's a sort of two-year commitment to be a teacher, and then while I'm doing that I can finish up my premed classes, take the MCAT (because I hadn't done that in college) and then sort of apply to medical school after that.'

Dr. Ryan Gray: Interesting. So how did that diversion treat you?

Dr. Tom Peteet: So it treated me pretty well. It took me another year actually, I think for more reasons related to my teaching. I ended up teaching for three years instead of two, just because I felt like I would sort of make a better impact in the classroom and I felt like my learning curve was so steep that I wanted to sort of continue that.

And then also I was taking some summer classes and studying for the MCAT and applying to medical school took quite a bit longer than I thought it would; I thought it might take a month or two, but it actually took quite a bit of time and thought and research. And studying for the MCAT was not an easy go.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Not at all. Where did you go to teach, and where can people be placed in this Teach for America?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah so when I was placed nearly ten years ago, it was in- I think there were around twenty sites and I was placed in St. Louis. So I did a lot of teaching; we did a summer institute before I was in Los Angeles, and then I ended up teaching for three years in St. Louis. And people are placed all over, I think now there's maybe 30-35 sites that people go to.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Oh, okay.

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah.

Non-Traditional Medical Students

Dr. Ryan Gray: So you're what we would consider a non-traditional medical student at this point, or a non-traditional premed because you hadn't gotten into medical school at this point. And a lot of people listening are non-traditional students as well. So what was it like- you had mentioned that it took a lot longer for you to apply. What was it like having this full-time job- I'm assuming it's full-time teaching. And studying for the MCAT, and preparing to apply to medical school. What was that like and what advice would you give for somebody else that's out there with a full-time job, maybe with kids, and trying to balance all this?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah. I mean I think it takes a lot of sort of internal drive to do it. And I think it was a little bit isolating to be studying for this test that- you know, I'm out of college, no one else is studying for a test. Most people in their summer were either doing more teaching or traveling, and here I was in a library again kind of by myself studying. So I think sort of- I took a class, I think it was a Kaplan class, that was very helpful in sort of re-engaging me with people and finding some people to study with. So I think that was useful for me.

And then also, you know the classes that I took, I was able to take some more sort of premed classes and Physiology and Anatomy; which got me excited about the content of medical school again. So I think that that was a big thing for me. Is sort of taking those classes to motivate me to say, “Oh I really want to learn more Physiology and I really am interested in doing that.”

Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay what was it about the application that took so long in your mind?

Dr. Tom Peteet: I think it was just my job was so demanding, my first year, that I couldn't really think about it. And then, you know, I needed to do the MCAT over the summer which I did. Yeah, I mean I think it was just thinking through, writing the essay, I remember that taking me awhile. Getting all the recommendations. I think being out of college, getting the recommendations from everybody was something that sort of took awhile as well. And just sort of putting the whole package together. And also sort of just thinking through sort of, ‘Why am I doing this,' as well. I think it was sort of a vague idea after college, but it took me sort of a year to really make the change from, ‘Okay I'm going to make a career change at this point.' You know.

UMass Medical School

Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay. So obviously you got into medical school, where did you end up going?

Dr. Tom Peteet: So I went to UMass Medical School.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay, good state school.

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah.

Dr. Ryan Gray: And what was that transition like from being again a full-time teacher, not in a classroom setting or at least on the other side of the table? What was that like now being a student again full-time, and in medical school?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah, so I would say frustrating would be a big word for me for a couple of reasons. One, I think was going from a setting where I'm on my feet, I'm interacting with 100 people a day, to going back to sort of being by myself in the library with some books. So sort of the social aspect was a tough transition.

And then also sort of as a teacher, sort of seeing where medical school education is. It was sort of frustrating to see that it wasn't sort of as advanced as I wanted it to be. In terms of different types of lectures, or different types of groups, or sort of the pedagogy wasn't where I wanted it to be at.

So I think the first couple of months were a pretty big transition for me, just sort of having a job to going back to being a full-time student. And I think for me, UMass is a place that it was great in that there was a pretty diverse place in terms of peoples' prior job experiences. I mean there was a guy who was twenty years out of college, who worked for IBM, who was a priest. There was people who worked for pharmaceuticals, people who had their PhD. So I think it was a pretty open school to non-traditional applicants. So I think that was a big source of support, sort of making that transition as a non-traditional applicant.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Did you know that going in, that they were open to non-trads; how did you narrow down what schools you applied to, and ultimately going to UMass?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah, so I think like a lot of people it was narrowed down for me. It was between UMass and a school in Philly, and at that point it was sort of a no-brainer for me based on the in-state tuition and the reputation of the school. So fortunately for me it wasn't a very difficult decision making process, deciding which school to go to. Just pretty happy to get into one that I liked.

And then as far as the non-traditional applicants go, I don't think until I got there I realized- and actually I don't think I realized until residency, how sort of a unique place it was and that there were many students in their forties for example, and I'm at Boston Medical Center now and I haven't really seen that age of student at Boston Medical- at BU School of Medicine for example.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah, okay good to know. And I think UMass only accepts Massachusetts residents, right?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah so the requirement is you either have had to have graduated from a high school in Massachusetts or have been a full-time resident for five years. So there's a couple people who after college lived in Massachusetts for five years, developed residency, and then applied to the school.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Alright, so all you non-trads out there that want to go to UMass, start working on that residency. Alright, so you are in medical school at UMass, you have this awesome background with Teach for America. What did you take from Teach for America- you had talked about your frustrations with the teaching there. Did you take those frustrations and do anything with that?


Dr. Tom Peteet: Yes and no. I think I tried to- you know, medical school can be very bureaucratic, like a lot of healthcare. So there's a lot of committees so I started joining committees. And so I was on some school curricular committees, which was actually quite fun because I got to sort of hang out with these professors who have been teaching for thirty years and sort of talk about ideas of medical education. Which was really, really fun actually. So that was one way and I sort of channeled that energy.

And then there was a lot of sort of more community engagement type things going on at UMass which I got involved with. There was a juvenile detention center that had some health teaching that I was able to run programs at that. So I think a lot of it was sort of getting the energy out a little bit outside of the medical school, too.


Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay. So you go through medical school; how did you narrow down and where did you narrow down your residency choice, your specialty, to?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah. So I was actually pretty sort of pluripotent, I had a lot of different fields I was considering. So I was thinking about psychiatry, I was thinking about family medicine, I was thinking about internal medicine. And by the end it was sort of a toss-up between the three of those. And I actually ended up applying to both internal medicine and family medicine, based mostly on sort of the fit of the program; I wanted to be in an urban setting, again in kind of a smaller program. And so I applied to programs that sort of had a very social justice mission, that were in urban areas and on the smaller side of things. So that's what sort of narrowed down my list.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Interesting. Did that come up at all during any of your residency interviews, that you were applying for multiple specialties?

Dr. Tom Peteet: I think- I mean I think they knew. I think it was probably a quarter of them would ask me about it, and I think when I told them they said, “Oh yeah, that makes sense to me.” Some people were kind of territorial about their particular field. They're like, “Oh, well I wouldn't do family medicine if I were you. Or I wouldn't do internal medicine if I were you,” and just sort of trying to sell me on their particular field. But for the most part people seemed to get it and but they still wanted me as a convert.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah, and at least the two fields that you were applying for are similar. It's not like you were applying for orthopedic surgery on one hand, and family practice in the other.

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah, I think they saw it as sort of a positive thing overall.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay. So how's residency going for you now? What big surprises have you seen in residency, what tips would you give for somebody on their transition into residency?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah, I would say the best advice that someone gave me was they're like, “At some point Tom,” they said, “residency ends. That's the best part.” I don't think I'm as doom and gloom as that, I would say that after your first year you have a lot more freedom to really explore what aspects of medicine you're interested in. And so to sort of keep an eye out for- like maintain connections your first year with faculty you're interested in, other residents who are doing other projects you're interested in; because those people are going to help you immensely when you do have a couple weeks off, or when you do have a light rotation that you can really sort of get into the depth of what you're really interested in.

Writing for KevinMD

Dr. Ryan Gray: I would be interested in sleeping at that point. That's what I would be doing. That's awesome. So you have this other creative outlet. You've written some articles for KevinMD and Kevin is somebody that I'll have on the podcast actually next week. So it will be a good one. So if you're listening to this now, you want to hear from KevinMD, stay tuned for next week's podcast, it will be awesome.

So you've written four different articles I think I counted for KevinMD?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Where are you getting your creative juices for now writing?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah, that's a good question. I think a lot of it- I mean I've been writing ever since I was a teacher, so for probably ten years. So a lot of it is based on, frankly Twitter, I get a lot of ideas from Twitter. And from that, I read a lot about healthcare. I actually read a lot of KevinMD. And a lot of it is sort of what other sort of intellectual interests I have, I sort of think about in relationship to healthcare. So I started thinking a lot about, for example, medical records and then I started thinking about, ‘Well how do human beings make decisions on computers, and is their decisions any different from on computers than in regular life?' And so that led me to talk to a lot of doctors and inspired an article about whether medical records make us think differently and are helpful, or a hindrance. So that's an example and sort of a topic that had been sort of floating around in my head for awhile, but I think maybe my Philosophy background or something sparked an interest.

Life After Residency Outlook

Dr. Ryan Gray: Interesting. Yeah, no you have some good stuff. So what is your goal after residency is done and you are free to do whatever you want? How do you see your life as a physician?

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah, so I think I'll probably sleep for a couple weeks. And then- yeah I think I've done a bunch of international rotations and I'm really interested in- if my personal life lines up correctly to spend a couple years abroad, and work within a medical school in residency and do a lot of teaching and see patients, and then have some type of collaboration with a US-based institution as well.

Dr. Ryan Gray: Interesting. Do you know what programs are out there for that, to allow US-trained physicians to go abroad?
Overseas Programs

Dr. Tom Peteet: Yeah, there's a couple. There's one I worked with which was the Harvard Botswana Program which is sort of just still getting off the ground. But residents can go over there- I'm not sure if medical students can. But actually, UPenn medical students go over there all the time and work with this particular program. And so a lot of the program is developing curriculum for residents and medical students, but also medical students in Botswana which I think is really cool.

So there's the Harvard Botswana Program, and right now there's also a lot of global health fellowships that people can do, that will kind of give you some MPH classes, sometimes even an MPH, and then also give you some training overseas at the same time. So I think that's another really good option for people graduating who are thinking about doing something in global health; maybe not living for thirty years, but sort of developing a skill as you're doing sort of global health work.

Advice for Students

Dr. Ryan Gray: Wow, that's cool. That's very interesting and very different so that's good to hear. So Tom, as we end up here, what advice do you have for a premed student or a medical student, a non-traditional premed, as they go on their journey? Now in your looking back, you've gone through the whole journey, what advice do you have for them that you wish maybe you knew starting out?

Dr. Tom Peteet: That's a good question. So I think I guess I'll split it up. So for the premedical student, I think I would say to sort of see as much healthcare as you can. So for me, I'd seen a lot as a hospice volunteer, which is a very specific type of setting, which I think in hindsight is very unique and not like what most of medical school and residency was like. So I think in hindsight as a premed, I wish I had spent more time just sort of in a hospital and sort of around that culture of medicine a little bit more.

And then as a medical student, I guess my advice to non-traditional students would be to sort of seek out people as much as you can, who have had other experiences and talk about how they've integrated that into their medical practice. Because I actually think there's a lot of people who have a whole other sort of skillset and world that they bring to medicine, that if you don't ask you don't know. And I mean a lot of people are concert musicians, and writers, or they studied economics in college. I think everyone who becomes a physician really has something unique other than medicine, that they usually needed to tame them down a little bit in order to do medicine. And sort of seeking those people out can be very re-invigorating.


Dr. Ryan Gray: Alright, that was Tom Peteet. Again you can go to and find the blog, and search for Tom Peteet, and we'll have links to this in the show notes. But you can see the stuff that he's written about.

So hopefully you've learned some interesting things; I learned a ton of stuff like the awesome programs that he's looking at to go overseas as a physician after he's done with residency, that's pretty cool. So again, that's Tom Peteet, if you have any questions for me, for him, go to which is the show notes page specifically for this episode and you can ask those questions there in the comment section.

We're also doing something new with our podcast, something that we used to do, but stopped doing and we're going to start transcribing the podcast episodes again. So if you prefer to read through while you're listening, or read it instead of listen; if you read instead of listen, maybe you're not listening to this right now, but that's okay. But we're going to have transcriptions of all the podcasts moving forward and then we'll work on getting them transcribed moving backwards as well. So hopefully those will help some of you out there that are looking forward to that.

We do have three amazing new reviews this week. Five start reviews and ratings. We're almost at 250, so if you're one of those that's been listening for awhile and just haven't pulled that trigger to leave us a review, go to It only takes a couple minutes and we greatly appreciate it.

We have ShayPS who says, “Awesome, I love this podcast. As a premed student it has helped me in the process of getting my application and getting ready for the MCAT.” So ShayPS.

RyDog51 says, “Motivational. Been listening to the podcast for the last few weeks and it has lit a new fire of motivation.” That's RyDog51, thank you for that.

And CarlosRSR says, “Great source of information, I'm a premed in Puerto Rico. I just love this podcast.” So thank you CarlosRSR from Puerto Rico.

We should have some stuff about Puerto Rico because they do have medical schools in Puerto Rico if you're not familiar with this. The medical schools in Puerto Rico are considered US medical schools, but they do cater to Spanish speaking students if you'll notice, it's a lot of Spanish speaking there. So maybe we'll have some information, maybe you can correct me on some information if I got that wrong. But I think that's it, yeah.

So hopefully you got a ton of great information out of today's podcast. Like I said, go to to download your free thirty plus page report, and I hope to see you next time here at the Medical School Headquarters.

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