Before Gergana was an MS1, she was in the military, and before that, she was a programmer. Listen to this nontrad student’s unconventional story.
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[00:45] The MCAT Minute
The MCAT Minute is brought to you by Blueprint MCAT.
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[01:53] Her Interest in Becoming a Physician
Gergana’s desire to become a physician stems from her experiences growing up in a small rural town in New Hampshire. It all began when she came across a sign seeking volunteer firefighters and EMTs. It sparked her curiosity about career fields involving pro bono work. Intrigued, she researched becoming an EMT and discovered that obtaining the basic certification was relatively accessible compared to the extensive journey of medical school.
Gergana’s interest in the field grew as she embraced the adrenaline rush and problem-solving aspects of responding to 911 calls. She found herself continually drawn to EMS, even during breaks from college, eagerly taking shifts and immersing herself in the field. Gergana appreciates the instant gratification that comes with helping patients and witnessing their improvement firsthand. The unique challenges and independence required in the field, away from the hospital setting, have further solidified her passion for pursuing a career as a physician.
From Programming to EMT
Initially, Gergana’s plan was to pursue a major in hard science, guided by her Eastern European science parents who co-signed loans for her education. However, after exploring chemistry and biology, and even considering engineering, she realized those classes didn’t resonate with her. It was then that her father suggested she try a programming class, an opportunity he never had.
Gergana found the flexibility and convenience of being able to work on programming assignments in her dorm bed appealing compared to the demanding nature of organic chemistry. As she delved deeper into the field, she became engrossed in the realm of medical technology. Gergana began programming and developing software for MRI data analysis and worked with notable applications like MD Calc. This path seemed to align with her career aspirations, envisioning herself in med tech, aiding healthcare providers, and expanding access to care for more patients.
Alongside her programming pursuits, Gergana also maintained her passion for EMS, considering paramedic school as a potential future endeavor. EMS had been a significant and intense hobby for her, forming a crucial part of her identity for a considerable period of time.
Joining the Army
After finishing college and facing a few job offers, Gergana found herself experiencing a quarter-life crisis. She questioned whether she truly wanted to pursue a career as a programmer. But she was also aware of her limited financial resources, which made it difficult to take time off to explore other options.
Having known several military veterans and being drawn to the sense of structure and hierarchy that a uniform life offered, Gergana made the decision to join the army for a few years. She hoped that this experience would provide her with the opportunity to travel, engage in interesting jobs, and ultimately help her figure out her long-term career path.
Gergana served in the Army for nearly five years, until March of the current year, when she made the decision to transition out of military life.
[08:24] Gergana’s Journey in the South Korean COVID Response Unit
A Role in the COVID Response Unit
During her time stationed in South Korea, Gergana found herself pulled into a COVID response unit. However, her role in the unit was more administrative in nature, involving tasks such as maintaining quarantine buildings and gate screening operations.
Although she could witness the patient care provided by physicians and medics, she felt a mix of emotions, including guilt and a desire to be more actively involved in frontline healthcare.'I can see the physicians and the medics right there and I was so far away... I wanted to be there.”Click To Tweet
Contemplating a New Path
Witnessing the dedication and impact of healthcare professionals in the field, Gergana began considering a career change. Initially, she contemplated becoming a paramedic, but observing the multifaceted roles of physicians further sparked her interest. She recognized the importance of their mentoring, coaching, and educating responsibilities, not only for the public and patients but also for medics, nurses, and technicians.
The cohesion and leadership displayed by physicians intrigued her, leading her to consider the path of becoming a physician herself.
Exploring the Journey to Medical School
With newfound aspirations, Gergana turned to resources like Spotify to learn more about the medical school application process. While browsing platforms like Reddit and Student Doctor Network (SDN), she initially doubted her chances of being accepted into medical school. However, she stumbled upon a podcast that provided a sense of calm and inspiration.'It's easy to look at, like my application or my resume, and think like, ‘She's all over the place. She doesn't know what she wants to do.’ But ultimately, I figured it out.'Click To Tweet
Listening to successful applicants share their stories motivated Gergana. It reassured her that even with a diverse range of past experiences and careers, she could find her path to medical school. As she approached her 25th birthday, she reflected on her growth as an adult. She hoped that this would be her final bout of uncertainty, confident that she had ultimately figured out her calling.
[12:12] The First Steps for Nontraditional Students to Apply
Gergana found herself facing the daunting task of meeting the prerequisites for medical school. With her background and interests in chemistry, influenced by her mother’s profession, she initially considered pursuing a career as a chemist. However, she soon realized that her GPA wasn’t as strong as she had hoped, and she began exploring alternative paths.
Gergana discovered that completing a formal Postbaccalaureate program would require having most of the prerequisites already fulfilled, which presented a challenge for her. At the same time, she didn’t have enough prerequisites completed to pursue a Special Master’s Program (SMP). This led her to conduct extensive research online, diving deeper into the world of medical school requirements.
Choosing the Right Program
During her search, Gergana stumbled upon the concept of a “do-it-yourself” Postbaccalaureate program. Realizing that this could be a viable option for her, she made the decision to take night classes with UCLA Extension while being stationed in Los Angeles for a 12-month assignment.
This non-traditional approach to fulfilling prerequisites and studying for the MCAT added an extra layer of anxiety. She was juggling her active-duty military responsibilities alongside her academic pursuits.'I was active duty, that time working probably like over 50 hours a week. Am I doing the right thing?”Click To Tweet
Gergana couldn’t help but question whether the classes she took at UCLA Extension and community colleges would be deemed competitive enough by medical schools. She wondered if admissions committees would accept these courses as fulfilling the prerequisite requirements. Despite her doubts, she remained determined to pursue her passion for medicine and forge her own unique path.
Understanding Postbac Programs
There are generally two paths for formal postbac programs: career changer postbacs, which are designed for individuals who lack the necessary science prerequisites and need to complete them, and academic enhancer postbacs, intended for those who have already taken the prerequisites but did not perform well and need to retake them.
To assist students in their search, the AAMC provides a postbac database where programs can be filtered based on their specific type. Adding a timeline to this process would provide further clarity for students navigating their options.
[15:40] Balancing Prereqs and Opportunities: Navigating the Path to Medical School
Gergana had successfully completed both the chemistry and biology sequences, which brought her to a crucial point in her journey. She began extensively researching different schools to determine which ones aligned with the specific prerequisites she had fulfilled. It became evident that various institutions had unique requirements, ranging from biochemistry to physics with labs. Understanding the competitiveness of the application process, Gergana knew the importance of creating a well-balanced school list, a topic frequently discussed on your podcast and in your books.
As Gergana wrapped up the biology and chemistry sequences, she found herself stationed outside Seattle for a 12-month assignment. Her plan was to leave the army in August, right in the middle of the application cycle. However, there was one hurdle holding her back from finalizing her school list: physics. Coincidentally, during this time, she received an exciting temporary duty assignment and deployment opportunity in Germany.
Gergana faced a dilemma: Should she leave the army, potentially compromising her financial stability while taking physics classes? Or should she seize this incredible opportunity to utilize her Bulgarian language skills and continue serving in a meaningful way? Despite the uncertainty, her commitment to medical school remained unwavering, especially since she had already taken the MCAT by that point.
[19:16] Creating Her School List
Gergana knew that based on her timeline, it wouldn’t be possible to follow the traditional route. The schools that didn’t require specific prerequisites were extremely competitive, making it a risky choice. Despite the uncertainty, Gergana decided to take the gamble, although she does not recommend it to others due to the immense stress it caused.
Adding to the complexities, Gergana had to handle interviews while being in Europe, which added another layer of logistical challenges. Another factor that played a role was the average matriculation age of medical students, which tends to be around 22 or 23, whereas Gergana was older. This aspect is often mentioned on school websites and in their mission statements.
To get a better understanding of the composition of the accepted classes, Gergana suggests referring to resources like the database on MSAR (Medical School Admission Requirements). These sources can provide insights into the profiles of previous accepted classes.
[21:45] Things She Would Have Done Differently
Navigating the medical school application process as a nontraditional student, Gergana realized the importance of keeping neuroticism in check. Despite not having a premed community around her and not being active on platforms like Reddit, she initially believed that being a nontraditional applicant would give her an advantage. However, she soon realized that getting caught up in the emotions and anxieties of the process was all too easy.
As Gergana learned more about the inner workings of the medical school admissions process, she understood that even with a strong application, there were thousands of other students vying for limited spots. Moreover, admissions committees are comprised of humans who may have their own biases and personal experiences that can inadvertently affect the evaluation of applications. This human element in the process is something we cannot control.'There are things out of your control. You're going to have to do the best you can.'Click To Tweet
Gergana emphasizes the importance of caring about one’s application, story, and narrative while also recognizing that there are aspects of the process that are beyond our control. Rather than stressing excessively, she believes it would have been beneficial to accept that certain factors are simply out of her hands. By adopting this mindset, Gergana believes she could have saved herself a significant amount of unnecessary stress during the application process.
[23:35] Crafting a Narrative: Gergana’s Journey to Medical School
Gergana’s diverse range of career fields and experiences initially left her anxious about how medical schools would view her commitment to becoming a physician. With a seemingly unconnected array of experiences, she struggled to establish a coherent narrative explaining her desire for medicine.
However, by examining her experiences through her own lens and understanding the decisions she made and how they shaped her personal growth, Gergana was able to create a cohesive narrative. This narrative not only helped her during interviews, where she had a wealth of topics to discuss beyond her motivation for medicine. But it also made the Multiple Mini Interview (MMI) less daunting, as her varied experiences provided ample material to draw upon.'School is a huge commitment, not just a financial commitment, but a time commitment. That's a huge life choice that you're making.'Click To Tweet
Gergana’s unique career path, which involved working almost five years in 911 and obtaining her advanced EMT certification, intrigued many people. They wondered why she didn’t immediately pursue a career as a physician despite having accumulated thousands of clinical hours.
Gergana was able to explain that medical school is not just a financial commitment, but also a significant time commitment and life choice. She emphasized how her extensive experience in EMS allowed her to gain a deep understanding of the system as a whole, identify its deficiencies, and draw inspiration for her future life decisions beyond medicine.
[26:47] Overcoming Challenges and Showing Persistence in Pursuit of Medicine
Volunteering in Military Medicine
During the last section of her military training, Gergana found herself with more free time and decided to volunteer at the army ER. The experience was eye-opening as military physicians were eager to teach and share their knowledge. However, when she was stationed in Korea and applied to volunteer at the on-base EMS service in the ER, her responsibilities as a platoon leader left her with little time. The COVID-19 pandemic only added to the difficulties as clinical work became impossible due to the risk of spreading the virus among co-workers and soldiers.
Persistence in Seeking Clinical Experience
While studying for the MCAT, Gergana faced challenges in finding direct shadowing opportunities. She cold-called or emailed around 30 different clinics in and around Seattle, but due to the ongoing pandemic, most turned her down. Even military hospitals were not able to accommodate her. However, Gergana’s persistence paid off when she found a physician in a smaller military clinic who agreed to take her on. Recognizing the importance of consistency, she aimed for the required 50 hours of clinical experience.
Adapting and Showing Commitment
As the cycle approached, Gergana acknowledged that her EMS experience was from almost five years ago, making it crucial to show continued interest and dedication to medicine. Understanding that some circumstances were beyond her control, she emphasized these efforts within her application. To stay engaged in the medical field, she even participated in virtual shadowing hours, recognizing the importance of ongoing learning and showcasing her commitment to pursuing a career in medicine.'You're going to get advice from a lot of different people… it's important to take that advice within the frame of reference of your life, and what you have going on and what you've done.'Click To Tweet
[33:09] The Power of Asking for Help
In retrospect, Gergana thinks her biggest mistake was not reaching out to more people for help. She had limited connections with physicians and medical directors, and her experience in EMS seemed distant.
She realized that if she had reached out, she could have built her own support network and found advice that aligned with her mental health and application needs.
Fortunately, she was fortunate enough to meet another non-traditional career changer during her do-it-yourself postbac, who was planning to apply in the next cycle. She had a keen interest in the secondary essay process and graciously helped proofread her work. However, relying solely on one person was a significant burden, especially considering they were likely busy with their own secondaries at that time.'When you think you know, your narrative and your story really well, when you put it on paper, you might understand it, someone else might not understand it.'Click To Tweet
Finally, Gergana emphasizes the importance of staying true to oneself and understanding one’s identity. She acknowledges that it may sound cliché, but being genuine is crucial, especially when one lacks extensive activities or experiences to support their claims. Initially, she may have shrugged off this advice, thinking it was something she learned in kindergarten. However, she realizes its significance, as it became a key factor in her interviews. Being authentic and true to oneself resonated positively with interviewers and made a lasting impression.