My path to graduate school: medicine vs. research

After leaving the California Institute of Technology with a BS degree in biology, I took a relaxed summer in preparation for what is going to be the next 5, 6, or maybe even 7 years of my life – graduate school.

The first step to tackling graduate school starts well before you step through the front doors. It starts in your undergraduate years when you find your passion. For me, that passion was in the sciences. Aided by my parents’ urging towards a career in science, I participated in local science fairs and started research in the latter years of high school at the National Cancer Institute. There, I truly had my first taste of biological research. However, I didn’t expect that I would ever end up in graduate school.

National Cancer Institute at Frederick, MD.

National Cancer Institute at Frederick, MD. Source.

Despite only having experience in research, I never considered it as a career choice. Biology was something that I excelled at, and I knew that I was interested in helping people through medicine. These dreams motivated me to want to become a doctor from a young age. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of as many as I could touch. I was so focused on that path that I never considered any others– blinded to other careers, especially those not in science. To understand how a career in medicine would be, I chose to do an internship at the Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena.

Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, CA.

Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, CA. Source.

For 6 weeks, I arrived at 7:00AM to doctors checking on patients and reading charts. I rotated through different wards including pediatrics, neurosurgery, and pathology. I remember that, on several occasions, I had to stand for 6 or more hours watching surgeries. The doctors told me that they had done the same surgery several times that week for many weeks in the month and many months in the year. But, of course, not all the rotations were so repetitive. My experiences in internal medicine were probably most interesting because I was able to meet different patients every day and see doctors’ diagnoses and treatments. However, what I found after the 6 weeks was most telling about the outlook of my future – I wanted to be a scientist.

For the last 3 weeks of my internship, most of my thoughts led to returning to the laboratory bench. I realized that leading up to this point in my life, I was being trained to be a scientist, yet I was so blinded by the goals set by my parents and myself. I realized I yearned for the creativity that comes with research and the flexibility to take projects in whichever direction was most interesting. The natural curiosity I had about the world around me was repressed by, from what I thought, the monotonous routine of being a medical doctor. Even more telling was the fact that I was at one of the world’s leading research institutions. It’s almost as if my actions knew what I was meant to do, but my mind had yet to accept.

As a young student in middle school and high school, I lacked the wisdom to understand that I should question my motives for wanting to be a medical doctor. Equally or even more important than using medicine to treat patients is to discover those medicines, and that is almost exclusively the job of the scientists. It took me several years to realize that researchers could be as helpful to people as a medical doctor.

Now that I’m in graduate school, I’m glad to be where I am. I go to work every day wondering how to take my science to the next level and think about biology in ways that I had never before. Every day seems like a new problem to tackle, and I appreciate that about research. I realized that being a medical doctor was not something that matched my interests, although it can certainly be the right career for those looking for patient contact and a direct impact on patients’ lives.

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Marvin is a PhD candidate at Stanford University in Immunology. He was an editor-in-chief at the Caltech Undergraduate Research Journal. See it at curj.caltech.edu. Follow on twitter @Marvzipan. gee.marvin@gmail.com

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