Thursday, March 25, 2010

Would I have done anything differently?

QUESTION: Is there anything you wish you had done, or done differently (fellowship, 6-month trip to India, get married before rather than after school, etc.) over the course of your training, starting in college?
FROM: GradStudent, child-less, unmarried 20-something aspiring science researcher and medical school instructor

Oh, the “woulda-shoulda-coulda” question! Isn’t it human nature to question what we’ve done and what might have been if we had taken a different course of action at some point?

That said, there are some things that I wish I would have known when I was at your stage of the game. Specifically, I wish that someone had told me that taking a little extra time to complete my schooling would not impact my future adversely. When we’re in undergraduate (and even high school!), there’s a pressure to complete everything ASAP. However, most of us need a little time to percolate (OK, mature) before we reach our full potential. Additionally, learning to savor time away from a job (or books) can help make our productive time that much more productive.

I’m happy that I delayed marriage until after my formal schooling was done – I didn’t have to worry about spending extra time in the library prior to exams, nor did I have to worry that my husband didn’t really understand why a lab finished at 3P one day but not until after 6 on another. I didn’t have children until the end of residency, and I wouldn’t change that – I think I needed the extra time to sow my wild oats!

But, even with these items in mind, as I look back on my experience in college and med school there are a few things that I wish I would have done differently. The college I attended for my undergraduate education had (has) a terrific overseas study program. At the time, I felt that I needed to concentrate on my science courses rather than spend time on additional language classes, and so I didn’t think twice about ignoring the information about the program that crossed my path. In retrospect, I think that to have had an experience of being completely immersed in another culture would have been good for me – personally, to have shaken me out of my cocoon of comfort, and professionally, so that I’d have some empathy for those patients I see who are new to our way of life. In a similar vein, perhaps I should have gone on the “backpacking in Europe” summer trip that I was too afraid to pursue at age 22. I wouldn’t have worried as much about majoring in a science, but would have spent more time in classes that I really enjoyed. I would have learned earlier that just because something comes easily to me doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile for me to pursue. I would have recognized sooner that life is a journey, not a destination.

So, dear GradStudent, I hope this answered your question. As you look ahead to your career in research, or teaching (or whatever you ultimately decide on), don’t be afraid to take a detour – it might be one of the best decisions you’ll make!



  1. Hooray for taking time off! As someone who took 7 years between college and med school, and is now ALSO doing a PhD, sometimes it stings to know that most of my college friends are now attendings. On the other hand, I'll never be one of those people who feels like a) I made the wrong decision to go to medical school, or b) thinks that if I hadn't gone to med school in my 20s life would have been So! Much! Fun! (it wasn't).

    Take time off!!! Having a "real" job is overrated.

  2. I was afraid to travel in college, too - and regret it. Planning some big time trips after the kids get a little older. I can't wait to start that.

  3. Just to play the devil's advocate... I took a rather leisurely route through school, with an extra year here and there, and now rather regret it. Having fallen in love with academic medicine, I'm just completing an MD/PhD - and now residency and motherhood and tenure clocks and biological clocks are in a heated battle against each other. Honestly, those extra couple of years would make a noticeable difference now! It all depends on where you end up wanting to go, but... being a little ahead on the path can actually ease things more than you might expect for women in science....


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