A Non-Traditional Journey to Medicine
Like many premeds, becoming a physician was a childhood dream for me. My route to
becoming a premed has been less traditional than most, though. While I played doctor growing
up and loved to read all the health books I could get my hands on, I did not pursue the premed
path when I first went to college. After struggling a bit with math in middle school and having
only middling grades in high school, I did not think I would be accepted into the science
programs I thought you had to major in to become a physician. Without any mentors to tell me
otherwise, I gave up on my dream and went to college to study the performing arts instead. I
ultimately ended up going on to graduate school and landing in the land of education and
I continued to love science, so I introduced new STEM programs at my organization as I
launched my career after graduate school. If I could not go to medical school myself, then I
wanted to be involved in inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and physicians.
Though I encouraged my students to cultivate a growth mindset; to not be afraid to fail; and to
learn from their mistakes, I was not following my own advice! Throughout my work to that
point, I continued to feel the pull of regret and ongoing desire to become a physician, but was
that even possible? Could someone like me change careers and find a place in medicine?
Exposure to medicine in pop culture gave me a hint that it might be possible. Patch Adams was
a non-traditional student, so were several characters in my favorite medical drama, ER. I started
to research what it would take. Would I need to take more classes, or could I just take the
MCAT? Would I qualify for student loans, or would I need to pay out of pocket? Would I have to
quit a job I loved and commit to going back to school full-time? I had so many questions, and
thanks to the AAMC website and podcasts like “OldPreMeds,” I learned that it was possible and
that there were many paths to my goal.
Because I loved my job and already had student loan debt from my original undergrad and
graduate school degrees, it was important to me that I be able to continue to work while
pursuing my medical school prerequisites. I decided to pursue a “DIY post bacc” to complete
the coursework I would need. Since my original degree was in the arts, I had almost none of the
math and science requirements, so I had to start with freshman- and sophomore-level biology
and chemistry. I also lived in a rural area, so the nearest school was a regional community
college about 30 minutes away from the town where I lived and worked. To start with, I was
only able to take one evening class per semester.
It was so exciting to be back in a classroom and lab. At work I kept my goal a secret, lest it
appear that I was less than committed to my job, so class was one of the only places I could be
open about my dream. My community college classes were small, and I was able to get to know
my professors really well, which was great for me as a non-traditional student. They became
some of my greatest cheerleaders.
Even with only taking one class per semester, I soon ran out of courses that I could take through
the local community college. I had to make a decision: was I committed to this goal or not? I
was not entirely sure since I had not been able to do much shadowing to that point, and I did
not want to uproot myself to continue my journey unless I was sure. Fortunately, a mentor
helped connect me with my first real shadowing experience just in time to apply to transfer to a
four-year school to continue my journey. I shadowed in an urban emergency department,
where I was able to see some injuries but also urgent needs related to chronic illnesses. I loved
every minute but especially the clinical cases that needed diagnosis or management of chronic
disease. I left that night knowing that I had to keep moving forward to apply to medical school.
I was able to find a hybrid program that would allow me to simultaneously work and participate
in some in-person, on-campus experiences, such as labs. It was important to me to have the
chance to continue to learn lab skills in person. Shortly before starting at my new university, I
also changed jobs. I am still in the education and library field but now working even closer to
science and healthcare. Being able to use my growing scientific knowledge in health literacy and
public health education throughout my day job keeps my ultimate goal in sight.
It can be a bit mind-bending to be a non-traditional student sometimes, especially since
beginning my most recent job. I work alongside healthcare providers as a professional
colleague, helping with research and patient education. I may be on a first-name basis with
medical professionals and scientists by day, but when I am in class, I’m in a different position in
the academic hierarchy. At my job, I also supervise traditional undergraduate interns, including
some who are using their experiences to boost their own applications for medical school and
other graduate health careers. It is interesting to be asked to write letters of recommendation
for student interns who are planning to apply to some of the same programs I plan to apply to,
but it’s also an honor to be a secret premed with a chance to help out my premed peers.
I firmly believe that my winding journey to medicine has been worth it. I know it is not just a
childhood dream but a fully developed goal. I know that my experiences working; being a
patient myself; and building relationships within my community will give me rapport and the
ability to empathize with my future patients. I know that I have the determination and growth
mindset needed to succeed, and I might not have had them to the same degree had I taken a
more traditional route.