Laura Black, a recent fourth-year matcher out of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, WA, gives us her expert advice on succeeding in medical school and beyond.
1. Tell us about yourself: Where are you from? What is your undergraduate degree and where did you receive it? Did you do anything between undergraduate and medical school?
Laura Black: I grew up in the Seattle area and studied Spanish language and literature at Western Washington University. Before medical school, I spent two years living in Spain studying Spanish and taking medical coursework. I then returned to Seattle and got involved with a local bilingual community health center, performing health disparities research and volunteering as an interpreter. I came into medical school at the University of Washington with a strong interest in health disparities, especially those affecting immigrants and refugees.
2. What residency program will you be joining and where?
LB: I matched at NYU’s psychiatry program in New York City and will be training at Bellevue Hospital.
3. Looking back on your medical school experience, what would you say to the young and naïve “first-year you”?
LB: You might feel like the most ignorant person in the room (I sure did!), but you bring a perspective and experience to the table. Part of your job is absorbing the knowledge imparted to you by seniors, but another part is bringing a new set of eyes and questions to the situations you encounter.
In basically any situation (educational or clinical), it’s probably best to keep your questions open-ended and be careful of assumptions.
4. What things did you do that you believe were valuable to succeed the first two years in the classroom?
LB: Finding a study method for medical school can be very stressful, and I think students sometimes feel pressured to reinvent the wheel. Remember that you know yourself best; try to draw on study methods that have worked for you in the past. For me, that meant lots of verbal review with study partners, and kinetic learning by drawing and writing on a white board. But one method seemed to hold true for everyone — do a lot of practice questions!
5. What things did you do that you believe were valuable to succeed the second two years through clinical rotations?
LB: Try to identify a goal for each rotation, like gaining confidence in the neuro exam, giving more organized oral presentations, and so on. Find something to be excited about, even if it’s just the fact that you may never be in the OR or deliver babies again. Residents and attendings are not expecting perfection! But they do appreciate you being punctual, professional, and asking here and there for tips on improving your presentations. Pay attention to residents’ presentations for things to emulate. Help with discharge planning as much as you can — you’ll often have the most time to think about your patient’s social situation. Ask your senior resident for help with particular physical exam findings or maneuvers if you’re not sure or just want extra practice.
6. What things did you do during your four years of medical school that stuck out or particularly impressed your residency program?
LB: Pursue your passions. I continued working with Spanish speaking patients because that was my interest, and did a summer internship in rural family medicine with migrant farmworkers. I also spent time at a hospital in Paris working with refugees. These were both great learning experiences, and communicated to residency programs that I wanted to continue on the path of community health and global health disparities.
7. What things were unhelpful or you wish you hadn’t done in medical school?
LB: Don’t think you need to be involved in everything! You need to sleep and perform well in your coursework. Get involved in a select few things you care about, and it’s perfectly okay for most of your major activities to be during non-class times, like during the summer or time off of rotations. You don’t need to do everything simultaneously, though some of your classmates will do that, which is fine too.
Remember that a huge component of your residency application will be clerkship grades and evaluations, and that clerkships are also where you will likely decide which specialty to pursue. So during the preclinical years, do get involved in areas you think you might have an interest in, but don’t feel pressured to have a pre-packaged resume by the end of MS-2. Be open to being surprised.
8. What was your level of involvement in research and other extracurricular activities, and your opinion on how important that involvement is?
LB: I think it’s easiest to get involved if you do a formal research program, usually the summer between MS1 and MS2. I think this can be valuable and is a good way to meet mentors. I didn’t become involved in research until later, when clinical mentors got me involved in some ongoing projects. I think the importance of this depends on your specialty.
9. What attracted you to your chosen specialty?
LB: I was interested in community health, and initially was headed toward primary care. However, I was most drawn to patients with mental health and psychosocial challenges, and found that my primary care mentors often wished they had more time and training to work with these patients. I spent some time with a child and adolescent psychiatrist at a residential treatment center, and was immediately drawn to both the patients and the psychiatric approach.
10. What attracted you to your residency program?
LB: I hoped to find a program with rigorous academics, breadth of clinical training, and a strong sense of social conscience. NYU was a natural choice. Bellevue is the oldest public hospital in the United States, and I really connected with its spirit of serving patients from all walks of life. New York is also a great place to learn psychiatry with many conferences, professional organizations, and psychoanalytic institutes.
11. What things did you do to maintain your sanity in medical school?
LB: Lots of yoga and pilates whenever possible! My classmates and I would also get together just to make silly crafts or do yoga. Even five minutes of a meditation podcast, or a 10 minute jog. Little things add up, and that can be hard to remember when you’re constantly pushing yourself to overachieve.
12. The floor is yours — what do you wish to share with current medical students?
LB: Take it one step at a time, and trust the process. You will do great.