Diane Brackett, a recent fourth-year medical student who matched to Massachusetts General Hospital for pathology, gives us her expert advice on succeeding in medical school and beyond.
1. Tell us about yourself:
Diane Brackett: My name is Diane Brackett and I grew up in a small town in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I studied neuroscience at Bates College in Maine. After graduating and working at a physical therapy clinic for a year, I moved to Orlando and started medical school at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. I’m going to be a first-generation physician, and will be starting my pathology residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I’ve played ice hockey for many years and continue to enjoy skating in my free time. I’m also a big fan of going for long nature walks, and I have a serious collection of tea.
2. Looking back on your medical school experience, what would you say to the young and naïve “first-year you?”
DB: I was determined to take good care of myself throughout medical school and to live comfortably. Year after year I requested the maximum loan amount that was available. Though I did have a roommate, I lived in an apartment complex that was the equivalent of a resort (by a New Englander’s standards). I didn’t hesitate to shop at Whole Foods, buy a new bicycle, or purchase an annual pass for Universal Studios. I would argue that preserving my health and happiness was critical in preventing burnout, allowing me to fully succeed in medical school. Yet, I probably could have lived on a tighter budget. I wish I had been less naïve about how much debt I was putting myself into. I would have told “first-year me” to set up regular appointments with the financial aid counselor to try to be smarter about money. Now, I’m banking on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program to help relieve some of my debt.
3. What tips do you have for USMLE?
DB: Understand that this is just something you have to do. It’s not going to be fun to sit in your room taking a nine-hour practice test for Step 2 CK. But it’s a short-term sacrifice and with dedicated studying, it will pay off later. I was in tears when I had to reschedule my Step 1 exam to give myself an extra week to study (and as a result only had two days off before starting third year) but I ended up doing very well, and when I look back now, I’m glad I made that decision. It was completely worth it. Also, don’t forget to take good care of yourself during Step studying (and all of the time, for that matter). Don’t be that person who says they forgot to eat, or don’t have enough time to take a shower. Pace yourself. You may have an advisor who helps you create a study schedule that seems daunting — but do the best you can with the understanding that sometimes you have to reach for the stars in order to land on the moon.
4. What advice do you have for the students going through clinical rotations?
DB: Be professional at all times. Limit your complaining and be a team player. Never assume nothing is going on and no one cares, so you are “free” to go home. Instead, always ask if there is anything more you can do; make your attending or resident explicitly state that you can go home. If you always put the patients first, you’ll succeed.
Also, when scheduling fourth year electives, aim to have diverse experiences; don’t make it a “mini intern year.” This may be your last time opportunity to explore various specialties.
5. What recommendations do you have for medical students to maintain their sanity?
DB: If you have a favorite hobby or activity, don’t put it off until after medical school, when you are more settled and “have more time.” There’s never going to be a perfect or “easier” time. Make time for something that is purely for you, and no one else. For me, that was hockey. I joined a recreational league and played one game a week. It was relatively time-consuming, but it gave me a sense of freedom and power. It was so refreshing to do something completely outside of my life as a medical student.
Another tip I have for maintaining your sanity is to not be afraid to be creative with your study spaces. For example, bring your iPad with you to a treadmill and use flashcard apps to study while walking. There’s no reason you have to be hunched over and cooped up in a library cubicle 100 percent of the time. Switch it up. When you’re studying at home in the evenings, light a candle, make things cozy! It’s the little things that can go a long way.
6. How did medical school differ from your expectations?
DB: I had been warned that medical school would be “so much harder” than undergrad. Despite hearing about all the misery and burnout, I still had my mind set on becoming a doctor. I was pleasantly surprised to find that (for the most part), I enjoyed my studies, and coped well. Even after a very long day, I felt a sense of accomplishment. At random times, the thought would strike me: “Hey, you know, what I’m doing is pretty cool.” The thrill that is often felt at the white coat ceremony never faded for me. I remained grateful that I had been accepted to medical school in the first place. I am not saying that everything was glorious 100 percent of the time, but I felt secure knowing that I went to medical school for the right reasons. I was living my dream in the here and now — I didn’t feel rushed to “get through all this” so that I could finally do what I wanted to do. I tried to enjoy each step of the journey. In short, I think I surprised myself by how much I actually liked being in medical school.
7. Are there any particular patients you’ve encountered that have really stuck with you?
DB: I find that I tend to recall certain patients whenever my family members and friends share anything medical-related with me. For example, when I learned that a great uncle will be needing radiation therapy for skin cancer on his ear, I instantly thought of an elderly gentleman I met during a radiation oncology elective. He also had skin cancer on his ear. He had dementia and needed to be reminded of the treatment plan each time he came to the clinic. Modifications had to be made to his face mask because he felt very claustrophobic in it, which impaired his sense of being able to breathe comfortably. Despite everything, he was very cooperative.
8. What things did you do during your four years of medical school that you believe particularly impressed your residency program?
DB: I think residency programs in general were impressed that I completed three pathology electives before I even started my interviews. It was an incredible learning experience for me, and gave me so much to talk about during my interviews. I think my enthusiasm and commitment to pathology came across very clearly, and that’s what impressed them the most.
9. What attracted you to your chosen specialty?
DB: There are numerous reasons why I chose pathology. It is a field that encompasses the interface between the basic sciences and clinical practice. With all the advances in genomics and precision medicine, it is an exciting time to be in pathology. It is a highly intellectual specialty that requires incredible breadth and depth of medical knowledge. These are characteristics that appeal to me, as an individual who enjoys studying medicine in and of itself. The diagnostic focus of the specialty is another attraction. As a “doctor’s doctor,” I will have a huge responsibility in making timely, accurate diagnoses that could mean life or death for my patients.
Furthermore, between anatomic and clinical (laboratory) pathology, there are numerous subspecialty opportunities, which makes the specialty all the more engaging. You can become a dermatopathologist and join a private practice, or you can work in a community hospital as a transfusion medicine specialist. You can become an expert in forensic neuropathology, or maybe you love electron microscopy and medical kidney is your thing. Although I am currently interested in pediatric pathology and general surgical pathology, I’m keeping an open mind. I can’t wait to see what the future brings.
I should note that with a few exceptions, there is very limited patient contact in pathology, and this is something I had to come to terms with. I do not doubt that I will occasionally miss meeting patients, and making connections with them. Ultimately, I found that the pros of pathology far outweighed the cons.
The minimal patient contact is probably a major reason why few medical students choose to pursue the specialty. Also, most students get almost no exposure to the specialty. I was fortunate to have had enough of an initial interest to pursue it further. Once I let go of living up to the expectations of becoming the kind of doctor I thought I was going to be, and what everyone else expected me to be, I fully embraced my true passions. I was lucky to have met a number of outstanding pathologists who showed me that they are every bit as much of doctor as their “clinical” colleagues. They never forget the patient who is behind the specimen or lab test.
10. What is your biggest fear about beginning residency?
DB: I am going into pathology residency feeling that I was made for this. I have the confidence that this is something I not only like, but something I have the potential to excel at. My biggest fear is that I become burnt out, unhappy or otherwise demoralized, and will no longer enjoy the specialty as much.
11. Here is a fun one — Please share an easy and quick recipe that got you through tough weeks in medical school!
DB: Some people might think these “recipes” are weird, but here are a few things I regularly ate. I find them healthy and filling.
– Home-made popcorn, sprinkled with nutritional yeast
– Eggplant, cut up, oven-roasted in olive oil and seasoned with a little bit of salt, pepper, and ginger
– Kale, cooked with olive oil, sun dried tomatoes and shredded Romano cheese
– Fresh pomegranate seeds (arils) — they are so crunchy, juicy and tangy!