We all experience unexpected delays. You may think that you have to follow a prescription for getting into medical school and there can be no detours. In a way, it seems like the people who get in have had rather straight-forward paths but this is hardly a universal truth. Life happens. Sometimes your family members get sick. Sometimes you get sick. Sometimes an interesting opportunity to take an adventure comes along and you should take it. Sometimes you need to take advantage of being young to be a high-performance athlete and so you take a year off school. Sometimes you need to earn some money because post-secondary education is very expensive and you want to be able to pay for it without selling your future to the banks. Sometimes your Masters or PhD experiments fail profoundly and you need to start again. Sometimes the teaching assistants go on strike.
But how you talk about these delays matters. You must have a clear narrative for why you took these breaks, what you did on break and what this break means for your ability to function at a very high academic level for many years to come.
So let's break down these delays into two main categories: personal delays and institutional delays.
I can fathom hundreds of scenarios in a regular person's life that would force them to put school on hold for a semester, a year or even longer. Most of them are unfortunate but some are great. If you were busy playing on the national hockey team, then you don't need my help telling that story. That story will sell itself wonderfully.
The personal delay caused by illness can be more complicated. If you had to take a semester off because of serious physical illness, such as cancer or a debilitating car accident, it is advisable to just state this outright. There is little stigma around these types of health issues. The main question schools will have is around how your current health will hold up to the demands of training in medicine. For example, if you became visually impaired at some point during your undergraduate training and took a delay as a result, schools will have questions about your capacity to complete medical training. And each medical school clearly states its policy on their official admissions website regarding candidates with disabilities.
For context, I attended grand rounds at my hospital this morning. The presenter was one of our local radiologists who has a congenital malformation of his right arm that has implications for his fine motor skills. Also, one of my classmates from medical school has a similar kind of malformation. She started medical school thinking that she could only go into radiology as a result of her hand but quickly fell in love with family medicine. She is now a first year resident in family medicine.
Delays as a result of mental health challenges are more complicated. First, there is persistent stigma around mental illness in our society and, yes, even in medicine. The stigma is sometimes greatest among the very high-functioning in our society even though it is well known that doctors experience depression and burnout at rates higher than the general population.
People who have not had to take a delay in their undergraduate training can hide their mental illness. There is no obligation to disclose illness, unless you've been sentenced criminally as a result of activity related to the mental illness. However, people who have had to take time off to get treatment, or to deal with crisis, are at a disadvantage because they have to explain the delay. If this is you, you are under no obligation to say that you took an academic break because of mental illness but you have to have some sort of explanation that makes sense. And your explanation cannot be false. So you can't say you traveled the world on your time off when you were actually an inpatient in a treatment centre.
So how do you talk about these kinds of mental health breaks without raising doubts about your suitability for medicine? First, you don't need to go into great detail. You can use statements like, "I took a semester of leave in January 2015. I used this time to gain some perspective and support around a personal challenge. This was an enriching and transformative experience, one that I know will help me be even better in medicine. I took the time to plan my return to full-time academics with a balanced extra-curricular load. Subsequently, I performed very well academically and had a really fulfilling final year at [insert school]." This is a mature position to take on a difficult time, one from which you will not stop growing.
It is important to know that many doctors have mental health concerns but that doctors must be stable in order to practice safely. That is, if you feel as though you are at risk of harm or unable to predict your safety, it is advisable to seek help in the near term and plan your approach to medical school entry at a later time. It is not as important as your health.
These kinds of delays are easy to explain because they're in the news. And they're fact-checkable. But it's important to avoid coming off as very political on either side because you never know which of your interviewers is a former grad school TA or an administrator currently involved in contract negotiations. Just state the facts of the delay as objectively as possible and this should be sufficient.
Unfortunately, lab mice don't read the same textbooks and bench science articles you do. Neither do patients. Neither do key informants. Experiments have unpredictable outcomes which is why they're called experiments. Ethics boards miss deadlines constantly. Supervisors forget to submit your name for publication or presentation at a conference routinely. This is the gruel of graduate school.
And so people get delayed. They finish their Masters degrees in three years instead of two. Or their PhDs in seven years as opposed to five. As long as you describe these delays in reasonable terms, truthfully, the medical schools will not hold it against you. There aren't usually full-time study stipulations on graduate degree grades like there are with undergraduate grades. Transcripts aren't reviewed as closely.
When talking about these delays in graduate studies during personal statements or interviews, do not blame the delays on everything but you. Don't blame the lab techs or the subjects or the ethics board, even if they all performed sub-par. Do make a clear and interesting insight on the nature and process of doing science in the modern academic environment. Do link your delay to some learning that will make you a better doctor. Do consider how your experiences in your nth year of graduate school will make you a better medical student.
Is it better to start over after a botched experiment in your final term of grad school? If it's because of bad science, probably. But if there is some finding to salvage that may help you on the road to a PhD or further studies, then submit your work, expect revisions and move forward. If you're just taking forever to finish because you're a perfectionist, then get moving. Procrastination paralysis is a really hard thing to explain to medical school admissions committees and it will eat you alive if you let it. Get writing and just finish it already.
About the author:
Dr. Ashley Faye White is currently a rural medicine resident at McMaster University and a senior admissions expert at BeMo. She has an M.D. from McMaster medical school and has navigated her way into med school as a non-traditional applicant.
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