medical student mentality

Being an MD/PhD student has given me the unique opportunity to be taught by the same professors that taught my medical school courses in a graduate school setting. I used to have a more graduate student-like mind—I used to think in terms of how, why, hypotheses, and experiments. But med school converted my thinking into okay-what-do-I-need-to-know-out-of-all-this-mumbo-jumbo-to-pass-the-test-and- the-boards.

And PhDs hate this. They hate how med students want to be spoon-fed every bit of information and how they can’t seem to think. They hate how med students whine about how what they teach them is irrelevant because it won’t be covered on the USMLE Step 1. They hate how they have to dumb their tests down for med students. Imagine my horror at being the butt of these professors’ jokes every other day.

One day, it’s, “So, for your test, you will need to describe the experiments that support this fancy-shmancy theory of how your body exercises and those that support the other fancy-shmancy theory of how your body exercises. Then I want you to describe what would happen to these responses if there were lesions in different parts of the pathways involved. I used to ask med students this question, but they complained and now I don’t teach that class anymore.”

Another day, it’s, “If this were a med school lecture, I would stop here, since all they care about is memorizing facts. But since we’re in grad school, I’ll be showing you all the classic experiments that gave rise to these facts.”

And then there’s the ever popular, “You know what the worst thing about med students is? Well, it’s the fact that you’ll spend two hours lecturing them only to have someone raise their hand at the end of the two hours and ask, ‘Will this be on the test?’”

I don’t know what to do besides sink down in my chair (for all the good it does when our class consists of a mere five people) when these comments are made. Not that these professors are exaggerating. What they say is true. I saw it myself (though I, of course, was never guilty of such crimes) during the two years that I spent in medical school. We abhorred long open-ended essay tests because studying for them was just plain impossible because of the fact that we were also taking at least three other super-demanding classes at the same time. But there was nothing we dreaded more than the professors whose two-hour lectures consisted of nothing more than old Powerpoint slides of every single antiquated study that was ever done on a given topic. Where was the clinical relevance? And how are we supposed to study for the test? Hence, the much maligned, “Will this be on the test?” question. It’s not that we didn’t appreciate your giving us a complete history of nerve conduction, it’s just that we don’t have the time to digest all of it and also pick up the facts that we need to know to pass the USMLE Step 1.

Even though I give reasons for the med student mentality, I don’t fully support it. I think that med students are in fact spoiled. Just a casual flip through our packets of old tests makes that fact abundantly clear. As the years progressed, essay tests gave way to multiple choice tests. Multiple choice tests gave way to easier multiple choice tests. Finally to some tests that were even pretty much identical year after year (except for the fact that answer choices would change letters). Did they find that it doesn’t matter whether med students pass essay tests or multiple choice tests? That regardless, they make good doctors? Or did professors become too lazy to write new tests/grade essay tests? Or was there too much whining? I really don’t know. What I do know is that my class sure whined a lot, and not always with good reason. Whining against good-for-nothing-except-torturing-quiet-types-warm-and-fuzzy doctoring class = good thing. Whining because >50% of the class failed (I was not among them) the epidemiology final because they thought it was a joke and were too busy studying for the USMLE Step 1 to bother with studying for epidemiology = being spoiled brats. Unjustified as it was because it was clearly their fault for not studying, these whiners won and got the professor to throw out enough questions from that exam to bring the fail rate to a more acceptable number (whatever that is).

I must say that med students are quite spoiled. How so, you ask. Well, I broke my finger during my first year of med school and tried to insist on still taking my weekly endocrinology quiz at the designated time. The professor insisted I do otherwise, so I reluctantly did. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the professor’s office to take the makeup quiz to see a good ten other classmates in there. Did they all also break their fingers? And here I thought that we could only delay the quiz if we had extenuating circumstances. I guess partying too hard and failing to study were considered extenuating circumstances. And then, when one student just had to miss some lecture or other, this one student forced the administration to videotape that lecture for him. Whatever happened to simply asking your classmates for notes? Spoiled, I say.

Being an MD/PhD student has allowed me to see things from a different perspective. I see how much effort goes into preparing lectures and exams. So I can understand why professors complain about med students. But their complaining doesn’t really help the divide that seems to exist between med students and grad students—it really doesn’t help me fit in with the rest of my grad student peers who don’t see me as a grad student, but rather as an out-of-place med student. And it places more pressure on me to prove to these professors that I do not have the same med student mentality that they detest so, that in fact I deserve my PhD. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have such a problem if med students would stop acting like such spoiled brats. And that won’t happen until the powers-that-be learn how to say no to unjustified whining. Or when these whiners go on the wards and learn the hard way that whining just won’t work. Whichever comes first, I guess.

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The patient is a 20-something-year-old MD/PhD student with a history of extensive schooling now presenting with frustration at her current lack of progress consistent with being stuck in a rut.
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