December 13, 2021

How to Start Your Career Over as a Doctor as a Non-traditional Applicant

The path to medicine can seem daunting as a non-traditional student. There is no denying that the journey is chock-full of uncertainty and obstacles.

We interviewed two non-traditional students (one medical student and one current applicant) about their roads to medicine and how they overcame their challenges.

We hope these FAQs will be helpful in your own journey.

Profile of Non-Traditional Applicant #1:

  • Age: 45
  • Previous Career: Sr. Product & Implementation Manager for a software company

1. What were some unique challenges when applying as a non-traditional student? How did you handle them?

With three kids, working full-time as a Senior Product & Implementation Manager, coaching their daughter's softball team, leading their son's Cub Scout den, and being the secretary for their children’s elementary school foundation, I had many responsibilities to attend to.

I decided to responsibly hold onto several vines at once, not letting go of one vine before I grabbed another. This meant signing up to volunteer at a medical center to get a taste for the scene, and since there was a bit of overlap between the entrance requirements of nursing and MD programs in the area, I decided to also sign up for classes at a local community college. 

I focused on options that allowed me to keep working full-time. Unfortunately for me, already having a bachelor's degree put me very far down on the registration priority list and I couldn't even get on a waitlist of any of the pre-requisites at any of the community colleges within 30 miles. I went through a summer, fall, spring, and another summer registration cycle without being able to get even one prerequisite course. It also took a few months to get through the paperwork to start volunteering.

During my summer of career path research, including Excel spreadsheets of course requirements, mortgage payments, expected dates of kids in college, retirement, and more, I missed the entrance to a new post-baccalaureate pre-Health program. So I applied in winter 2015, found out how to access all my old transcripts, interviewed, and started in August 2015. It was about as full-time as you can get without doing a full bachelor's: we had the same professors as the regular undergrads, but isolated to nighttime from 5-9, Mon-Fri, in a cohort of 40 students.”

Keeping up with the coursework meant that I went straight from work to class every day. I missed all my kids’ afterschool activities and many weekend ones due to studying. I could still do all my morning stuff: breakfast, pack lunches, drop off at schools. But my husband's job often required long hours and last-minute all-day obligations. Before going back to school, I was always the parent who picked up the slack. But now, I couldn't expect his job to change just because I was pursuing a potentially fatally flawed dream. One of the special requirements I had for our nanny was someone who was willing to just stay until a parent came home.

So, here are the key takeaways:

  • If you’ve been away from the healthcare scene for a very long time, familiarize yourself with the environment before taking the plunge.
  • Research all your course requirements and deadlines for post-bacc/SMP programs EARLY ON.
  • You will (most probably) have responsibilities that you cannot handle by yourself, and it is fine to ask for/hire help.  

2. How did your gap year/previous work experience affect your current experience in medical school/in your profession?

Having kids also means that I have a very different perspective on patient expectations. Many of my classmates “get it,” but not all. It is very difficult to work, eat right, exercise, take care of kids, etc.

Adulting is hard work, and it only gets harder when you are responsible for little people - and this means I really do get it when patients are “non-compliant” - life is not easy, and non-compliance is rarely due to lack of will.

I also understand medical insurance! I've gone through a lot of different enrollment windows, HOAs, PPOs, EPOs, deductibles, co-pays, HSAs, etc.

3. How did you find a mentor?

Finding a mentor can be difficult, but here are some possible ideas: 

4. What resources helped you most in deciding to and in the process of changing your career?

I dug through old posts on SDN, read application websites for lots of different schools, read blogs, and created spreadsheets.

I volunteered and talked with all the doctors (and other staff too) I met along the way to ask them what they loved, what they hated, and if they'd do it again.

It was during one of my visits to campus to meet with professors and ask for letters of recommendation that I ran into some of my cohort classmates who seemed to be on the same application timeline.

One of them mentioned using Passport Admissions and really recommended it. Up until this point, pretty much 100% of my efforts were my own. I had no doctor friends coaching me on their experiences, and I had no resources from my undergraduate university. What I had was an SDN account for lurking. I reached out to several different companies that offered similar services and felt like I clicked the best with Passport. It turned out to be perfect for me.

I had a "voice" in my writing, but I didn't know the application game or what really came across as meaningful. Having a writing coach, an application coach, and interview practice was a huge missing piece in my puzzle. With their help, I applied to about 20+ schools, received interview invitations to five, and was accepted to every school where I interviewed.

I was and am still over the moon in awe of how this has happened.

5. How long did the preparation take? 

From “dream discussion” to the start of medical school, it took me about five years: 

  • Research phase: 6 months
  • Volunteering/application to post-bacc: 9 months
  • Post-bacc: 2 years
  • MCAT preparation: 6 months
  • Application preparation: 4 months
  • Application cycle: 7 months
  • Break from acceptance to eventual matriculation: 7 months

Profile of Non-traditional Applicant #2:

  • Age: 24
  • Previous Career: Veterinary Assistant

1. What were some unique challenges when applying as a non-traditional student? How did you handle them?

I am currently in the process of applying to medical school. Even though there are a lot of similarities between working in the veterinary and medical fields, the differences were somewhat difficult to maneuver.

For one, I had to research the differences in the applications and the process of applying, then make a plan to understand the field. It really helped that I already had a veterinary medicine backbone, but the difference between the two fields with certain specialties felt absolutely foreign, especially psychiatry which is underdeveloped in the veterinary field.

Trying to connect with other pre-med students about the application process made me feel like I had fallen behind or been left out in some cases, but I think I handled these challenges by understanding the uniqueness and similarities to my past experiences and figuring out how I would bring diversity and a unique experience to the field of medicine as a doctor.

2. How did your gap year/previous work experience affect your current experience in medical school/in your profession?

Early on in the pandemic, I decided to change my career route, and I considered this as an opportunity to work on myself and do as much as I can to make myself stand out as an applicant.

I took up two internships and started taking classes about human medicine at two different community colleges. I also did as much online clinical shadowing as possible in order to understand the field better (even though we are all socially distant, and it is much more difficult to find a doctor to shadow at these times) until I could find a doctor to shadow near me.

I believe these few years of preparing myself for applying to medical school were crucial in helping me understand what I was signing up for and solidifying my choice in a career change.

3. How did you find a mentor?

I actually never had a mentor to help me with the process. In fact, I took it upon myself to research the schools that I wanted to apply to with the help of the AAMC site and figured out based on their matriculated students what each school was looking for. I also reached out to current and graduated medical students to see what they did and made a plan for myself based on their testimonials.

However, I do encourage everyone to get a mentor as a pre-med student, as this was not an easy task and school advisors have a lot of experience with the process.

4. What resources helped you most in deciding to and in the process of changing your career?

The AAMC’s site had so many resources to help me from start to finish. I’d also say that platforms such as Student Doctor Network, YouTube, and Reddit helped a lot, as I was able to read or view Day in the Life blogs or clips to understand certain specialties.

5. How long did the preparation take?

I already had my bachelor’s in general biology and zoology when I switched careers, but all of my classes were geared towards animal anatomy and physiology.

Even though I already took all of my prerequisites for vet or med school, I took it upon myself to take some extra classes in human anatomy and physiology, as well as some health occupations courses at different colleges.

The preparation took almost two years.

We hope this interview brought you some encouragement in your journey.

Although the road to medicine is long and arduous, it’s clearly not one that needs to be (or meant to be) taken alone. We encourage finding a support system like these non-traditional students and explore the free resources at your disposal.

Best of luck as you pivot into your new career!

About the Authors:

Maria Sajan is entering her third year at Wilfrid Laurier University majoring in Health Sciences. As co-president of her university’s Stem Cell Club, she is dedicated to increasing the number of registrants in the OneMatch Stem Cell & Bone Marrow registry. Her interests also include writing, gardening, and biking.

Munazza Khan recently graduated from Gulf Medical University with a BS in Biomedical Sciences. As someone who was drawn to Cancer Biology early on in her second year, she is currently researching the immune response to hypoxic stress in a tumor microenvironment and how immunotherapy could be used in the future. She is also an avid cat and plant lover, but sadly, her cat is on a mission to destroy any plants in sight. Her hobbies include playing soccer and board games.

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