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Medical Student Perspectives: The Truth about Taking Time Off from Medical School

Every August, aspiring doctors across the country enter their first year of medical school with hopes of practicing the art of medicine in some capacity, although most have not completely figured out the logistics. Regardless of the means, the end result is the same as student doctors embark upon their medical school journeys and navigate through unfamiliar territory in search of a path which will eventually lead them to a fulfilling career in medicine. Along the way, various events may cause deviations from the typical four-year path. Some students face trials and tribulations in their personal and/or family lives, some consider partaking in dual-degree educational programs, conducting research, or volunteering, while others enter the realm of parenthood.

Many students are under the impression that taking time off from medical school will hinder their chances of matching into a desired residency program, a notion which has little truth. In general, several facts must be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to take time off from school. First and foremost, students should speak to the school’s administration or refer to the student handbook in order to understand the school’s policy about granting students time off. Each institution has its own policies and often students are required to fill out numerous forms or meet with various deans, all of which requires time, making advanced notice an essential element. Next, one must examine his or her true reasons for taking a break and set personal goals to be achieved; after all, what one accomplishes during that time off is particularly important to residency program directors. Another important factor to consider is the timing of the break, as interruptions at various time points along the typical four-year medical school timeline have different implications and pose different pros and cons. Once the decision has been made, the next question is what should one do during the year off?

Some students opt to take a year off from school in order to do research in a particular field of interest, which not only allows them to take a break from school but also serves as a means of enhancing their CVs. In fact, many students feel that research experience is necessary to be considered for more competitive specialties. There is a bit of truth in that, although students should realize that research experience, whether clinical or bench-top, is a plus and will always boost a CV, regardless of the specialty; however, it is not a prerequisite for matching into the residency of your choice. More importantly, when one engages in research there is the possibility of publication, which is the icing on the cake as it adds more merit and prestige to your work.

Dual Degrees
There are those students who have always had other interests outside of medicine and for some, medical school offers an opportunity to obtain a second degree. For example, those interested in medical litigation or public policy may pursue a JD, those interested in medical research may pursue a PhD, those interested in medical administration may pursue an MBA, and those interested in focusing on population health problems may pursue an MPH. Students may apply for these degree programs separately or apply for combined degree programs, which have some perks such as exemptions from entrance exams if the students’ MCAT scores are sufficient or advanced class standing. In the case of a dual MD-JD degree, most institutions allow students to complete the second degree in two years versus the traditional three-year course while some PhD programs tend to aim for a three-year stint versus the average five years required for obtaining the degree. In addition, some of these programs allow students to work toward their second degree while simultaneously completing their medical school training. Finally, some PhD combined programs will waive medical school fees and provide students with a stipend for the duration of the program in an effort to promote the program and make the typical seven-year commitment more appealing.

As with any other application process, the addition of volunteer work is another beneficial supplement to your CV. Some students partake in volunteer efforts in underserved areas or third-world countries where they help set up hospitals or work in local health clinics. Some apply for positions in acclaimed programs such as Operation Smile or Doctors without Borders and work alongside world-renowned doctors and surgeons, while others opt to stay local and aid by working for a non-profit agency, a homeless shelter, or a soup kitchen. Activities such as these will prove particularly beneficial as they allow students to become exposed to eye-opening experiences that can make lasting impressions.

Personal Reasons
The most common situations in which people take time off for personal reasons are to start a family, to find one’s self, to handle personal and family issues, and unfortunately, deal with emergencies and illnesses. These are all justifiable reasons for taking a break from school and the notion that one must conduct research or volunteer during an off year is not valid. There are no easy answers to the question of what constitutes a legitimate reason, although some residency program directors might beg to differ. The truth of the matter is that life happens and we just have to roll with the punches. At the end of the day, the reason you took time off becomes less relevant if you can thoroughly depict your experience and put a positive spin on it.

In conclusion, the key thing to remember regardless of the reasoning behind your decision to take time off from school is that a break in your CV denotes a flag and raises concerns, so be prepared to honestly answer questions about what you did during your time off when going on residency interviews. Remember, all the residency program director sees is a blurb about your time off on your CV. It is your job to paint a clear and concise picture of the experience and the profound impact it has had on your life. Taking time off from school should not hinder your chances of landing the residency spot of your dreams as long as you can illustrate the fact that the break has not negatively affected your clinical acumen but has instead enhanced your skills and preparedness to train and practice the art of medicine.

Shabnam Zarrabi
Osteopathic Representative, Council of Student Members
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
School of Osteopathic Medicine, 2010
Email: zarrabsh@umdnj.edu

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Back to October 2008 Issue of IMpact

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