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Engineering to Medicine: The Road Less Traveled

Posted by Elizabeth Haughton on

Making the Commitment

Getting an MD isn’t like obtaining other advanced degrees such as a PhD, MS or MBA.  You cannot study part time or get it paid for by a company.  It is a full-time affair for which you must be completely committed for at least four more years after your undergrad (and probably more for residency/fellowship training).  Medical school isn’t cheap either, so you must be prepared to take on (or add to your undergrad) debt.

How to Do it

Your undergraduate engineering classes (usually) will not cover all of the general course requirements for medical school.  This means you’ll have to carefully plan your coursework in order to satisfy the engineering and pre-med curricula as well as any general education classes your school requires.  It is not easy but definitely do-able and working with an advisor to develop a multi-year plan will help.  Pre-med requirements can vary between schools but will at least include physics I/II, chemistry I/II, organic chemistry I/II, biology I/II and an English or literature class.  For those beginning to think about medicine after already completing two or more years of their undergraduate degree, taking an extra year to finish all the coursework and prep is not uncommon.  This extra time can also be used to study for the dreaded MCAT.

The MCAT is the medical school equivalent of the SAT or ACT you took in high school.  It must be taken before you can apply, so this usually means the summer before your senior year.  There’s a myriad of references, guides and avenues of support for this ranging from free practice tests to intensive classroom courses.  Contrary to popular belief, this test is not about rote memorization.  Almost all groups of questions are accompanied by a passage.  So if you have a very basic understanding of the scientific principles and equations but excellent problem solving, you will do great.  The key words here are understanding and problem solving.  Memorizing the equations is pointless, they will give them to you on the test, spend your time understanding each equation’s components.  This is a great opportunity for engineering students to show off their problem solving skills!

So you’ve finished the courses and taken the test, what now?  The application process is started about a year before your planned enrollment date.  So, if your graduating in 2014, you would apply in the summer or early fall of 2013.  Thankfully, there is a standard application for all schools called the AMCAS, but plan on getting secondary applications specific to each school and working on them into the fall.  Then save up some money and pray for interviews.

Where Engineering Falls Short

These days medical schools are looking more and more at extracurricular activities in addition to metrics like MCAT score and GPA.  This included things like research, volunteering, shadowing and other jobs.  Engineering coursework doesn’t always provide enough time for all of this stuff, but if you pick carefully, the right extracurricular can give you an excellent experience with a smaller time commitment.  Academic research can be a volunteer or paid experience, and when done during the academic year, can mesh well with your class schedule since research labs are typically close to classroom buildings so you can go there before, after or in-between classes. 

The extra pre-med courses have also been known to give engineers some trouble.  For many, it is tough adjusting to biology type classes, as they are much more memorization based and less analytical in nature.  There is no easy solution for this. Figure out what works for you (flashcards, re-writing notes, etc.).  This is also the stuff more likely to be seen on the MCAT, so pay extra special attention to the material. 

When it comes to the interview, some claim engineers don’t fare as well.  Anyone in engineering has heard the stereotype that engineers aren’t the most social of people.  While that’s an outdated view of the field, it can be used to your advantage during an interview or application essay.  By having an outgoing personality and being animated, lively, witty and generally sociable, you defy the stereotype and make yourself look that much better the to the admissions board or interviewer.

All that being said, medical schools look very highly upon engineering applicants.  They understand that to be a legitimate applicant, the engineering student has given it their 110%, as evidenced by their ability to succeed in such a demanding major in addition to coursework and extracurricular activities.  A career in medicine will be time consuming, stressful and at times you will doubt your ability, but in the end extremely rewarding and well worth it.  So, it’s just like a degree in engineering!

Summary

The problem solving skills and engineering mindset so thoroughly developed during your undergraduate degree can prove to be an incredibly useful tool for solving medical cases.  The human being is an isolated system, and once that system is defined, you can apply your knowledge of that system to create a solution, just like any engineering question.  The rational and systematic route of thinking honed during any study of engineering is ideal for a career in medicine.

About the author

Chris Bobba received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering for the University of Rhode Island in 2013.  He is currently an MD/PhD student at the Ohio State University pursuing his PhD in Biomedical Engineering.  Current research interests include the intersection of organ conditioning/regeneration techniques and surgical/transplant medicine.