CultureEducationHigher EducationScience

Dashing hopes and dreams

It’s that time of year again, when the grades are shaping up to the point students are panicking if they are going to pass.  The drop deadline is looming.  What to do…

Many of the incoming students to our classes have aspirations of being doctors.  These students have attached some mythical value to the profession and dream of being that person, the one calling the shots, saving lives, etc.  I certainly believe doctors are valuable and should be respected for the work they do, but the value students place on the profession is not reasonable.

I can tell stories of students who have never passed a class with me on the first try and still believe they’re going to medical school because they are so convinced that this one career is the only one they value.  And because they must take a heavy load of science classes regardless of major to be considered for entry, many of the less prepared students do fail, and have to be told that their dream isn’t going to happen (at least not right away; many students are willing to spend thousands of dollars and extra time to retake classes pursuing that dream).  Even the better prepared students fail to meet the high mark needed for most medical schools.  Many blame the “weed-out culture” of larger classes with huge lectures and no practical applications, and there may be some significant truth there, but do we really need that many doctors?  There are many valuable careers that offer the same kind of satisfaction as being a doctor that these students simply can’t see in their myopia.

I am often in the position (after teaching a course with hands-on learning with small classes!) of being the one to say “you will not be accepted to medical school with grades this low.”  I am the dream-wrecker.  This article, written by a sophomore, offers a variety of reasons why you should never change your major, and highlights both the good and bad reasons students stick with dreams.  Ms. Tran is right that students should be allowed to choose for themselves and that the latest fad or highest paid major news isn’t always the best way to choose a major, but at the same time, Tran buys into the “if you want to, you can do it” mentality that is unfortunately not true.  If you can’t pass introductory biology, then becoming a doctor isn’t in the cards.  (Tran actually uses pre-med as a counter example in her article in much the same way I do.)

After I have devastated the dreams of these students they are often at a loss of what they should do next.  They set so much store into the doctor future that they have no idea what else they might want to do.  They have never even thought that they wouldn’t succeed and have no plan B.  Pre-med isn’t the only major plagued with this problem, but it often the most pronounced.  The “stand-by” majors like psychology, counseling, science communication, and other fields where the pre-reqs overlap shouldn’t be considered second best or failure tracks.  These careers should be valued as highly as being a doctor.  Many of our students are advised to go into those careers and often are very happy as a result.

How do we change the value settings on career choices?

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.


  1. November 19, 2014 at 7:33 am —

    Pre-med students are some of the most entitled people I’ve ever met. It was one of the things that most concerned me about starting med school: being in classes populated only with those kinds of people (it turned out to be nothing to worry about). The difficulty I always found with the entitled pre-med student was the emphasis that was placed on grades over learning the material-that misaligned emphasis indicates how little people really think about the medical profession itself and instead are thinking only about the prestige (or perceived prestige). It turns out the things you learn in intro bio or chem are actually conceptually important to understand when the drug rep comes at you with some scientific BS in an attempt to dazzle you with their drug.

    • November 22, 2014 at 11:00 pm —

      This. Totally. The absolute worst, most obnoxious grade-grubbers in the music appreciation-type electives I teach have always been “future doctors” who are totally obsessed with their GPAs for med-school apps. They will do absolutely anything to get an A (aside from, you know, actually listening to the music enough times to correctly identify an excerpt on a multiple choice test).

      At least they don’t cheat like business and education students. :\

  2. November 24, 2014 at 1:41 am —

    In my first year of grad school at a university with a prestigious medical school, my program included a short course taken with the first year med students. The med students (unlike us) were all issued laptops for taking notes in class and whatnot. I was shocked at how many of them were surfing the web, checking facebook, and shopping online during class, rather than paying attention. And when we spoke with them about class, it certainly wasn’t as though they’d already mastered the material. I was left with the strong impression that the grade-grubbing strategy really works for med school, and that at least some of them had virtually no interest in medicine, only in becoming doctors. I really hope that somewhere along the way, those students either discovered genuine interest in medicine, or were booted from the program.

    On the other hand, my lab in grad school had a number of really outstanding undergraduate research assistants who were pre-med (as well as some not-so-great ones), who were extremely hard-working, interested in the science for its own sake, conscientious, and intelligent. So like anything, I think it’s a mixed bag. Perhaps the high pressure of pre-med simply brings the best and worst in students into sharp relief.

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