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The First Week

August 31st, 2013  |  Published in Life

Egyptian Building VCU

I started my postbac program on August 23rd! So far I’ve had a relatively smooth journey. Class has been surprisingly manageable. After screwing up undergrad I’m taking steps to make sure I don’t make mistakes this time. I’ve said it many times before, but this postbac is my last hope at medical school. Doing a graduate level postbac program and then doing horribly in it is basically a huge sign to medical schools that you can’t handle graduate-level coursework.

Going in I was braced for the worst, I was imagining an insane amount of coursework and was incredibly paranoid that I would fail. Now if I am going to fail is still up in the air because I haven’t taken an exam yet, but so far I haven’t felt too overwhelmed by the content. I had heard from multiple people that this program would be as hard as medical school, but based on the perception of medical students that I know, my classes are way easier!

Part of my comfort with the program is from all the help I received along the way. I met an awesome friend who already did the program and gives me a run down all the time. I had so many questions before the program started and they were really a lifesaver for my sanity. In addition, before the program started the admins set us up with an “alumni panel.” They all left the room and let us ask the alumni any questions we wanted. Of course it was great to hear everyone’s questions, but thanks to my friend and other people I knew who had done the program, I had none! During the alumni session, I discovered another one of my classmates is married and has children, but they are male so I’m sure their wife stays home and their parenting requirement is minimum. They had asked a question about taking out extra student loans for their family’s living, and of course since all the alumni were free, single people they didn’t know how to respond. All they said was to “live within your means” but obviously since they are free and single they don’t think about things like health insurance, medical emergencies, etc. I took out a massive amount of student loans just as back-up because I know if anything horrible happened I would have to drop out of the program otherwise. I want this too much for that to be an option. Yes, the interest is horrible, but losing out on the dream would be worse. So debt it is!

Biochemistry LehningerThe other reason I feel confident about potential success in this program is that the professors are awesome. I had some good undergrad professors (my organic chemistry professor was perfect!), but doing this postbac at VCU has shown me how amazing college faculty can be. They are all so excitedly passionate about their work which is cool. I definitely felt like a lot of the undergrad profs were just teaching because they somewhat had to. But then again, I might be bored to death of covering undergrad material as well if I were them. Anyways, most of the classes are taught by multiple professors. In histology, for example, the professor that works mostly with cytology is coming in to do the cytology lectures this week and then later we’ll have profs who cover the various tissues. The downside to this format is that exams will vary every time, but so far they seem to be suggesting that they work together to make the exams reflect their individual lecture content. Plus I’m excited to hear about all of these multiple choice exams! My undergrad anatomy & physiology class was free response and since I got a D in the course you can only imagine how that went. I love multiple choice exams!!!

Since my husband has been working 12 hour work days ever since we moved here in September 2012 I’ve basically been starved for social interaction. I do hang out with my husband of course, but on weekdays I would generally only see another him for 1-2 hour before he went to sleep again. My friend advised me to try to make friends as soon as possible and recommended doing a study group; so, a few days into the start of school I proposed the formation of a study group. I was the only one who did this at first and it felt really awkward since we had only had two days of class. I found a really excellent article from Albert Einstein’s College of Medicine blog (which is generally high quality) that gives great suggestions for studying in groups. I took these guidelines to heart and once our group was formed sent the article out to test the waters. No one seemed to protest, so I went ahead and assigned an assignment like a crazy dictator. Surprisingly, this also went over well.

When our study group met for the first time I was all flustered because I thought they would think I was strict and crazy because of my emailed assignment…plus I got lost trying to find the group study rooms for the first time in the library. (They are hidden at VCU!) But once we settled into the rhythm of studying, things went smoothly. I also brought dry erase markers which served the group well, and because we had basically all done the same problems we were all on the same page. At first, I felt like I had the most questions compared to anyone else, but soon found that sometimes my questions also led to other people having questions too, so I felt less dumb, which was nice. Fortunately, our study group members have a variety of expertise. Some have master’s degrees, some don’t, some took insane amounts of biochemistry in undergrad, others have really good memory and ways of explaining things. I lucked out!

Beyond that I’m trying to work out kinks in my life-work balance. Before school I was averaging 10-12 hours of sleep per day just by sleeping and waking up when I felt like it. That was wonderful, but those days are long gone. This whole week I’ve been getting about 4-5 hours of sleep per night and was feeling incredibly bedraggled by the mid-week. I was a zombie in class and had to force myself to function every day. At one point I fell asleep for 10 minutes in biochemistry, pen in hand. I even made small note-like scratches on my notebook in my sleep. Not good! For Wednesday and Thursday this week I opted to sleep in; this was luxurious and I felt like a totally new person afterwards. My first class, physiology, is webcast online, so every night I dutifully watch and take notes on this lecture, just as I would in class. This is the only way I can truly get away with sleeping through class. However, this is not ideal because this particular prof is the one who gives out recommendation letters at the end of the year. My goal is to get my act together and sleep so that I can actually see him every once in a while and hope he remembers my face/love for his class. (Not really sure if I love physiology yet, but I can try.)

All in all, having a routine feels unusual after not working or going to school for months. Even when I was working, back when we lived in Dallas, my shifts for work would be at different times.  Every day I have to wake up at 6 am to be on time, no matter what time I went to bed. I leave at 7, park my car in the remote lot, and then take the bus to campus. This is time consuming, and sometimes the bus driver just sits at the stop for a long time  for no reason. Today, for example, a policeman rolled into the lot so the bus driver waited for the policeman to park his car and lazily stroll over to the bus. Instead of getting to class in the nick of time, I was late. So that was bad. I pack a lunch every day; I really like this sandwich kit I bought from Rubbermaid. Normally it’s $12, but I got it on sale for $6 at Kroger so I bought two so I can alternate days and put one in the wash.

Back in high school I had an insanely strict study schedule and was fairly successful. By the time I got to college this slowly dwindled away until my study skills were virtually nonexistent. In the spring semester of 2013 I took Biology 1, Biology 2, and statistics at community college. I was retaking the biology classes so these were insanely easy, and statistics was a breeze. Community college was a good way to get in the habit of going to class again (although I was dying of boredom during my three hour evening class). I knew this program would be a completely different ball game and decided to revamp a study plan.

Study Plan:

  • read the textbook before class
  • take notes on paper during class (no laptop)
  • draw copious pictures in my notes, using highlighters to color the drawings (especially in histology)
  • keep a list of questions to ask the prof after class; add to this list during lecture
  • talk to the prof immediately after class and adjust notes based on what they say
  • if I have a gaping hole in my notes because of zoning out or the prof moving too quickly, return home and watch that particular segment of the lecture
  • do homework for study group

Freshman year we had peer-lead team-learning sessions where we would have a classmate lead us in problem sessions. This was helpful and helped me stay on task. My freshman year grades were much better than the other years, on average. I wanted to create a similar atmosphere in our study group, meaning I wanted it to be structured and collaborative (there is not a instructor-mentor.) We use dry erase boards to hash out problems on the white board in the library, and help each other through our struggles. The best part about having created assignments for our study group is that the homework keeps me on top of the curriculum and keeps me from falling into the cracks or getting sucked into a reality show vortex all weekend.

My goal this year is to become a super-candidate for medical school. I want to make a 4.0, volunteer, and shadow. I have been going every week to the local free clinic where I volunteer at the front desk for 2-3 hours. This is fun because I get to interact with patients over the phone and help people find the resources they need. As a scribe I always loved helping our low-income patients find out how to get free or low cost health care outside of the ER. Now as a volunteer I get to do that 100% of the time as my job function! I really love that in addition to serving low-income patients, our clinic is LGBTQ-friendly and offers special services to HIV/AIDS patients. These patient populations are often overlooked. In addition, Pride Fest is happening in a little over a week which sounds super fun and also had volunteer opportunities available! Of course I should probably be studying instead of go to Pride Fest, but who can resist the awesome-ness? (Not sure how the gay scene is in Richmond compared to Dallas, but hopefully similarly fun.) On top of volunteering, I’m arranging to shadow a DO family medicine doctor this year which should be great! I meet with him in mid-September to discuss his expectations of me and reassure him that I’m not there to eat his time. He owns his own practice so he is crazy busy all the time.

I know this will be a lot to juggle, but I know doing all three of these will really boost my application this time around. Fortunately this is Labor Day weekend so I have no class on Monday and an entire day to prepare for our study group meeting on Tuesday. Our first exam is in 10 days so I hope by then I will be ready.

Arise! Awake! And stop not ’til the goal is reached.

–Swami Vivekananda