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What does it mean to be a woman in the medical field? In med school? On November 22, 2015 I attended a panel for BYU’s Association of Future Female Physicians. I arrived a little bit early, a case of twenty-four water bottles in arms (that’s what you do for your ambitious friend who wants to be an OBGYN). Two of the women on the panel were already up at the front talking to each other. I took a place at one of the tables. A fashion lover, I was already admiring one of the women’s outfit: tan suede 3-inch Mary Janes, straight-leg ankle dress pant, a black buttonless cardigan. She looked sharp. At 7:00 p.m. the association president began the panel. There were four women sitting at the front: Melissa, Chelsea (the aforementioned fashionista), Cathy, and Michelle. The four were all medical students at the University of Utah (Melissa in her second year, and the rest in their third year). Each one of these women had amazing stories to go along with their claim to med school fame. Later on, Sheena (3rd year residency in psychiatry) and Jill (a Family physician and part-time hospice) arrived, giving the panel a different perspective of experience.
Meet the Panel:
Melissa: She has a master’s degree from George Washington University in Public Health. She wants to work in different parts of the world to make a difference and thinks that having an M.D. under her belt will open up more doors.
Chelsea: Both her and her husband are in medical school.
Cathy: She is married and has two kids. She worked in the army, worked as a nurse, and then got her bachelor’s degree.
Michelle: She’s married and has 4 kids.
Sheena: She’s in her third year of residency practicing psychiatry.
Jill: She’s married and has 4 kids. Both her and her husband are family physicians. She does hospice on the side.
Question: How did they decide on medical school and medicine?
Melissa: In grad school she worked at a breast cancer center (working in the clinic and with support groups) and found that she loved clinical work. A medical degree seemed most beneficial in helping her get into the realm of global health.
Chelsea: Since she was a kid she wanted to be a doctor. She loved looking through her dentist father’s anatomy analyses.
Cathy: Because of some family health issues, she spent a lot of time in doctor’s offices. She spent lots of time around doctors and has always wanted to become one.
Michelle: When she was a kid, she loved dissecting fish. At 19 years old, she got married and had a kid. She then sold real estate for seven years. While doing this, she sold a house to an orthopedic surgeon, which sparked her interest in the medical field again. She went back to school and had four kids by the end of it, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing her dream.
Question: Medicine: is it what they expected?
Melissa: Life doesn’t always feel as fun. Sometimes she forgets why she wanted to be there because it’s challenging. When she was exposed to clinical in her first year, she was able to talk to patients: children with cancer, grown men who cried about their medical condition. It’s a roller coaster, but it’s worth it.
Chelsea: She watched her husband go through his first year, so she had to be understanding of how much he had to study. She’s found that they’ve had to prioritize. They went on their first movie date of the semester three months in, but they have fun doing med school together. There are moments that confirm why she’s doing what she’s doing, like the feeling of a stranger confiding in her. It’s a sacrifice at times, but she still feels like she can have a life.
Cathy: She loves to learn. They learn one semester of immunology in four days. Even so, she feels like she has more time to do things now than she did during undergrad. Medical school isn’t cut-throat like people say; people are helpful.
Michelle: You learn to prioritize. It’s a little anti-climatic (it’s just like undergrad, except all at once). The difference is that you get to take classes on things you love, so you like to pay attention. “We are all at different stages of life, but we are getting through it.”
Question: Let’s talk about the “B” word: balance. How do they balance being a med student with their other roles in life?
Melissa: Your priorities are always shifting. Second year takes up more time than first year. She focuses more on school and studying for boards. You need to focus on what is important to you. Some people study all day. Some set time limits. Everyday choices—is studying more important than other things? Cut out unimportant things. “You get great at time management.”
Chelsea: Her and her husband take Friday date night. They still go to the gym everyday. They have to prioritize and plan ahead with friends and family when their workload isn’t bad. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s doable.
Cathy: There are only tests every two or three weeks. She takes a break after each test and spends more time with her husband and child. Her family understands. She likes having kids while in med school because it’s something different.
Michelle: She also likes having kids while in med school. A professor at the University of Utah told her once that the “B” word is like a unicorn—it doesn’t exist; it’s about working things into your life. She combines the two: studying and giving kids attention. She says that sometimes she reaches limits of physical capabilities. She joked that she’s eaten “more frozen meals in the last week than [she cares] to admit.”
Sheena: You get more control over life as you get farther along. With residency, you have a higher responsibility and different stressors.
Jill: When she went to BYU, she said she couldn’t find much support for women who wanted to go to med school. She constantly had anxiety over having kids and going to med school. She never got her definitive answer, so she tried other things, applied to graduate schools, but her dream of med school stayed. She ended up moving to D.C. with her husband and they both went to med school. Everyday she went to school; she didn’t think she’d make it another day. While in residency, she ended up adopting a daughter. Then, she was surprised when she graduated. “If it’s your dream, then you’re going to make it happen.” Her four kids like their childcare people, so she ended up being able to do what she loved and have the kids she wanted. “It’s not a rosy path, but you’re determined.” “You need to find those motivations and you’ll do it.”
Question: How has their experience been different because they’re women?
Michelle: When someone tells her she can’t do something, she says she’s going to. “You are smart and you can do something.” Sometimes she gets sexist comments, but she just combats them with a sexist comment back like, “Oh, you’re a man, so you don’t know how to cook.” She does this to illustrate how ridiculous their comments are. She says she may get some heat for this, but she said doesn’t allow these things to persist.
Jill: She talked about the hectic schedule and her intense life planning: “I can have a child during this 3-week period,” she used to think. She found that the school would work with her. “You need to plan, but it won’t be ideal.” Then, she had a professor who she loved to sometimes like to play devil’s advocate commenting on Jill’s 10-year plan: “Really, you Mormon girl, you think you can do this?” After ten years, Jill saw that the only thing that came true from her 10-year plan was that she graduated.
Melissa: “It may not work out the way you think it will.” “You need to adjust.” “There are a million ways to get it done.” She talked about the possibility of part-time residency or taking a year off. She said that you can finish “even if you don’t fit the mold.”
After the questions ran out, we all went to eat the Kneaders-catered food and sat down at tables with the panelists. I was at a table with Cathy. She talked to us about a research project that she’s working on to teach doctors in Mongolia about liver transplants. I asked her how she got into it; she explained that she ran into a surgeon, and told him she wanted to do research with him. She joked, “He said, ‘Who are you?’” She sent him her resume, and he was so impressed with her undergrad research work that he called her the next day. She said that her research really set her apart. She said that the key to getting into med school is to do something to stand out. Then, get good at it. How do you go about choosing? “[Choose] something you won’t want to shoot yourself in the head doing everyday.”