I have always wanted to go into the healthcare field for as long as I can remember.
My grandmother was a nurse while I was growing up, and we would talk about how fulfilling, though hard, her job was. I was able to take an anatomy course at my high school, and I fell in love. We would do in-class discussions about potential diagnoses, and it seemed like solving real life mysteries (I was obsessed with Nancy Drew when I was little). Because of this interest, I somewhat decided that I would go to medical school over nursing school. This goal was not very influential in my college decision process. Every school I was interested in had some correlated field of study and advising set-up to help students apply for medical school.
Harvard was a last minute decision for me (wohoo waitlist!), but I again, I knew many Harvard students go on to medical school. One thing that not everyone, including myself at the time of applying, knows about Harvard is that there is no specific “pre-med” concentration (concentration is Harvard’s word for major). Those interested in attending medical school can concentrate in anything that they want. A lot of students do end up studying in the sciences as that is where their main interests lie. However, others choose to pursue fields in anything from English to Economics.
When I got to college, I started on some of the general pre-med requirements. Harvard students do not declare their concentration until their sophomore fall, so I had some time to think! At the time, I was looking into the different biological sciences fields that Harvard offers (there’s around four here at Harvard!) because I had enjoyed biology the most out of my science experience in high school. I would look through the course catalog at each concentration’s requirements, and while I didn’t hate the idea of any of the classes, I just didn’t feel excited about them as much as I would have liked to been. And then...I had a great conversation with my freshmen seminar professor. I took one entitled “A Brief History of Surgery.” I loved everything about this class! Dare I say, I enjoyed (?!) the readings and assignments. He mentioned that many of his former students have ended up concentrating in History of Science.
I had never even heard of this concentration before! I went through the course listings that night, and I was excited about every single course!
Now I study the Medicine and Society track within History of Science. This is what I’m naturally most attracted to, but it has the added bonus of having some overlapping requirements with medical school.
But my journey to discovering what I want to do was not over!! I continued on planning to attend medical school. However, around January of junior year, I started really thinking about it. For one, post-grad life was actually starting to feel like a thing that was going to happen versus something so far away. I also had more and more friends who had started the application process, so we would have conversations about it. One of my high school peers offhandedly mentioned Physician Assistant (PA) programs while I was at home for break. While I had heard of this before, I had never really looked into what it involved.
Upon doing some research, I started thinking that this is what I wanted to do! These two paths are ones that are often compared when deciding what you want to do in the healthcare field. Physician Assistants can do everything that a doctor can do, they simply must work under the supervision of a physician. In my case, I want to work in the emergency department so that is not a huge deal for me. Some other major differences are seen in the path to admissions.
Luckily, I did not take any classes that I don’t need for PA school. I actually have to take a few more classes than expected as PA school is a shorter program (usually 2 years) so applicants are expected to have more academic experience. Similarly, PA schools also usually have work experience requirements. Most are about 2,000 hours in the healthcare field. They also don’t require the MCAT, but most do require the GRE. All of this means that I am going to be taking a gap year or two. I plan to work, possibly as an EMT, and take the GRE. I had already decided to take a gap year, and working as an EMT actually sounds more like what I want to do than using my gap year to study for the MCAT. One of the last aspects influencing my decision was that PA’s often more flexibility in terms of hours. I know I want to have a family, be involved in advocacy, and potentially even pursue graduate school for History of Science, so this sounded great to me!
While I was super excited about discovering this new turn in my career path, it wasn’t all easy. There is still some stigma against doing healthcare careers such as nursing or PAs instead of going to medical school. It’s not many people (most are so supportive), but I have had some people ask why did I come to Harvard if I wanted to do this career path instead of medical school. This can frustrating because it demeans the PA path while also taking away all the other important aspects of Harvard that influenced my decision. But again, these types of comments are the minority. There is so much support from the academic advisers in History of Science, the pre-health tutors in my House (it’s been great to see the shift in language from pre-med to pre-health over my four years which makes it more inclusive), and the Office of Career Services. They have been very helpful as it has been somewhat difficult to parse out what requirements I still need to do.
I have learned through all these experiences to keep an open mind to new doors! So while this is my path now, I’m happy to see where it may lead to next!