If you’re a high school student, becoming a doctor is about a dozen years away. That’s a long journey requiring a big commitment of time and money. How can you be sure that medicine is right for you?
Your best bet is to spend a summer getting a close-up look at medicine, either as a volunteer or as a student in a medical program for high school students that provides an in-depth look at the world of medicine. Either way, you won’t be performing surgery, but you will get a much better sense of what a career in health care is all about. And you might discover careers that you never knew existed.
Several colleges and universities offer health care or medical courses, such as forensics or microbiology, in summer pre-college programs aimed at high school students. Brown University offers a three-week course specifically for those considering a career as a physician called “Introduction to Medicine: Do You Want to Be a Doctor?” It’s taught by Dr. Julianne Ip, an associate dean of medicine. Students must be rising juniors or seniors and have completed an upper-level biology course.
“In a condensed way, we give the students a good taste of what medical school is all about,” Ip says. “They study anatomy and physiology, and some of them realize that working with a cadaver is not their cup of tea, whereas other kids love it.”
Students spend a lot of time in group discussion of case studies, she says. “Medicine is a team sport, but some students realize they are very introverted, and this is not their way. That’s great. They need to know that. There are a few specialties in medicine that don’t require a lot of interaction, but they are few and far between.
“We also send them on shadowing expeditions to the hospitals or to doctors’ offices. Some of them love it, and some realize it’s not for them.
“I have the students do a lot of reflection about their values, their strengths and their challenges and how they’re going to move forward through four years of undergrad, four years of medical school and at least three years beyond that. That makes some students pause. You don’t just walk into the emergency room and start treating people.”
Ip has recruited students from her summer course to attend Brown as undergraduates. Some stayed to get their medical degrees.
She’s also known summer students who decided that medicine was not their calling. “I throw them a party,” she jokes. “It’s the best thing to have that clarity at a young age.”
Brown also offers a nine-week, online version of the course.
If you’re looking for hands-on experience, try volunteering at a hospital or other medical facility near home or perhaps overseas.
Programs such as Project Abroad offer opportunities for high school volunteers. Your local hospital, however, might be a place to start. Note that some organizations and programs have requirements for recommendations or grades.
Eileen Pelletier, director of volunteer services at Hartford HealthCare, says that almost all of her 90 or so teenage volunteers each summer are interested in health care careers.
“Depending on the student and what their goals are, our program offers more than just a chance to get some hours to put on your college application,” she says. “It gives them a chance to build relationships with peers at other schools, to meet staff around the hospital who could become mentors and give them career advice as they go through school, and to learn about different areas of medicine and different topics in health care.”
Volunteers who are 14 or 15 years old are usually assigned office roles that have limited patient contact, she says. Those who are 16 or older might be assigned to a nursing unit or a patient visitation program.
Older teens spend time with patients, chatting or tracking down a nurse if assistance is needed.
“Any experience you can get interacting with patients or their family members and visitors – how to approach them, how to make them more comfortable – that’s going to serve you well, no matter what you end up doing in health care later on,” says Pelletier.
At Hartford HealthCare, teen volunteers must have at least a B average in school, have to provide two written recommendations from nonrelatives and have to write two essays. Pelletier says about one of every three qualified applicants is accepted.
For most of the teen volunteers, the experience reaffirms their interest in medicine, she says, “but if they come here and find they don’t like being around people who are sick or injured, then it’s time for them to think about exploring other areas.”
If you’re thinking about a summer program focused on medicine, here are eight to explore.
For more STEM summer programs, go to www.teenlife.com.
- Boston Leadership Institute has a three-week program in forensic pathology for students entering grades 7 through 12. There are day and residential options. Students study forensics, anatomy, surgery and law in a program focused on hands-on research. The institute also has programs in biomedical and surgical research, introduction to surgery and biomedical engineering, among others.
- Boston University’s Introduction to Medicine is part of its Academic Immersion or AIM program. The three-week program, which is open to rising juniors and seniors, gives high school students the chance to explore medicine as a topic and to learn about career choices.
- Brown University’s Introduction to Medicine: Do You Want to Be a Doctor is a three-week course that’s one of the school’s summer pre-college programs. Students are expected to have a strong foundation in biology and a willingness to explore beyond the science to understand the practice of medicine.
- Emory University offers high school summer programs lasting two, three or six weeks that explore issues such as sports medicine, pre-med studies, neruoscience, cardiovascular medicine or cancer research. The program is open to rising juniors and seniors.
- Johns Hopkins University Summer Pre-college Programs offers a two-week medical school intensive for high school students interested in a medical career. The course is taught by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine faculty postdocs and fellows, and is offered three times a summer.
- Stanford University’s Discovering Medicine @ Stanford is a three-day course offered in August for rising high school sophomores and juniors interested in a medical career. The program includes case studies, ethics and lessons about health promotion and disease prevention. Housing is not provided. Stanford’s Medical Youth Science Program is a five-week residential program aimed at low-income and underrepresented minority high school sophomores and juniors who live in Northern and Central California.
- The University of Connecticut's medical anthropology course is a one-week program for rising juniors and seniors that looks at the social causes of diseases such as Ebola, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS. Students interested in pre-med explore the broader issues of public health and how it might affect their careers. UConn also has a summer program in sports medicine.
- Wagner College offers a three-week pre-med course in New York for rising sophomores, juniors and seniors. The interactive learning experience mirrors a college level professional medical program and students can earn pre-med college credit.