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A career-changer’s path to med school [Show summary]
Valerie Fuchs holds a PhD in environmental engineering and spent eight years as a water resources engineer. This summer, however, she’ll start medical school. Hear how Valerie navigated med school admissions as an older, nontraditional applicant and got into her first-choice school.
From engineering PhD to med student [Show notes]
Are you an older, nontraditional potential med school applicant burned out on your profession? Are you thinking about medicine, but worried about starting over? Or are you just getting started?
Valerie Fuchs earned her BS in civil engineering and her PhD in environmental engineering, and she did a postdoc fellowship at Yale. For the last eight years, she has worked as a water resources engineer. This summer, she is starting medical school.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? [1:46]
I grew up in Spokane, Washington. I am the oldest of five kids from a big Catholic family. I went to a Catholic grade school over there, and then moved on to Gonzaga University, not far from home. I always kind of had that interest in math and science, I guess, and had cousins who were engineers, and I thought, well, I’ll try this out and see how it goes. I really got interested in civil engineering, soil and water science, and those kinds of things.
I thought as I went through school that what I really wanted to do was be able to help people in terms of water and sanitation, developing communities in particular. The direction I ended up going in grad school was sanitation for developing communities, so wastewater treatment in Bolivia and other countries in South America. I did research and a whole doctoral dissertation on it. Then I kind of continued that, but I started looking at storm water when I was at Yale for a year before transitioning into consulting engineering. I’ve been a consultant for about 10 years now. I have moved all over the country. I did a lot of research and work in different countries in Central and South America. Then finally, about six years ago, I decided I wanted to be closer to family and move back to Seattle. I’ve been here ever since.
What made you start thinking that engineering isn’t for you, and that medicine is? [3:47]
A few years ago, I started feeling like even though engineering is a great intellectual challenge for me, I wanted to be engaging more with people. My day-to-day work as an engineer is mostly sitting at a computer, crunching numbers on different types of projects. I wanted to be really doing something more one-on-one with people, potentially helping them improve their life in some way.
So, I started looking at a variety of different options. I considered teaching high school science. I looked at becoming a massage therapist. That was until August of 2016, when my mom became ill and then passed away of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. I spent about three weeks with her in the hospital and in hospice, and all stress aside, I found myself really intrigued by observing her care team, her neurologist and the interns that were helping. They were just so engaged with us, with her, with our family, engaging with us, compassionate towards us, and doing so much hard work to try to figure out what this really rare disease was that she had, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
If you heard, probably 10 or 20 years ago, there was a lot of news about Mad Cow Disease. It’s basically the human form of that. It means that there’s a certain protein in the brain, a prion protein, that changes form, and that causes a domino effect of these other proteins to change form, and that creates holes in the brain. It’s a neurodegenerative disease that can happen really fast that usually hurts people in their 60s. It’s extremely rare, and they don’t know why it happens or how to cure it. It was really out of nowhere. She’s just the kind of person that everybody thought was going to live until she was 90, super witty and intelligent and kept herself really active. No one ever would have thought that would happen.
Her doctors were really incredible, and I found myself jokingly thinking, wow, maybe I should become a neurologist! Look how much they’re engaging with people and doing this amazing work. The idea sort of grabbed hold and didn’t let go. It got stuck in my head. So I began, over the last several years, shadowing other doctors, other physicians. I volunteered at a hospice, spending time with hospice patients, and at a local emergency department here in Seattle to start to see what different sides of medicine looked like and see if that’s something I really would be interested in, and taking, of course, the prereqs and everything.
That period with my mom triggered an inkling, and then the last two years have been a process of finding out if that interest was true. I was just so excited about it. I’ve never felt this level of passion about engineering, as great of a career as it’s been. I’m just so excited. I don’t think it’s that common for people to find the thing that they really want to spend the rest of their life doing, and I feel like this is it for me.
What was the hardest part of the application process for you? [8:36]
There were a lot of hard parts. But looking back now, I would say that the most challenging thing was the secondary application for all the schools. So many essays!
I worked really hard. I didn’t just recycle one into the other if it was the same topic. I worked really, really hard to tailor each one. I had material that I was starting with, if I already wrote on a topic, but I worked really hard to tailor it for each school. The process of keeping track of all of them, trying to make sure that it was exactly what I wanted to say and not come across saying something different, and trying to tailor it for each school so that I could feel totally confident that every single application that I submitted was my best effort, it was just a grind. It was so exhausting.
How many schools did you apply to? [9:48]
I applied to 20 schools. I actually applied two years. The first year, I interviewed twice and wasn’t accepted anywhere. That year, I applied to 14. The second year, I applied to 20 and interviewed at six.
What did you do differently between the two application cycles that you feel made a difference? [10:02]
I can tell you exactly what made a difference. The first time I applied, I had only had about 50 hours of shadowing, about 50 hours of clinical experience. There’s not a threshold of specific numbers of hours that you have to have, but it was pretty clear in my essays and in my interview responses that my understanding and experience of the medical profession was, I think, not very much experience.
Luckily after that first round, that first application year, one school was willing to give me feedback. For most students who request it, you can get a half-hour phone call with the Dean of Admissions. She kind of read me the file of their responses, or their thoughts on the application and interview. What they really said was, “You need more clinical experience. That’s the main thing.” So, I went out and got it. I added volunteering at the emergency department after that, and I really spent some time thinking over the next year, how are these different clinical experiences impacting me? What about this really makes me want to go into medicine? What turns me off? Why do I think this is helping me make my decision?
Thinking about that really helped me write better application essays and have deeper responses in my interviews. I think it was really clear that the feedback was a lot better as well. Acceptance is the best feedback you can get!
Do you feel there were distinct challenges that you faced as an older applicant or a nontraditional applicant coming from a very different field? [11:49]
There are distinct challenges and distinct benefits. It’s hard to provide really concrete examples of this, but I did feel like sometimes the bar was higher for me. Is that because I’m older or is it because I have a PhD? I don’t know. I felt like when I would talk with other premeds who were younger and maybe just finishing undergrad, and what their experience was like interacting with admissions committees, I felt like more was expected of me in terms of my ability to think through this whole process and prove myself in terms of what I was capable of and what I wanted to do.
Sometimes that felt frustrating. At the same time, I was like, “This is what I want to do, so I’m going to prove it.” On the other hand, I also felt like my age and level of experience mean that I’ve dealt with interpersonal problems a lot in terms of professional work and teams and some of the MMI types of scenarios. I felt totally comfortable because I’d been doing that kind of thing for years at work. There were different ways where I felt like my level of experience actually was a huge benefit to me.
In some sense, it’s appropriate that schools want, generally speaking, a younger cohort that has a long career path ahead of them. I can see the benefit of that for the most part, but at the same time, having a well-rounded class of lots of different ages and experience levels makes for a well-rounded professional group moving forward. I think there are benefits both ways.
When you were approaching the AMCAS or the secondaries, were you trying to balance your professional achievements and training with your clinical exposure? [14:11]
With the AMCAS, on the personal statement, I only referred to my engineering background in terms of helping tell my story. I didn’t really spend a lot of time emphasizing it because, in terms of that personal statement concerning why you want to go to medical school, it was just a point in my trajectory. It’s an important point because I’m clearly somebody who’s coming from a different place from a lot of other people. But I didn’t really spend a lot of time talking about it.
I got a lot of help from Barry Rothman, one of your consultants at Accepted, in figuring out how to tell the story of my clinical experience, especially my time with some of my hospice patients, and what that said about me in terms of why I wanted to become a doctor.
The personal statement was more directed towards the clinical experience side. The activities portion of the AMCAS application was really a balance. I emphasized a lot more of my professional background because that’s where I could talk about awards and experiences, and teamwork, and service, and the variety of things that I’ve done. I also used that area to talk about some of my more personal activities and hobbies. The point was to develop as much of a well-rounded picture of me as I could for readers to get a sense of who I am.
Then in the secondaries, it really depended on the school, but I wanted to emphasize that I was bringing this experience of a professional career and what that meant in terms of being a potential mentor to my classmates, and a team member, and knowing how to focus and study, and manage my time, and all of those kinds of things. It also just depended on the secondary question whether I was going to emphasize my professional background or clinical experience. Every school is different.
Any tips for surfing the wave of secondary applications? [17:06]
Well, being an engineer, I’m a big proponent of spreadsheets. I had a really massive spreadsheet that I started. I submitted my AMCAS application the very first day that it was open and available to submit. I think I took a little bit of a break, a week or two maybe, and then I started collecting the questions for all of the schools.
For most of the schools, you can get previous years’ questions online, and I find there’s not very many schools that change year to year. I could find most of the past questions for all 20 schools, and I started collating those. I organized the five questions for each school, or however many, what topic each one is on, and then I could start to see, okay, these are similar topics. I started early in terms of collecting and organizing the questions and starting to map out topics and jot down ideas for what I wanted to write about.
The second time around, I had the first year’s questions to start with that I had written in that first year. So I had the material to work with, but then it was tracking, okay, this is the document where I have the answers for this school. How many times have I gone through this? Have I edited it, if I had someone else review it? Have I gotten responses and started to revise? There were several revisions for each school. By the time I started receiving the actual secondary application for each school, I was trying to turn them around within a week. Some of them, I could turn around real fast. Other ones took a little longer.
It meant staying at it really hard. I think it probably took me a total of six weeks between receiving the first application and getting the last one submitted. It took organization and diligence, and getting help. I had some help. I did not do this myself. I had some editing from both professionals and consultants, and my own family and friends that really supported me.
You said that you had six interviews out of the 20 schools you applied to. How did you prepare for your interviews? [19:28]
Dr. Ryan Gray of Med School HQ has a book on the interview, The Premed Playbook, so I used that. I looked at a lot of comments and interview questions online, then for each school, as much information I could find on how they tailor their interview and what kind of questions they ask specifically. I really spent time writing out answers for each type of interview, or every specific interview question I could find for those schools, just so I knew I had got through it.
Then I did one mock interview online. I wanted somebody who was not familiar with my application, to make it more like a school interview. Then I spent a lot of time recording myself answering questions, so that I felt comfortable not stuttering and getting some of these stories out, like, “Why do you want to become a doctor?” and “Tell us about yourself,” those really basic kinds of questions, where I felt like I was comfortably saying the things that I wanted to say without stuttering, and clearly, and within a reasonable timeframe.
What are your plans for between now and the start of med school? [20:59]
Well, with COVID-19, that’s all up in the air. I was planning to get married in June, but I think we’re going to postpone because we don’t know if any of our guests are going to be able to travel here. Then we were going to do a month-long honeymoon in Italy, and that doesn’t look good either. I think I’ll probably work until the end of July, and then take a few weeks off and paint my condo and get ready for school to start at the end of August. Nothing too exciting right now. Then we’ll hopefully have a wedding maybe next summer. We had joked that we would livestream our wedding from the Bahamas or somewhere, but I don’t know. I think by the end of all this COVID stuff, we’ll be ready to have a really big celebration.
Any last bits of wisdom or advice for prospective med school students, especially those who are perhaps leaving an established profession and are a little bit older? [22:59]
When I first started thinking about this, I was thinking about the prerequisites I would have to take and the AMCAS. I didn’t start on looking for clinical experience until a little bit later. That was, honestly, the more important thing. Studying for the MCAT was a lot of work, and taking these prerequisites. The more important thing was to confirm this interest and also be able to explain that to medical schools. I would say that for anybody who’s starting to think about it, go get that experience first, or find a way to do it. I know that’s really hard right now in the time of COVID-19 because all the hospitals are saying, “We can’t have volunteers. No shadowing,” and all of that, but as soon as those types of things are available, get creative about it, and get that experience and really confirm that desire early.
I would add that it seems like a lot of people are trying to check a box. “Oh, is this going to look good on the application?” I would say, in all of my interview conversations, they really wanted to know the things I’m passionate about. They wanted to know why I do some of my hobbies. Admissions committees are looking for people who are people, that have a variety of interests, that are going to bring a variety of backgrounds to the class. Not only find volunteer positions that are going to help somebody in the community, but also do the things you’re passionate about. Volunteer, yes, but also keep a hobby going, whether it’s sailing, or mountain climbing, or knitting, or whatever it might be. Stick with it.
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