Interview with Dr. Charles Cochran, anesthesiologist and blogger [Show Summary]
Are you wondering what life is like as a med student? Resident? Practicing physician? Do you want to graduate without mountains of debt? Do you want to be able to have work/life balance when you start practicing? Interested in rural medicine? Anesthesiology? Hear from Dr. Charles Cochran about the unique path he took to becoming a doctor, and his advice on how not to bury yourself in student loan debt.
Med school admissions, med student life and #lifeofamedstudent [Show Notes]
Our guest today, Dr. Charles Cochran, is a Hoosier through and through. He grew up in Indiana, attended Indiana State as an undergrad, and Indiana University School of Medicine Bloomington, which he graduated from in 2013. He did his residency also at Indiana U Medical Center in anesthesiology. On the side, he started the Twitter hashtag #lifeofamedstudent and a very popular pre-med and med student web site by the same name.
Can you tell us about your background? Where you grew up? [2:05]
I grew up in a small town called Spencer, not far from IU – Bloomington. I knew early on I wanted to get into medicine – my dad was a chiropractor. I rode horses on the weekend, spent lots of time in the woods learning to hunt and fish – basically a traditional rural Indiana upbringing.
How did you become interested in medicine? [2:56]
My dad was a chiropractor and gave me exposure to medicine as a rural clinician. He didn’t push me to be a chiropractor but he thought if I was interested in medicine I should go for a more advanced license, an MD or DO. Even from high school I had a pretty clear idea I wanted to go into medicine, and luckily it all worked out. I didn’t take a gap year, which was fine with me. Now that I am paying back my loans I am glad I went through as quickly as I did. It is nice to be done!
What was the hardest part of applying to medical school? [4:29]
I was part of the Indiana State/IU rural bachelor/MD program, so applying to medical school was pretty straightforward. The program takes people from small towns and provides them with a pathway to becoming a physician in hopes they will return to a small town and practice medicine. Ideally the state would like primary care physicians, and while I didn’t go that route, I think I still fulfilled that goal by practicing in a rural, midsize hospital.
In a lot of ways things were set up for me since the first day of undergrad. If you maintain an average GPA of 3.5 and met the minimum required MCAT you were set for admission to medical school. Once I was in the program it was a matter of sticking with it. It wasn’t always easy – I did have to take the MCAT a second time – but overall it was much less stressful.
What was the best part of your medical experience at Indiana University? [6:38]
IU has a lot of regional campuses – 8-9 where you can go for your first two years. I guess this could be considered the best and sometimes the worst. You are in one (rural) place for two years, and then Indianapolis for two years. I actually really liked it – I spent the first two years in Terra Haute, and then moved to the big city for years 3-4, and it was great to see the trauma hospitals, and cutting edge technology at a big city hospital. My social network also really expanded, and I think it is a very efficient system. The one negative I would say is that when I went through I don’t think they did as good a job of making the experiences across campuses standard – that is different now, they have in fact standardized them. That was the biggest negative I saw, as my experience wasn’t perfectly identical to a different regional campus.
What could be improved? [8:51]
Not everyone’s learning style is suited to a lecture hall. When I got to Indianapolis I did better on my standardized tests because I was following my preferred study patterns almost exactly (studying more on my own). For me there was some wasted time in lectures that weren’t really engaging. I would have been better off at home.
You participated in Indiana’s Rural Health Program. Can you tell us a little bit about that part of your training? [10:08]
They have a continuation of the program geared towards primary care. I could have continued that program but had some reservations about ending up in primary care. I wanted to keep my options more open. I still think it was a great program and they got their money’s worth with me being back in a small town, but I just didn’t end up in primary care.
How did you decide to specialize in anesthesiology? [11:20]
When I was in family practice clinics I felt like the days dragged on. Then I went into anesthesia and things went really fast, and I realized I like critical care medicine. Anesthesiology is a great way to get into critical care – you get to use your hands all day long. I am good at things that might scare other physicians, which in some ways gives me a sense of pride. And typically it has a pretty good lifestyle – I have lots of time with my wife and daughter. I very much enjoy what I do every day. I take care of one patient at a time, I have 10 minutes of paperwork I can do while treating my patient, I leave work at work, I don’t deal with insurance companies, and I don’t get too much pushback. So a lot of things physicians get frustrated with don’t apply to me or my specialty.
Did you ever have a rotation or period in your path to date when you thought you made a mistake in choosing a career in medicine? [14:13]
The two hardest times for me were the first semester of medical school and the first year of residency. After that things got easier. I actually really can’t say I had a lot of days that I thought medicine wasn’t the right path for me, so I know I’m lucky. I also chose a specialty that would allow me to maintain a certain lifestyle. For other specialties like surgery, the demands can be so much more and burnout is much higher.
How did the match process compare to the med school application process in terms of difficulty and stress? What was the most challenging part of it? [21:00]
The match was probably the second most stressful part of the process for me after that first semester of medical school. I would have loved to interview at five places, and be done with it. Instead they drag it out for four months, and you have no idea where you are going to live, what your future is going to be, and it is a painful process. I think it is a very fair process, and there is not a better way to do it that would stay fair, but dragging it out with the hush hush of it and the lack of control is very unpleasant. The match is incredibly important for your future. Most people end up happy but it is a lot of influence on your life from one computer algorithm.
Let’s turn to Life of a Med Student. How did you come to start it? How has it evolved? [23:53]
In 2011 I was a third year student and Twitter was becoming popular. There were a couple anonymous accounts on Twitter for med students but they were really focused on an individual. I thought about starting a Twitter account that would really connect everybody, and with the hashtags that Twitter has I just thought about #lifeofamedstudent, which would be a funny but educational, ironic but humorous look at the life of a med student. I quickly found that if you go to school in Indiana, California, or the UK the experiences are incredibly similar, stressors are similar, even though processes are different. There are common themes like delaying adulthood and is it all going to be worth it, the hours and hours of studying, etc. It resonated with people and shared witty humor about med school life that I could amplify through the hashtag. There were several Twitter accounts when I started out that were bigger, but people didn’t keep them active so mine continued, and in 2016 I decided to create a website/blog based on the Twitter account. The initial idea was to give med students a voice to amplify over social media. It started with my thoughts on residency, debt, and so on, but as it grew I started doing guest posts, continuing the original idea of sharing the voice of medical students. Now I write 25% of the posts and the rest is guest posts from med students around the country, where they share aspects of their lives, experiences, concerns, successes, and so on. I have very little restrictions about what people can post about.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [31:09]
One of the big things I encourage med students to do is to get some basic understanding of finance – you will be a high income earner and you need to know the benefits and the pitfalls. With student loans going up and up and up, it is so important to get a grasp on it at a younger age than I did.
Also, anything you can do to get your pre-med years guaranteed or with scholarship is great. There are a lot of programs similar to mine that no one knows about. It is one of the biggest first decisions you can make, so really think about how you can go to a program that helps facilitate getting into medical school. Even with great stats it is really competitive, and helping to pay for it is a big deal as well.
Finally, student loans aren’t free money, but I just didn’t think about it. I lived the lifestyle of a resident as a med student. You can get $150K pretty easily, so people don’t think about if they could take less. Do you need to take the max? For me, if there was extra I did things like buy a TV – at 6% interest six years later, that’s an expensive TV. My general advice is open your eyes.
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