You’ve taken the MCAT, maybe even applied and been rejected. Discouraged? Don’t be. Hear Dr. Allie’s story.
Allie Lyle had wanted to be a doctor since she was 14. More specifically she wanted to be a pediatrician. And she pursued this path diligently. But the MCAT and a few mistakes got in her way. She didn’t let them stop her and today she is a pediatric resident.
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Can you give us a little background on your path to medicine and your pediatric residency? [0:44]
I am the first doctor in my family. I shadowed my pediatrician for a school project when I was in high school and from then on I knew I wanted to do some form of medicine that involved kids. I majored in biochemistry in college, and my extracurriculars revolved around children. After college I earned a masters in bioethics and medical humanities, got married, and worked in research for a few years while my husband finished his engineering degree. I was finally accepted to medical school and we had our daughter at the end of my first year. Last spring I successfully matched into pediatrics, and am now a pediatrics intern, which means I am in my first year. It’s no secret I applied to medical school four times, but in this age of social media where you see “picture perfect” snapshots of life, I think it’s important for people to realize success doesn’t always come without obstacles.
Linda: I agree, and that’s one of the reasons I invited you on the show. People need to hear from medical students/residents who didn’t have smooth sailing the whole way, because frankly, most people do have bumps along the way. The last statistic I heard is that 39% of applicants to allopathic medical schools were accepted, which means 61% weren’t! Struggles are not talked about nearly enough, so I think it’s really important you share your story.
Let’s go back to when you applied: What was the hardest part of the application process for you? [2:55]
The application process is so long and hard and intricate. The application opens in early spring, and if you are waitlisted you might not hear anything until the following August – over a year later. In general, people applying to medical school are Type-A planners, wanting to know things ahead of time, and it is just so slow! Also, on a personal level, I am such an introvert that trying to sell myself in the interview process was hard – it’s very unnatural for me to talk about my successes and brag a bit.
On your blog you list 5 mistakes you made during your 3 unsuccessful application efforts. To help the listeners avoid these errors, do you mind reviewing them? [4:06]
One is applying to too few schools. Prior to my first application, my advisor told me my best bet was to apply to a state school. Since it was my dream school, I only applied to that school, with one interview and one shot at acceptance. I was waitlisted, only to wait until August of that next year to hear there wasn’t room in the class for me. Another error was not having enough advisors – I recommend multiple, so you can get as much advice as possible. Applying early is important, too. If you are late, why should they look at you? I also had to take the MCAT more than once. My first score was average, so I retook it to better my score but wound up with the same score. The final time I applied my earlier scores were no longer valid so I had to take it again.
You attended University of Louisville School of Medicine. What about your experience at Louisville was simply outstanding? [6:45]
The education itself was amazing, but what really made it special were the faculty and people there – my mentors became friends. In my third year during my surgery clerkship, which is one of the hardest ones with some of the most hours and rigid schedules, my father-in-law passed away and I had to ask for a few days off to plan the funeral. People were very supportive and sent sympathy cards, which I really appreciated. I also was really sick during the first part of my pregnancy, and was unable to be in the anatomy lab 3-4 hours at a time when I was so sick. It was so nice to be able to approach the faculty and say, “This is the situation, do you mind if I take a break to get some fresh air, get something to eat?” Having people there who understood and allowed me to share that personal information was something special.
What would you have like to change? [8:42]
Overall my experience there was great. A lot of the issues I had stemmed from my own lack of confidence, being older when starting med school, and being pregnant my very first semester. In my mind I felt if I showed any weakness that I wouldn’t seem as serious, that people would think I didn’t deserve to be there, so I waited to ask for help. I wish I wouldn’t have waited so long, because once I did start talking to people they were so understanding, and did not make me feel I should be embarrassed about my situation or think poorly of myself.
You write in your blog about the challenges of having a baby while in medical school, can you tell us a little bit about that? [10:42]
When I was pregnant it was definitely hard to be a student because all of a sudden I had less control over my daily schedule than usual. I was the type of student who would go to class every day, never be late, or miss a meeting. All of a sudden I didn’t feel well enough to go to class and had to podcast my school lessons. Having to be flexible in the ways I learned and studied to meet this new normal was a big challenge. Other challenges came later with logistics. If my kid is sick in daycare and I have to go to a mandatory meeting, what do I do? We were lucky enough to have family nearby, but that was something I had never had to deal with before. Learning how to be a mom was (and is!) a steep learning curve. The mom guilt I had from still pursuing school with a child was tough, too, because as a mom you get so much unsolicited advice on things you should do, even if it’s from a well-meaning perspective. The good news was there were a couple other moms in my class, and sharing the struggles with other moms with the same interests and same ambitions was really helpful.
What was your most difficult moment in medical school? [13:31]
There is one instance that really sticks out. I was in my second year, my daughter was only a few months old, and she came down with her first real sickness – bronchiolitis. It was the night before a huge block exam, and I was also trying to study for step one. She coughed all night long and I stayed up with her all night long, so I went into that exam having been up for more than 24 hours straight, sure I was going to fail the test. Of course all the irrational thoughts kicked in – I was going to fail this, fail step one, and was going to get kicked out. Ironically it ended up being my best test of second year, but I didn’t try to mimic those test conditions again!
Was your residency application process smoother than the med school application process? [15:25]
So much smoother. Having three failed med school application cycles, my confidence was at rock bottom for that fourth app, but when it came time for residency applications I had gained some confidence back. I had finished first and second year, step one and step two, and having those successes as well as being able to talk about my passions and what I wanted to do in the future helped.
Any tips for residency applicants? [16:32]
Listening to advisors I found to be really helpful. I had multiple mentors, one for research, one for global health, and one for pediatrics. Getting different perspectives on what I brought to the application was really helpful. My program’s residency program director was also helpful in picking out programs that fit what I wanted in a program. For the essay that you have to write, have several people read through it and make sure it sounds like you. I had my advisor, my husband, close friend, and friend who’s an English PhD read it. Finally, when it comes to rank order list in the spring, go with your gut, submit, and everything will work out.
Was your husband flexible with his job? Did you have to be really restrictive with your rank list? [18:06]
We started first by picking out states we wanted to live in. My husband is a mechanical engineer and his company had multiple locations, so he was fairly flexible. Being near family was important. I also wanted a program with global health experience and advocacy opportunities, which helped narrow it down as well.
You mentioned one of your majors was medical humanities. How has that interest carried through, and maybe define it first. [19:07]
Medical humanities is expressing yourself through humanity – art, writing, sometimes even performance. For me it means connecting with patients through their stories, which has been a big part of why I went into medicine, and has shaped my career goals as well. I am heavily involved in writing my blog, but also some of my short stories and poetry have been published in some journals. I also edit for a few different outlets, Student-Doctor Network, and InHouse.Org.
Let’s turn to your blog, Paging Dr. Allie. Why did you start blogging? [20:40]
I’ve always liked writing and sharing stories, so for me blogging was an outlet for what I hoped would be a successful medical school application so I could chronicle everything along the way and share my story as well.
Ok. Now the big questions: How do you do it? How do you balance the multiple commitments inherent in being a mom, wife, MD, and a person who has multiple interests? [22:08]
It’s hard, but over time it’s been easier to balance. There are a lot of things my husband and I do to stay afloat. Most importantly I plan things just day by day. We are fortunate to live near family, so we have backup plans. My husband’s job is flexible so he is more likely to be able to get time off if our daughter’s sick so that is helpful. Having a communicative partner who is supportive of my goals – that communication is so important.
I also try to get all my work responsibilities done at work, so when I am home I can focus on being home. If I ever do need to bring stuff home I try to wait until my daughter goes to bed so I can focus on being a mom. I use reminders on my phone for everything, so nothing falls through the cracks. We also have a giant white board at home to keep track of schedules, and I freeze meals so that can be managed as well.
Where do you see your career going in the future? Further fellowship and sub-specialty or clinical practice? [26:18]
Right now I am planning on pursuing a fellowship in neonatology. I became very interested in neonatal ethics in grad school, my favorite classes were in embryology, and I love being in the NICU. With the interest in ethics there are possibilities in the future for a clinical ethics fellowship or ethics consultation fellowship. There is even a program that offers a pediatric ethics certificate. I am also interested in global health and working in NICUs abroad in the future.
Any last bits of wisdom or advice for premeds or medical school students? [27:17]
If at first you don’t get in, try, try again (if that’s what you want). There are so many different opportunities in healthcare – NP, PA, all sorts of other avenues to go through if med school doesn’t work out. But if you aren’t successful the first time, reevaluate your values and goals, and apply again if you want to. For medical students I will say it does get better. This is the happiest I’ve been, and internships are tough. There is a light at the end of the tunnel!
What do you wish I would have asked you? [28:30]
Why I chose the residency program I chose. I sat down with my husband to figure out the things that were important to us both. We came up with a list of things a program had to have – one for me was inclusion of family. If I am going to be well and not burn out, my family had to be part of the package. Really think about what is going to make you happy for the next 3-8 years of your life. It is hard to get that sense from a one day interview, but if you think about that before the interview it is really helpful.
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