This interview is the latest in an Accepted.com blog series featuring interviews with med school applicants and students. And now for a follow up interview with Hanna Erickson, an MD/PhD student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We first met Hanna two years ago – you can read our first interview with her here.)
Accepted: It’s been nearly two years since we last spoke – can you bring us up to speed? At that time you were just starting your MD/PhD program. How’s it been??
Hanna: It sure has been busy! My time has been primarily divided between three major areas: graduate school requirements (coursework and mostly research), medical school coursework, and teaching, and I’ve been usually balancing 2 if not all 3 of these at once.
For graduate school, I joined my thesis lab, completed my course requirements, and passed the written and oral examinations that allowed me to become an official PhD candidate and made me eligible for a Master’s degree. During this time, I have also taken some of my M1 classes, since we take them spread out over the course of our PhD. For example, this year, I’m taking anatomy, histology, and embryology. I have also been a teaching assistant both for an introductory microbiology lab (despite having no microbiology background!) and more recently, for undergraduate anatomy and physiology lab, which has really complemented my medical education.
Accepted: What’s your favorite thing about the MD/PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign?
Hanna: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s MD/PhD program has a unique structure that places extra emphasis on research, which initially drew me to the program and has continued to be my favorite thing about the program. We are not constrained to a 2-4-2 structure like other MD/PhD programs (M1-2 followed by 4 years of PhD, then M3-4).
Instead, I began by working on my PhD and am free to take my first year of medical school courses when I want during my PhD.
After completion of my PhD/M1 courses, I will move on to M2-4. That way, I can effectively balance both the medical and scientific aspects of my training (as I intend to do some day as a physician-scientist). Plus, I can choose to take the classes that are most related to my PhD research (like physiology) much earlier than those that are unrelated (like microbiology).
I thrive when I have a ton of things going on at the same time, which this program lets me do!
Accepted: If you could change anything about the program, what would it be?
Hanna: This is a hard question. Thus far, the program has been a great advocate for its students and has done well at making sure all of the MD/PhD students are on track to complete their PhD/M1 courses and move on to M2-M4. It is a diverse program with students completing PhDs in everything from electrical engineering to neuroscience to comparative literature, which is a great community that provides a variety of perspectives on medicine. However, it is sometimes hard to connect with the other MD/PhD students and take advantage of our diverse community other than at our annual retreat since we are spread all over campus. Most of the other students I see are in my same graduate program.
There are plenty of opportunities to interact with other MD/PhD students and M1 students, though, through different groups, so the greater problem is that graduate school just doesn’t really provide much free time for the more social/networking aspect of education and career development. ☺
Accepted: Are you involved in any clubs or activities on campus? How central to student life is club involvement?
Hanna: Unfortunately, balancing medical school and graduate school doesn’t allow much time for being in clubs or activities. When I’m not in lab, I’m usually studying. We do have some student groups in our medical school, though, that are mostly attended by traditional medical students since the MD/PhD students are rather preoccupied. I have attended some of these meetings such as for our internal medicine interest group, compassionate medicine interest group, and graduate cancer community group. However, the meetings are few and far between since the M1 students are also rather preoccupied with studying.
My most time-consuming extracurricular activity that I do is serving on event planning committees for both the MD/PhD program and my graduate department that plan each program’s annual retreat. This has been a good opportunity to get to know some MD/PhD students from different disciplines as well as more of the administration.
Accepted: As someone who clearly has a lot going on academically, can you share some advice on time management?
Hanna: Effective time management requires excessive planning. For this, it is definitely helpful to have a thoroughly filled out agenda. Trust me, you’re not going to remember to do everything if you don’t write it down. I try to include as much information as possible in my agenda so that I know exactly what must be done each day and I don’t forget to do anything. I also color code for different topics such as class, lab, and teaching to easily find tasks and cross them off once they have been completed. Writing everything down forces you to look ahead to make sure there aren’t any scheduling conflicts and to decide what to do with unscheduled time so that your time is used most effectively.
Accepted: Do you have any other advice for our MD or MD/PhD applicants?
Hanna: Medical school is very different from undergrad. In preparation, there are two important things that I recommend anyone considering medical school to do.
First, learn how you effectively cope with stress and any negative feelings. Medical school can be quite stressful, and medical students are more likely than non-medical students to experience mental illness, which can then impair success as a medical student. Therefore, understanding how you best deal with everything will help you persevere once you’re forced to “drink water from a fire hose,” as the workload is often called. Whether exercise, social support, meditation, or something else is what helps keep you going, figuring this out before medical school will be much better than trying to figure it out during medical school.
Second, try different learning styles to determine how you learn most efficiently. The focus of the material is going to be much different than undergrad, with a major clinical spin even in the basic science courses. I never had a major problem with exams in undergrad, but I had to try a different study technique for every exam in my first semester of medical school courses just because I wasn’t doing as well as I hoped. After a while, I got used to the types of questions that I’d face on these exams and I eventually learned that my best study technique is writing everything out on notecards. If only I had figured that out earlier.
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