By Liza Thompson, MEd
Career-changer post-bac programs are designed for those who have usually been out of school for a number of years, engaged in a field other than medicine. Through either one or a series of formative experiences, prospective career-changing post-bac students decide they want to switch their prior focus and pursue a career in medicine. To fulfill the required premedical courses, these individuals can enroll in career-changer post-bac programs, which provide the premed curriculum within a compressed timeframe.
Students who enroll in career-changer post-bac programs are generally encountering science for the first time, thus the coursework is new and challenging. Some of these programs also offer a fast route to medical school through “linkages” which allow post-bac students with the requisite credentials (GPA and MCAT requirements set by the individual medical schools) to apply to specific medical schools while completing their premedical courses. Linkages allow post-bac students to skip what is known as the “glide” year, the year following completion of a post-bac program during which post-bac graduates apply to medical school.
Career-changer post-bac programs have been in existence for many years, generally since the 1970s. While there are several well-established programs designed for individuals with no background in science, in recent years all types of post-bac programs—those designed for individuals changing careers and for those who wish to enhance a previous record in the sciences—have proliferated such that there are now approximately 150 locations all across the country. To access a complete list, consult the database of post-bac programs maintained by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
A search of the database reveals that there are 86 post-bac programs for career-changers, and more universities seem to be adding post-bac programs of all types to their offerings. Some schools view post-bac programs as an easy way to bring in revenue, especially if they add post-bac students to already existing undergraduate classes; other schools tailor classes specifically for post-bac students and separate them from undergraduates. Prospective students should do their research and understand the structure of the post-bac programs they are considering.
Having been the director of two post-bac programs, and having guided post-bac students through their premedical coursework, MCAT preparation, and the medical school application process for 20 years, I have extensive experience with this population and the post-baccalaureate premedical program admission process. Enrolling in career-changer post-bac programs takes courage, diligence, stamina, and focus. Successful post-bac students learn how to navigate the significant demands on their time and establish habits for both study and relaxation that sustain them into medical school and beyond, in their careers as physicians.
While post-baccalaureate premedical education has generally remained constant over the last two decades, some significant changes have occurred in both the population and the curriculum.
A population shift
Twenty years ago the population entering post-bac programs was older and consisted of the “true” post-bac student: one who had been working in another field and then made the switch to medicine. In the last ten years, the population has skewed somewhat younger. Now some college students begin their education intending to eventually enroll in a post-bac program, deferring their premed courses until after they graduate. In addition, the idea of post-bac premedical education has become more widespread, thus more people are aware of the possibility of switching from a previous field to a career in medicine. In general, applicants to post-bac programs are younger now than they were 20 years ago. The typical applicant to a career-changer post-bac program is in her low to mid-twenties; the average enrollee has been out of college for approximately 2-5 years but there are some students who apply to enroll in programs directly following college graduation. Post-bac programs generally prefer applicants who have been out of college for several years and gained “real-life” experiences to those who apply as seniors in college.
A curriculum shift
For the past 20 years the premedical curriculum, and thus the post-bac curriculum, has remained fairly constant. However, with the advent of the new MCAT, set to roll out in 2015, additional course requirements will come into play. Biochemistry, along with sociology, psychology, and statistics, are new content areas on the MCAT. All premed students will need to be prepared for the new MCAT, necessitating more courses. Post-bac programs are grappling with the best way to deal with the additional burden of more courses. Linkages with medical schools may be affected since post-bac students may not be able to complete their courses within the timeframe needed to take the MCAT by the end of the spring semester, when linkage med schools need the scores to make decisions on applicants. Various post-bac programs will deal with this in different ways, depending on their flexibility and faculty resources. Any post-bac student who intends to apply in the upcoming cycle or beyond should ask questions as to how the structure of particular post-bac programs will be impacted by MCAT 2015. Do your due diligence and understand what impact the MCAT might have on linkages and the timeframe of the program; a longer timeframe also means additional tuition dollars.
What are career-changer post-bac programs looking for in applicants? There are several key elements that programs seek in prospective students. As with medical schools, post-bac programs want their students to succeed, to thrive in their coursework, and to contribute to the environment in some meaningful way. Most of these elements are weighed relatively equally, as follows:
Prior academic excellence predicts future academic excellence. Career-changer post-bac programs want students who will excel in their premedical coursework and make strong medical school applicants. Programs will peruse carefully your undergraduate (and graduate, if applicable) record to see what you studied and how you performed. Post-bac programs will look at the range and depth of courses you enrolled in, and also look carefully at any math or science courses for signs of strength or weakness. Similar to the medical schools, post-bac programs may compute your science/math GPA in any prior courses. While a few stumbles are excusable, several may not be. Freshman year challenges may be understandable but an upward trajectory is expected. Different programs have different thresholds for enrollment; check with individual programs to get specific information about average GPAs of admitted students. And there are always exceptions to the rule, depending on individual circumstances.
Success In A Prior Career
While the applicant pool to post-bac programs has skewed younger in recent years, there are still bona fide career changers enrolling in post-bac programs. If you fall into this category, programs will be looking for evidence of success and achievement in your prior career. You should be approaching the medical profession from a position of strength, not weakness. Yes, you’re leaving your prior career because you didn’t find satisfaction in it, and that can and should be acknowledged in your application materials. While admitting the elements of your prior choice that disenchanted you, also point out the skills you acquired through your work and the ways in which you contributed to your prior profession. Post-bac programs and medical schools want individuals who have contributed to organizations in which they were involved. Remember that your prior career helps define you as an applicant; what you learned in that endeavor makes you a valuable applicant to both a post-bac program and a medical school. You will enrich your med school class by virtue of your past experiences and career involvement.
Intellectual Curiosity + Stamina
Career-changer post-bac programs stuff a lot of information into a relatively short time frame. The typical undergraduate premed student spreads out her courses over a four-year period. Post-bac programs, on the other hand, expect their students to learn the premed material in as little as one year. Are you primed to learn a lot of science in a short amount of time? Are you intellectually curious and hungry to learn? Post-bac programs want individuals who are excited about learning, who demonstrate energy for the task they are about to begin, and who will invigorate fellow students with their enthusiasm. A combination of intellectual curiosity and stamina serves post-bac premed students well, and it’s a trait that you will need to be a successful doctor. This will likely be assessed by the breadth and depth of courses you’ve taken previously, the extent of extracurricular involvements at both the undergraduate level and post-college, along with questions asked during the interview process.
Medical Experience and Community Service
Post-bac programs want students who know what they’re getting into by choosing a career in medicine. Applicants should have done their due diligence investigating the medical profession, proving to themselves that they like it, are suited to it, and can thrive in their newly chosen career. Without medical experience it’s unlikely that many career-changer post-bac programs will take your application seriously. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule but all programs prefer that applicants have medical experience. This experience can be on a voluntary basis or paid, depending on your situation. Likewise, the medical schools are going to want to see evidence that you’ve fully tested your impulse to pursue a career in medicine, especially if you’re switching from a prior career. This experience is not a one-shot deal; it should be accumulated over at least several months if not a year or more (more is better, of course). And don’t go for the easy fix; “working” in your physician parent’s medical office is viewed with skepticism. Step out of your comfort zone and set up an experience on your own to test the waters.
If you lack medical experience, post-bac programs will look carefully at your roster of community service activities both in college and after. If you have a strong history of community service you have at least provided proof that you care about others and have put that spirit into concrete action. An accumulation of community service activities can mitigate less experience in medicine but not wholly make up for it.
Collegiality And Professionalism
Post-bac programs want students who will add value to the post-bac community and enrich it by their presence. Programs seek students who are positive, generous, empathetic, and who value teamwork. Such students help create a rich and vibrant student culture in which all can thrive. Mature students who treat each other with respect, help one another out during times of stress, and who are excited by the prospect of what they are learning help foster a positive environment; such an atmosphere helps students get through the post-bac coursework. Post-bac programs also want students who have a level of professionalism and maturity that indicates that they are equipped to handle the challenges of the medical profession. These traits will be assessed by what your recommenders say about you and how you perform during the admissions process. When you visit programs you can also assess the collegiality and professionalism amongst the students. Remember, the people who go through the program with you will be your greatest asset if they are collegial, supportive, and want success for their peers.
Career-changer post-bac programs are a wonderful means to an end: med school enrollment. If you intend to apply to a post-bac program keep these guidelines in mind as you prepare your application, as these are the elements that programs will use to weigh your application. Good luck!
Liza Thompson has amassed a wealth of experience as a premedical advisor for the past 20 years. As the former director of both the Johns Hopkins and Goucher Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Programs she has specific expertise in guiding nontraditional students through their premedical coursework and the medical school application process. Ms. Thompson provides guidance to both medical school and post-bac program applicants at Thompson Advising, and she can be reached by email at [email protected]