Medical

The Joy of the Perfect Candidate: A Conversation with Susan Mulroney, PhD

Sometimes, Susan Mulroney, PhD, professor and director of the special master’s program at Georgetown Medical Center, wonders how she got so lucky.
“I wonder- how did people let me get this job? How did I get this career? I was going to be a medical researcher. That was wonderful, and I loved that, but as soon as I started teaching medical students, it was like, oh my God, I love this. This is amazing.”
Mulroney had planned to do an MD-PhD from the time she was fourteen; she even worked at the National Institute of Health while still in high school. After college, she did a stint at the Mayo Clinic, thinking it was just a short pit stop on the way to medical school.
That pit stop turned into six years of work that sent her in a different direction than she’d planned. “I was in this physiology lab that was just amazing, and it was like a switch went off that this is what I want to do,” she says. Research also seemed like a better fit than clinical work, from a more practical perspective. “I cry when people are sick,” she admits.
She started a PhD program at Georgetown in physiology, and then did developmental kidney research, focusing on sex differences in the kidney, as well as researching hypertension and diabetes. But it wasn’t until her current post, working with special master’s students, that she truly found her passion.
While there are numerous programs defining themselves as “special master’s programs” or “premed record enhancers”, at over 41 years old, the Georgetown Special Master’s Program (SMP) was the first program of its kind. Mulroney explains there are several aspects to the program that make it unique, including its curriculum: half the courses in the ten-and-a-half month program are actual medical school courses taken with Georgetown medical school students.
“Our students are graded against the (medical school) students, so when we send their scores out (to prospective medical schools), the admissions departments know the scores are in comparison to medical students- and if they can get through Georgetown Medical School courses, they can get through anything.”
This year, the curriculum is becoming even more intensive. “It will now be an entire year of medical school courses, with graduate level courses forming a thread alongside them to support the medical courses. We’ll have pharmacology and pathology… things we never had before,” she tells SDN.
Another special aspect of the Georgetown SMP is the dedication and support they give their students – starting with the way each prospective student is viewed by admissions.
“What we want is the student who has this huge desire to be in medical school—to have a career in medicine helping others. They have this desire, and a good MCAT, and so everything’s great, except their undergraduate grades,” she says. While most medical schools wouldn’t see past the grades, Mulroney views a student like this as a perfect candidate.
“We’ve had success with students who have just really struggled first and second year of undergrad, but then figured out what to do, and they come to the SMP and it’s a game-changer,” Mulroney says. “Coming to the SMP changes every student’s life, but some students more than others…those students who said, ‘I’m going to work so hard. I’m going to show you that I can do this.’ And they do it.”
Mulroney cautions that the Georgetown SMP isn’t the right choice for every student, but she encourages anyone who wants to pursue medicine to find a way to do so.
“I think that there are wonderful things to do out there that can keep you moving towards your path. You just keep on going and find the people who can advise you, and move you in that direction,” she says. “Medicine is an amazing calling, and if you want this, you work hard at it, and you keep on working. Perseverance is so important. Don’t give up.”

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Suzanne Barston is a Chicago-based writer and journalist specializing in the areas of healthcare and science.