As with any career or professional interest, you should research and consider all of your options, get experience and spend some time reflecting on your strengths, weaknesses and motivations.
Below are some of the primary things to consider as you are evaluating your options as a future health care professional. Although some of the information is more specifically targeted towards pre-med students, these areas should be evaluated for anyone considering a professional or graduate program.
Why do you want to work in health professions?
Although this may seem like a very basic question, it is one that you will come back to repeatedly. Through application materials, admissions interviews, informal discussions and personal reflections you will ask yourself this question. Put some thought into your response and try to go beyond "I want to help people." Helping people is an excellent reason but may not provide you with sustained focus and motivation to reach your ultimate goal.
Whether you are deciding on a major or career, self-reflection and self-assessment are big parts of the discernment process. You are highly encouraged to keep a journal to document these reflections. Over time you may see trends in your strengths, weaknesses, motivations and challenges. Start journaling early! Freshman year is not too early to start.
Time and Training
Most health professions require training and certification beyond a baccalaureate (undergraduate) degree. For example, beyond a baccalaureate degree, medicine (allopathic, osteopathic or podiatric), generally requires by four years in medical school, plus one to eight more years of internship/residency, depending on what area of medicine you choose. Likewise, training for dentistry, optometry and veterinary medicine generally takes four years beyond your baccalaureate degree. Some people take specialty training beyond professional school.
Training for careers such as pharmacy, physical therapy, physician assistant, and nursing varies significantly. For example, you might earn an associate's degree in nursing in a community college program in 2 years, or earn a Bachelor's Degree in four years and then a Master's in another two or three years, in order to become a nurse practitioner. Physician assistant programs generally have prerequisite college courses for entry, and take about 1-1/2 to 2 years to complete for a certificate or a bachelor's degree. Programs vary from school to school in physical therapy and in pharmacy. In both areas, programs have been changing away from Bachelor's or Master's to Ph.D. or Pharm.D. levels, which is essential for licensing of people entering the profession.
You are encouraged to utilize the resources and links provided for additional information on expected timelines related to professional programs, trainings and education.
Like undergraduate tuition at public and private schools, at professional and graduate school tuition varies significantly. For example the class starting in fall 2016 at the University of Washington Medicine, tuition for one year (3 quarters, full time) was $34,476 for state residents and $64,182 for non-residents. For the class starting at the same time at Creighton University School of Medicine (a private school at about the middle of the private cost range) tuition was $57,244 per year . Again, you are encouraged to do some research on your programs of interest.
Very little scholarship money is available for medical school, so most people attending medical school take out loans. According to Association of American Medical Colleges, the average debt of the 2015 graduating class was over $180,000. Financial aid officers at the medical schools encourage prospective students to keep their debt loads down as much as they can before coming to medical school and to restrain their use of credit cards for optional spending so that their credit record is good when it comes time to borrow money for medical school. Students will need a good credit score to secure private loans
If you are a resident of a western state, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or WICHE, may be helpful. In this program, residents of thirteen western states, including Alaska and Hawaii, can obtain professional training which is not available to them in their home states, usually paying reduced or resident tuition, with their home states paying a support fee to the admitting schools. For example, there are no schools of optometry in the state of Washington, and Washington state residents may qualify for reduced tuition to attend optometry schools in Oregon and California.
Each state determines the fields and number of students they will support. You need to consult with your state's certifying officer to find out what your opportunities may be. Since there are limits on the number of students each state will support, it is to your advantage to consult EARLY! Plan to talk with the certifying officer no later than early summer of the year preceding the one you want to be enrolled in professional school.
A few other scholarship and loan payback options are available for consideration:
- Military scholarships through the U.S. Army, Navy, or Air Force pay directly for your training after which you owe them at least equal time in military service in your new profession.
- The National Health Service Corps provides some scholarships for those who agree to provide health care for an underserved community identified by the NHSC.
- After your training, the US Public Health Service Commission Corps may agree to pay off your loans in exchange for your service with the agency.
All of these services have health professions recruiters in the Seattle area who can talk with you about such programs.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Certainly, being strong in the area of math and science are critical to being successful as a pre-health student. Having a strong GPA and solid test scores are important as well. However, academic achievements alone will not lead you to your desired health profession. Admissions officers and employers are looking for a well-rounded applicant. Some areas to consider:
- Academic performance: Beyond GPA and standardized test scores, consider specific subjects. How are your math skills? MATH 1321 is a minimum to start most of the necessary science sequences for pre-health students.
- Leadership experience: Have you taken a leadership role in your student organization?
- Field experience: How much first hand experience do you have in your area of interest? Consider shadowing, internships, volunteering and part-time or summer jobs.
- Communication skills: Written and verbal communication skills are critical for patient care. Could you benefit from an additional course to help develop these skills? Interpersonal communication skills are underscored by many admissions officers and employers as essential to success as a professional.
- Applied learning experiences: Aside from fieldwork experience, have you worked in a lab or participated in research? Consider this when choosing your senior research or senior project topic.
- Diversity: Have you considered a language minor? Going abroad? Working in a community with disadvantaged youth or families?
- Knowledge of contemporary issues in health care: How aware are you of current laws and legislation, social issues and research related to health care?
Look at each of these areas and reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. Continue to build on your stronger areas and create a plan to address deficiencies. Don't forget to use your journal!