Sunday, May 31, 2009

Good Reads For Your Interview

Preparing for the interview season is a stressful affair. Interview invitations begin trickling in late in August, for some schools it could be as early as August 14th (for example, Brown sends out interview invitations starting that early). In early September most applicants receive 5-10 interview invitations, and most interviews are scheduled for late September to late October. Suddenly you find yourself traveling all the time, your boss becoming frustrated with your chronic absenteeism at work. You eat pre-wrapped food from airport cafeterias and festoon your suitcase with single-serving shampoo and conditioner bottles. You wear a suit. Constantly. In North Carolina in September in 80-degree weather. In Maine in October when it's 30s. The point is, interviewing season is exciting, but it's also exhausting. It helps if you prepare for it before the fun begins.

So how to prepare? How to know what to say (and what not to say) at your interviews? There are many ways to prepare for your interview season, but the bottom line is this: READ. Read constantly. You want to know a lot before you start interviewing. You also want to chose intelligently what to read, selecting books and articles densest with relevant information. My strategy was to sort all of my reading material into three categories:

1) Current Events
2) Medical Issues
3) General Interest

I am generally interested in politics so I stay in touch with current events through news sources such as CNN or Washington Post. When I interviewed the country was electrified with the election campaign, so it made sense to anticipate that my interviewers would be intellectually curious people engaged in the election process. This is how I decided to make "Current Events" a major reading category. Recommended readings in this category:
Politico webpage gives a rich and concise overview of what's happening in the world, I would highly recommend reading it.

A quick-and-easy way to stay in touch with current politics is a recent WBUR newletter service. They will send you a daily summary of events by email. You can quickly scan the headlines and read only the ones you’re interested in. Overall it is a great way to stay informed. You can subscribe to the service here:

There are so many wonderful medical issues to read about, all rooted in ethics, new technologies, new policies, and demographics. It really helps to be knowledgeable in this category. I really enjoyed reading books by Dr. Atul Gawnde, "Better" and "Complications" to learn about the current issues facing medicine. Gawande will give you an idea of the kinds of issues that medical profession faces today. He is also a wonderful writer and researcher. His books are very informative. I learned about doctors in the Army, doctors in India, issues facing doctors working in prisons, doctors assisting with administration of lethal injections to prisoners, and much more.

"The Silent World of Doctor and Patient" by Jay Katz (a doctor and a lawyer from Yale) is a fantastic source of questions in medical ethics, however it is a torment to get through. I read this book in small bits. Few pages here, few pages there in between more entertaining literature. This book alone made me so much more aware and informed -- if you're going to read anything on medical ethics, read this book.

I finally paid $64 for a year's subscription to New England Journal of Medicine online. It is simply a cornucopia of most current medical knowledge written by good writers. Every week a new issue comes out, featuring two articles in the section called "Perspective". These are usually the most pressing, most recent, most burning issues in medicine - unrivaled source of conversation material!

I also read books about what it's like to be a doctor: personal accounts by medical professionals of their lives, their careers, their medical education. I read a number of books by different authors, and although the material is mostly engaging I found that the best writing was by far was Dr. Frank Vertosick, a neurosurgeon trained at Pittsburgh. I read his books "Why We Hurt" and "When The Air Hits Your Brain", the later one being my absolute favorite. It is a funny, witty, engaging read. Sadly, Dr. Vertosick was struck with Parkinson's disease and no longer practices neurosurgery.

Finally, I read the six hundred page biography of Dr. Harvey Cushing, the nation's first neurosurgeon by Michael Bliss. He also wrote the biography of Dr. William Osler -- I don't think you will have time to read both of these books in one season. I recommend reading about Cushing because he was American and more of your interviewers are likely to know him. Osler was Canadian, and I found that fewer of my interviewers knew him.

Here I read anything of interest, which for me means science and politics, and superhero movies. I loved reading Dr. Carl Sagan's books about the universe, "Candle In The Dark" and "Varieties Of Scientific Experience". I also loved reading Dr. Richard Dawkins -- "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blind Watchmaker". These were excellent sources of fun knowledge to share, learning about human evolution, and the evolution of our minds, and the origin of gender struggles.

I read some fiction, although I had little time left for it. One of my favorite American authors is Cormack McCarthy, I read "The Crossing", "Blood Meridian", "The Road", and others. Although I enjoy reading fiction, it was the least helpful for my interviews. It's good to have read one interesting fiction book and be ready to say something interesting about it.

Did all this reading pay off? Absolutely. At Dartmouth my interviewer was reading the same New England Journal of Medicine Perspective article that I was - we had a great time discussing it. At Yale I toured the Harvey Cushing library and other historical places I read about. When asked "What did you like today at Yale?" I had a great response ready. They love Atul Gawande at Harvard! I talked and talked with my interviewers about him. They called him "Our Sanjay Gupta". I never hesitated to answer questions on medical ethics and felt I was able to say something about their historical origins. At Duke I was asked what super hero I would like to be. Since I watch "Heroes" I knew what to answer immediately (I would love to fly like Peter, of course!!!)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

HMS Acronyms Explained

The title is a twist on my favorite philosopher's book title "Consciousness Explained" by Daniel Dennett from Tufts University. Although Harvard Medical School acronyms are not nearly as complicated as consciousness, more often than not I was googling to find what they meant!

HMS = Harvard Medical School
NP = New Pathways
HST = Health Science and Technology
FUNC = First Year Urban Neighborhood Campaign
FEAT = First Year Adventure Trip

After almost two years of working, a year of monstrous applications, and four thousand dollars shaved from my savings account I am less than three months away from starting Harvard Medical School! The official registration begins August 17, but I should get my HMS email address some time in June... I frequently imagined what it would be like, being a medical student at Harvard, and now I'm about to find out first hand! I read the official website to keep myself in the loop about what's happening at the medical school:, and then school sends us updates on first-year class schedule and other activities.

There are two pre-matriculation activities that are designed to help the new students meet their older peers and introduce us, incoming first-years, to some of their (presumably more amicable) faculty: FUNC and FEAT. FEAT is a backpacking trip into the wilderness of New Hampshirean mountains and I'm sure this would be amazing, but I'm not a fan of August mosquitoes and sleeping that close to Earth, so I'm not doing it. FUNC, on the other hand, is a community service program organized by (maybe?) current first-year student at HMS. This picture is taken from FUNC brochure that the school sent me in May - it features a student happily chopping carrots for Community Servings program around Boston. That's all I really know so far about it, but I signed up anyway -- they promised more information later on. Whoever organized both programs clearly has a soft spot for witty acronyms!

An entering class at Harvard Medical School is roughly 140 students. Of those, about 110 enter as New Pathways student (and I am lucky to be one of them!), and about 30 enter as HST students, which stands for Health, Science and Technology "track". Those students have remarkable opportunities to do research at both Harvard and MIT, the program is designed with the idea to give Harvard medical students access to the leading researchers in health technologies and engineering. I remember when I first applied to HMS I tried my best to understand the differences between New Pathways and HST, but little was available. On I found a spectrum of opinions ranging from "there is no difference" to "they never even see each other!" Interestingly, some students who were accepted to HST in my entering class expressed fear (!) and anxiety about it on studentdoctor blogs.

The truth is that HST is quite different from New Pathways (I finally understood the differences, but only after I was accepted and attended the revisit weekend!). New Pathways features a unique curriculum which makes use of problem-based learning, the so-called "PBL approach". HST students spend most of their time in lectures. During the revisit they allowed us to sit in on one of the tutorials - small group learning activity that substitutes for most of the lecture time in New Pathways curriculum. The one I attended started at 9am, and it was a very small group of students (5-6) discussing a case of a patient with flu-like symptoms. A new case is offered for students' consideration each week, and on Friday (which is when I happened to attend it!) is the big finale - students finally learn the true diagnosis of the patient. Each student in the group researched one of the possible diagnoses and then presented it to the group in a very casual way - among the six students it seemed that everything was covered from immunodeficiency due to alcoholism to exotic Korean viruses. The group was nominally headed by the instructor, who was a young, smiling, friendly doc (a specialist in infectious diseases), but his role was apparently to make sure the students weren't saying something wrong as opposed to leading the discussion. I was very impressed.

Unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to attend HST activities. HST students were rounded up and bused to MIT to participate in some undoubtedly cool stuff. We had very different schedules for the revisit weekend, but got back together for breakfast and dinner (Harvard treated us to some really good food, actually, nothing like the Quaker Bars they "featured" on the interview day!)
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