I took two years off between college and medical school, which is becoming more and more common in recent years, but what I did that was a little different from most students who decide to take gap years is that I chose to receive my Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) degree. I get a lot of questions, both from pre-meds, fellow medical students, and mentors about why I decided to get this degree before attending medical school, so I decided I should shed some light on my blog.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I began to be interested in public health in college, more specifically during my junior year when I studied abroad on a public health program. This is around the time I also first heard about the M.P.H. degree. I started doing some research about the degree, because I was curious about what exactly I could learn from getting this degree and whether I felt like it was something I could foresee being helpful to my future career. The more research I did, the more I learned that it was not uncommon for a lot of physicians to have both M.D. and M.P.H. degrees, and I learned that there were so many different subjects that are covered through M.P.H. programs, such as epidemiology, global health, communicable diseases, chronic illnesses, community health, health policy, health economics, and so much more. This broad range of topics interested me, and I was really drawn to the idea of going into medical school with a good grasp on a broader perspective of healthcare as well as research skills. I also found out that there are combined M.D./M.P.H. programs, but I really wanted to gain the knowledge from a M.P.H. program prior to matriculating medical school, and I had wanted to take two years off between college and medical school anyway, so the timeline fit perfectly for me (most accredited M.P.H. programs are two years unless you are coming into it with an advanced degree, in which case there are accelerated program options!).
I was relatively selective about the programs I applied to because I was looking for specific things. I wanted to learn epidemiology to enhance my research skills, get an exposure to community health through opportunities to volunteer in the community, learn about health policy, and be able to get some clinical experience as well. I think I ended up applying to around five programs, and I was fortunate enough to get into all of my top choices. I ultimately chose my program because it was a relatively small program with a wide range of classes to choose from and I was able to take classes in epidemiology, statistics, health policy, health economics, and community health. I was also able to get involved in the student-run free clinic there, which really catapulted my interest in free clinics and led me to my involvement during medical school as well and this will likely be an interest I carry with me throughout my career. I was able to find wonderful physician mentors who were very passionate about public health and taught me how important it was for there to be physicians who can advocate for more research at the intersection of medicine and public health, which is what I want to do. I got to sit in on lots of hospital board meetings discussing issues that were broader public health and policy-related, such as infection control, quality improvement, and hospital design to improve patient safety, but all of these issues trickled down to ultimately affect patients and the way that healthcare providers would provide care in the hospital. These are issues I am now deeply interested in, and my M.P.H. program taught me the necessary research skills so that I can try to be more involved in these types of research and policy change in the future. I also loved that my program exposed me to ways in which different healthcare providers work together for patients. I saw how nurses, hospital administrators, doctors, researchers, and hospital staff all came together for a common purpose, and this multidisciplinary teamwork approach in public health really spoke to me.
For these reasons, getting my M.P.H. before medical school is one of the best decisions I ever made, and I didn’t even realize the full extent of how much I would be learning before going into it. I came into medical school with a more profound, clear understanding of what kind of research I wanted to do and the knowledge and skill set to do this research, and I have a good idea of what I want to be involved in as a physician during my non-clinical work time. I think my epidemiological and statistical skills were the most handy in medical school, and when I was looking for research opportunities, these were the skills that many potential mentors were interested in asking me about. I also think that while the program was challenging, it was a slower pace than medical school, so even though I was technically still in school during my “gap years,” I had more time to pursue extracurricular activities and enjoy a slower paced life for two years before starting the craziness of medical school. For example, I got to be a TA for some undergraduate classes, which was such an amazing experience and I realized that I loved teaching and would love to have the opportunity to teach medical students later on in my career. I also got to volunteer and shadow a lot, which gave me more exposure to clinical medicine before I started medical school, and as a graduate student, I felt like people were more excited to have me shadow/volunteer than the challenges I faced as an undergraduate trying to get these opportunities (but this could just be a college-specific struggle).
However, what I do not recommend the M.P.H. for is if you aren’t truly interested in public health and pursuing some sort of public health related work in your future career. In my opinion, the M.P.H. is not a degree that’s ideal to boost your medical school applications. In fact, I don’t believe that most M.P.H. programs even offer a GPA (my program was Fail, Pass, High Pass, Honors and no numerical GPA was calculated), so it wouldn’t help you in that sense. During my medical school interviews, most interviewers asked me why I decided to do a M.P.H. before medical school since the more traditional way of getting a M.P.H. is either between your third and fourth years of medical school or later on in your career, and I was glad I had genuine reasons I chose my particular path. I devoted a good chunk of my personal statement into explaining why I specifically chose to pursue public health before medicine because I felt that it was important for people to understand that I do want to utilize the skills I gained during my public health program as a physician in the future. I get so many questions about this, but I sincerely think that if you’re looking for a master’s degree to boost your application before going to medical school, there are much better master’s programs that are designed specifically for that, so I would look into those programs instead. Of course, a big disclaimer here is that I’m not a pre-med adviser and I obviously do not know whether the M.P.H. really did boost my application or not, but that was definitely not the feeling I got when I was going through the application process, nor was it the reasoning behind my decision to pursue the degree prior to attending medical school.
So, there you have it — my M.P.H. story! I think that the M.P.H. degree is not one that many people know about, and I also think that public health in general is not something that a lot of people truly understand. Public health has such a wide scope and I don’t think every doctor needs have a M.P.H. degree, but I do think that every physician could benefit from learning more about public health, especially healthcare policies which directly affect patients. If you have more questions about getting a Master of Public Health degree (i.e. if you’re wondering about the specifics of the application process), feel free to comment below or message me and I’m always happy to answer them!