How an English Major Ended Up in Med School

A Literary Buff Realizes His Passion for Medicine

This is the part of our ongoing series in which we interview people who have interesting jobs and get them to tell us how they landed them. They will also reveal how they handled the transition to the real world after graduation –

Hemingway taught him how to do that.

Hemingway taught him how to do that.

When we knew David back at Brown, he was an erudite, ironic writer and radio producer, always full of stories, anecdotes, and quips. Though our lives have occasionally overlapped throughout the years – for moments in New York, visits to Paris, and so forth – we’re now on two very distinct paths. Having heard through the grapevine of David’s winding – and incredibly fruitful – path from publishing to medicine, I knew we had to talk to him.

Like so many other graduates, when he got his dream job, he realized he actually wanted a completely different career — a reminder that it’s never too late to change course.  

Did you go into Brown knowing what you wanted to study?

That is so long ago that it’s pretty nuts to even think about. Like many people, I was pretty interested in Brown in part because there was no core curriculum. Kind of funny, considering the path that my life has now taken – I just had not really enjoyed science or math in high school and I knew I loved English and I loved history. So I didn’t really have a career plan, but I went into Brown thinking, “Oh, great! Now I never have to take science or math again. I can just take classes that I like.”

I never really thought of having a career until the day I graduated, when suddenly it occurred to me that was sort of a necessary thing. I just kind of became an English major by default.

But then when you graduated, you went into the writing/publishing sphere.

I graduated and I had this English degree—which, by the way, I’m very proud of, and I think actually that my English degree is serving me very well in medicine. By that time, I’d sort of thought about radio, and I ultimately decided I didn’t want to do radio after the summer after our junior year, when I did an internship at an NPR station, which was great – but it just wasn’t for me. And I thought about, for years, becoming a professor and getting a PhD or something, but I think that was more about not knowing what I wanted to do than really wanting to do a PhD.

I’d been applying for jobs mostly in New York, because my closest friends and I wanted to be in New York. We made a plan to get an apartment together, and we had signed a lease on an apartment. I was applying for jobs in publishing, because that was what was available to me, really. And maybe I applied for a few journalism jobs or something, but that was even more hopeless. I was having trouble really getting anything. And then – long story short, we signed a lease on this place and it turned out that the landlord was this crazy asshole. The place was still under construction. He told us it would be ready and we go down there to move in, and it was torn apart, there was plaster dust everywhere, stairs were unfinished . . .

And then I happened to be talking to my brother on the phone, and he happened to be moving to Denver for his medical residency and he was like, “You know, David, you could just always move to Denver.” And without even really thinking about it, I was just like, “Okay! I’ll move to Denver.” This was kind of a frequent thing in my first few years of my professional life. I really didn’t think through any of the decisions I made – it’s not like I made horrible decisions or anything. But things just weren’t really . . . thought out.

Denver was great, but then I was applying for jobs in Denver. And obviously, there’s not really a publishing industry in Denver. So I was just trying to figure out what I was qualified for, and I ended up getting a job with a company which is sort of an online publisher – Associated Content – they don’t really exist anymore because they were bought by Yahoo a couple years back.

They were a web start-up, essentially, with the idea of democratizing the process of writing and allowing amateur writers to get paid. I was called a “content manager” – that’s web term for it – it was pretty similar to what an editor would do, except I also looked at algorithms to determine how much we should pay somebody for their writing. The website allowed people to write about what they knew about, even if they weren’t professional writers. So if you knew a lot about carpentry, you might not be a professional writer, but you could explain pretty well how to make a table.

I was an editor for that. I would go through submissions, determine what we wanted to publish, how much to pay for things, that sort of thing. That was how my job there started.

And how long were you there?

I was at Associated Content for about a year and a half. It was my first real job, and I loved the people I worked with. They were all really very laid-back people. We had a great office that had very much a start-up feel – there was a ping pong table in the office, competitions — I actually got really good at ping pong at that time.

I made a lot of good friends and I loved living in Denver. My brother was there, my sister was there. It’s a really great city and there’s a lot of outdoorsy people, who are all into their crazy sports. That was also the time that I got into rock climbing. That actually ended up being important later on . . .Life in Denver was good.

Brains AND brawn! Sorry ladies, he's taken! (And I hate myself for writing those two sentences. Sorry, David!)

Brains AND brawn! Sorry ladies, he’s taken! (I hate myself for writing those two this, but it cannot be helped)

The other thing that was happening was that – this was 2008 –I was in a swing state for the first time (David is from New York). From about August to November of 2008, I started volunteering with the Obama campaign. In the last bit there, from August to November, I was working like 40 hours a week at Associated Content and would I leave the office and go to the Obama campaign office and work until basically 10pm. I loved it, for a couple of reasons: number one, it was more interacting with people than I got with my job, which was very much about computers and being in an office. I just realized that I loved being out there and talking to people about the things that were important to them.  And number two, I felt like I was doing something good or important with my life.  That was really probably the point when I started thinking more seriously about what I wanted to do with my life long-term and I started to think about different possibilities for how I could do something that actually mattered.

And then Obama’s elected. What happens? (For you.)

Obama was elected, that was sweet. It was a good and hopeful time. And we all know how that story goes along.

I still loved my job, but that was the point when I started thinking about doing something that mattered more. At a certain point when I was there, Associated Content had opened a New York office as well. And so I started talking to my boss about the possibility of moving to New York and working out of that office.

Why did you want to move to New York?

Again, this was kind of one of those things that I didn’t fully think through, but I was starting to think about it. I was missing the East Coast, I missed all of my friends. There was a certain point in our early 20s when literally everyone we knew lived in New York. Pretty much. Not everyone. I know Jess was off doing her thing and stuff. But you were still there, all of our close friends were there, and I really missed that. I’d visit New York and it seemed so great. I really love the East Coast, cynical atmosphere – Denver people were a bit too laid back. So I started to think about that and essentially put the wheels in motion to get transferred over to that office, which was easy enough to do.

I wound up moving back to New York at that point. It was 2009, and I think it was around February or so. It was an odd time of year to move.

And how did the professional transition go?

The office was different – that was the main thing.  I quickly settled into life in New York, and I was loving that. That was great. But I didn’t really like the new office I was in. All the business people were there. And the first thing that I really noticed – this sounds so absurdly minor– they had a ping pong table in that office as well, but because it was in Hell’s Kitchen but it was this completely redone building, there was no sound insulation at all in the building. And if you played ping pong, it would drive the businessmen nuts, as they were trying to make their deals. So even though there was a ping pong table, you couldn’t use it.

Very metaphorical.

That small change made a big cultural change. In Denver, people were much more friendly with each other. In New York, the day I got there, somebody was fired, and people were upset over that. It was a very different culture. People showed up to work, they ate lunch at their desks, they worked much longer hours, and then they went and lived their different lives. It was much different than the community that I had known in Denver. And even though I had been getting involved in some more projects that were related to the New York office, a lot of what I did was still related to the Denver office, and I was a bit more cut off from that.

About a month into my being there, there were about six people fired, which included my boss and several people with whom I worked closely. My boss had been based in New York, and he was fired and replaced with somebody based in Denver, and so I immediately felt even more cut off.  What really turned me off to it – this was all after we had a new CEO who had come in a month before. He calls me into the office and he essentially gives me this speech about how I don’t need to worry, because he’s been really impressed by the work I’ve been doing, blah blah blah – that speech really turned me off. I was just hit by the fact that this guy had absolutely no clue what I did at the company. He was so far removed from me. And he had just fired my boss, who had brought me in and who was a really good guy, and who was really a kind of mentor to me.

The moment I had that conversation with the CEO, I started thinking about leaving. It was just a matter of finding another job. It took me two months to find and finalize another job.

At this time, again, in the back of my head, I still had these ideas of maybe I should do something that matters more, and I’d been toying with the idea of the medical field in various forms – I’d thought about nursing or public health school – but I wasn’t really ready to make a move on that, and was like, “let me give the natural options I have in front of me more of a shot.”

Because initially, I loved literature, so I thought, why not try for regular publishing again, rather than this online culture. I started applying through all the usual channels for things. Answering ads, etc. (that was how I had found my first job Associated Content, by the way – a Craigslist ad, which is kind of hilarious).

One of my good friends also mentioned that, soon after I got to NY, his job was going to be opening up. He was an assistant at a literary agency. I did wind up getting the job, so that was that. I was off to work at a literary agency. I was very lucky to get that job. I was both decently qualified and pretty lucky.

So how working at a literary agency go?

It did not go great. That’s the long and the short of it. That was a huge transition. I went from this big company, which had started out with about 25 people. By the time I left, there were around 100 or so people between the Denver and New York offices and then I went to an office that had three people, including myself.

The office was in this beautiful building in the East Village, and it was just such a fantastic office. This couch, where you could drink coffee and read manuscripts — it was this dream of New York. I would get to go have hour-long lunches. It was in many ways back to a more relaxed climate in terms of the expectations.

In other ways it was not.

When my friend had been there, things had been going a lot better. The market was doing better generally; the book market was doing way better. It really tanked when I started. In publishing, everyone was getting fired and there were all of these consolidations, nobody knew what was going to happen with the e-book, all this stuff.

But the big thing was just that my boss was extremely difficult to work under. The first month that I was there, things were great. She was so pleasant, and telling me about all the opportunities: eventually I could become an agent, and I could look for clients. Even at that point, reading through the slush pile was exciting. But as time went on, the only way I can put it is that she went into a period of major depression. I would go into the office and on a daily basis, she would break down sobbing.

She would expect me to keep her on task – but half the time, she would take a nap for most of the day, on that couch. It made my job very difficult. For what I was doing, I had very little supervision as a result. So kind of quickly, I was like WHAT IS EVEN GOING ON HERE. I still had some dreams about maybe becoming an agent or something but I was disillusioned with publishing pretty early on. To be fair to her, the climate of publishing was very depressing. It seemed like people only wanted to publish celebrity books. It made it harder to see a career path.

I remember around that time, you were reading Abraham Verghese and finding him really inspiring. Am I remembering right?

He’s incredible. His non-fiction, My Own Country and The Tennis Partner, was what really inspired me.

For a while, I’d been kicking around this idea of doing something more useful. But I wasn’t really clear on what. I thought about public health, I thought about nursing – I thought about becoming a doctor, but I had this idea — my father and my brother are physicians, and I’ve always really looked up to them. They’re good at what they do, and I really respect them. But I have a different personality from both of them. And in many ways, they had been my role model for what it meant to be a doctor, and reading Dr. Verghese’s books, I was struck by how similar some of the traits he had were to me, and the way that he wrote about medicine. The things that interested him were the things that interested me as well.

Honestly, those books helped me to just see a place for myself within the medical field much more clearly. He has this whole thing about the physical exam and how it’s a dying art that’s not taught enough. He writes about how with the physical exam and much of medicine, you’re kind of like a detective or a storyteller picking up on these small clues, and weaving together a narrative about the person’s life and their disease and how it all fits together. And that was something that really appealed to me.

A lot of people, when they find out about the career transition that I made, they’re kind of surprised. They think, you went from being an English major to being in medicine?

Sometimes I’ll get things like, “so you decided you actually wanted to make some money, huh?” But for me, it’s really a good fit. I think when you go to school and you’re an English major or probably, honestly, any kind of humanities major, you learn a couple of things: number one, you learn how to write and read and grammar and nuances related to that; but also you learn how to think.

But you couldn’t just pop into a medical school and be like, “hey, I’m here!”

Yeah, they’re not into that. It’s a process. Once I finally realized, okay, I’m ready to pull the trigger on this thing, I had to go to what’s called a post-baccalaureate, pre-medical program. As a little bit of background, to get into med school, in terms of just the basic requirements, you have to take the core science classes – two semesters of bio, of chem, of physics, and organic chemistry. Beyond that, a lot of people take a lot of other classes, but those are the basics. And then you need to take the MCAT. And obviously, you need volunteer experience and stuff like that, which I had. But in terms of the academic requirements, you need the basic sciences and the MCAT before med school.

So if you decide, after college, that you want to do those things, then you have a couple of options. You can go and take classes ad-hoc at a local college or whatever, or you can enroll in a post-bac, pre-med program. I was looking at programs that were specifically for people without a science background looking to make the transition.

The other aspect about this to realize is that getting into med school is tough. 

I cobbled together an application right before the deadlines, and I sent it off and I interviewed at a couple places, and I ended going to the Bryn Mawr post-bac program in Philadelphia.

I think that was the last time we saw each other – right before you left. What was the program life?

The Bryn Mawr post-bac was a year-long program, by which I mean an entire year, not an academic year. You can either start at the beginning or the end of the summer – I started at the end, so I went August to August. It was a challenging year in that you’re doing all of the basic science requirements in a year, which is certainly difficult. Looking back now, it’s nothing compared to med school.

For me, going in, I was kind of scared, because I hadn’t had any science since junior year of high school. It had been a long, long time. But it turned out that I actually really liked the science. That surprised me. I was expecting to love medicine, but I wasn’t necessarily expecting to love basic biology, but I really did. Having good teachers makes all the difference.

So I did my time at Bryn Mawr (it sounds like I’m talking about serving a sentence!) and then I had to take the MCAT.  If you take your MCAT in August, they won’t have the results until the end of September. So essentially, there was another year that I had to take off.

During that year, I’d really come to like Philly, and I moved into Philly proper at that time. I did a couple of things – I taught the MCAT for Kaplan, that was one thing. I also helped out with a research project at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, so I got some research experience there. I also took, at one point, a medical service trip to Haiti — It was only a week, but that was a really cool experience.

At the end of the year in Philly was when I met my now-fiancée, Shilpa.

David and his fiancée, Shilpa

David and his fiancée, Shilpa

Did you meet rock climbing?

Climbing has just been a huge part of my life since I got into it. I’d go to the climbing gym in Philly and I made some friends through that, and a bunch of us decided to go to one of the best climbing destinations on the East Coast — Rumney, New Hampshire. I wound up on this seven-hour car ride with Shilpa, because we had mutual friends on this trip. We climbed together the whole weekend. I was trying hard to impress her, and so I climbed better than I ever have in my whole life.

We started dating like a week after we got back from that.

 

And how has school been? How far into the degree are you?

Generally speaking, med school is four years. I’m at Rochester and really happy there. The first two years generally speaking are classroom work, where you’re studying and you’re taking tests. The last two years are more clinically oriented, where you’re in the hospital just working full time. You do different rotations: OB-GYN, surgery, psychiatry, etc.

That said, I’ve actually been seeing patients since my first year – med school is changing a bit, so now I have a lot more clinical involvement from early on than I might have if I’d gone to medical school twenty years ago. In terms of the boards, the way that they work is that you take them in three parts and you have to pass all three parts. The first part the summer after your second year. The second part is at the end of your third year, and the third part is early in residency. The boards I’m about to take [the first round] are the most important for my career because doing well on them in part determines where I will do my residency.

David at his white-coat ceremony with his parents.

David at his white-coat ceremony with his parents

And so what advice would you give to new grads? Or even to yourself at 22?

I think the big thing is, for me, you have to figure out what really, deeply interests you. And by that I mean, not at a surface level – what do you really want to be doing on a daily basis?

The way I think about jobs, there’s two aspects: there’s the big overarching aspect, where it’s like, are you happy with what you do in this world, generally speaking; and then, number two, there’s the micro aspect, on a day-to-day basis, do you like what you’re doing?

To me, it’s really important that you meet both parts of that. You could work for a non-profit and it could be the loftiest damn thing in the world and you love what you stand for, but if at the end of the day you’re just filing papers and you’re really bored with that, you’re not going to be happy. And it can be the same in reverse.

For me, it was a process of figuring out, okay, I know I loved literature, but I didn’t love the process of working in the literary field. I loved the other aspect of it: the way it made me think.

And so I had to find that in a different place from where I was initially looking.

The “Post Grad Dispatches” feature comes out every week. Stay posted here.

GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND is out now.