Guest-post: What I’ve Learned as a Humanities Major in Medicine

This guide to what med school is like without a previous science degree is written by Sarah in the UK.  Thanks, Sarah!

I’m on a course for graduates with about half non-scientists and half some level of science (from A-Level to PhDs), with one year in lectures then three on the wards to take you from completely ignorant to an actual doctor.

In the UK medicine has loosened the system of science heavy medical undergraduate degrees, towards a system including a minority of graduate courses. Until very recently mature medical students were very rare. Around 10 courses in the UK will take graduates in arts subjects who haven’t done a drop of science since 16. That includes me…

Here are some of the things I’ve learnt during my first year cramming everything pre-med:

Some of this stuff is unbelievable!

DNA transcription! Complement cascades! RNA tweezers made of light! You are kidding me right? Massive leaps of imagination are suddenly required between levels (unlike anatomy, but is a ton of material, but relatively straightforward). Last time I did any biology, upwards of a decade ago, the cell was the tiniest thing we studied, drawn as a squre in 2D and it basically had five bits. Now they are telling me it is a massive fairground, with complex machinery, thousands of different chemicals running around, discreet entertainments, and endless variations. Cells seem to have such *purpose* my mind is boggled on a daily basis.

It’s hard for those who have been immersed in science for a long time to know what lay people understand

So, in one of the very first lectures, they explained what a protein was, but skipped over what dimer or ligand meant. The quality of the lecturer is the key factor – talk to us like ignorant but not stupid adults, give us pace and useful diagrams. Also, the relative dullness of the subject does not translate in the lecture, if the speaker is talented enough to make the dry stuff accessible. Personally, I can remember anything with a disgusting anecdote attached. One immunology lecturer got us to understand complement by making us remove our shoes and chuck them in the middle of the room in different piles. Unlikely as it sounds, it worked a treat!

Everything can kill you. Or you will kill everyone.

It is amazing anyone is born and lives once you start looking at all the chances, dangers and diseases. But, in addition to that, we are told at least one a week that failing to remember a particular fact will lead us to KILL ALL OUR PATIENTS. Miss x symptom and EVERYONE WILL DEFINITELY DIE. Way to keep us calm.

Obviously, you can’t bullshit

Having got through my first degree majoring in sleeping largely by luck and general knowledge, medicine is not something you can smart-talk your way through. But this is cultural, as well as the factiness of the subject. In fact, humanities degrees often reward contary positions for the sake of it. Now, the tool arguing the point with prof is just wasting everyone’s time, and embarrassing themselves. And that note…

…some people need to prove themselves, but there are also helpful people too

I expected a certain amount of toolery on the course, but was maybe surprised by how obviously insecure and competative some of the other students are. I think, in part, this is because most of us have gone from fully-fledged careers to being at the bottom of the ladder again. Some, though, are stars who will generously and modestly unstick you when you get stuck. I’m pretty sure they will be the doctors the patients love the most.

Thank you Youtube

There is an absolute wealth of resources for idiots like me. Don’t waste time on the hardest textbook, spend extra time on the securing the simplest bits BUT make sure the level of abstraction is the same (i.e. don’t bother of the simplest version of the cell I described above if your lectures have completely scrapped that notion). There are hundreds of helpful animations and demonstrations available across the web, especially for biochemistry and pharmacology. Although, you might start dreaming about damned metabolism.

Your teachers may give you leeway – but clinicians won’t.

I might scrape through this year, but I’m dreading being on the wards getting crushed by grumpy consultants (attendings?)… During the first term I suddenly had the not-very-original revelation that medicine is a degree about everything human, from the smallest chemical upwards. Perhaps you could be a relatively good doctor without a lot of the scientific basics, but you certainly wouldn’t be helping your patients.

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4 thoughts on “Guest-post: What I’ve Learned as a Humanities Major in Medicine

    • Great post Sarah. I’m a grad entry medical student in the UK too (1st year). While normal in the US and other places, this is not the ‘normal’ medicine route in the UK. I couldn’t imagine doing this without a science background though so I wish you the best of luck.

      • Thanks – I need it!

        I find the older students are treated more seriously than the undergrads. Which taks the edge off starting at the beginning again!

  1. Speaking of great youtube videos, this is really helpful for learning cardiac arrhythmias and it will make you laugh hysterically in the middle of your silent library and make everyone hate you (which is what happened to me). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvWzm7ICzhw

    I totally agree about the need for professors to explain things as though you know very little and just because someone understands something well does NOT make them a good teacher. I find clinicians to be much better teachers than PhDs.

    And yes, from what everyone’s told me and everything I’ve read, it’s a matter of time before you/me/we kill someone. You know, no pressure.

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