Are you premed? – not anymore…

One thing I noticed my freshman year at Cornell was that EVERYONE was premed. Granted, I was friends with a number of ambitious biology majors, but it wasn’t just them – the engineer across the hall, the math major next door to him taking one science class, the chemistry major in my research lab all called themselves premed (or at least “considering it”). But if I was to ask those same people now, I’m certain that the majority of them would tell me “No, I’m not premed. Not anymore.” I’m sure some of them realized that being a doctor was just not their calling, but I’m willing to bet that for most of them, it was because contrary to their initial expectations, being premed is hard. And it’s not just the notorious organic chemistry classes or even the biology classes with their weekly 4-hour labs, but in order to get into med school, you need good grades. And getting good grades is no joke when you’re competing with hundreds of other premed students in the same classes.

Yesterday I heaved a very long and knowing sigh when one of my friends and fellow chemistry majors linked on Facebook to a NY Times article “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)” (link to article here). In an age when scientists are indispensable in tackling the problems that plague our generation, from environmental conservation and sustainability, to combating the rise of drug-resistant disease, why are we driving them away?

The NY Times article argues that it’s because science majors are just too hard. Students in other majors have less work, easier work, higher GPAs – and sometimes get higher paying jobs. However, I don’t completely agree. I think that every student initially chooses a science major with at least some notion of what they’re in for, even if they underestimate the amount of work they’ll truly be getting. No one studies engineering thinking that it’ll be a breeze; even the most ignorant and optimistic of freshmen has to anticipate a few all-nighters and a few lower grades. The truth is that studying science is hard. Hard, though far from impossible. So then what is it that’s causing such a high dropout rate of science majors?

I can understand that low grades are an issue. Most-high achieving students are not used to getting low grades when they start college and are quickly disillusioned when they get back their first exams.  I’ve had professors who aim to have the mean score of the exams be a 50/100. As demoralizing as a score of 57% may be (how the hell do I only know 57% of the material on this exam after studying for an entire week?), it also means that I’ve done better than half the students in the class. However, science students have to realize that college is not high school. While some students still get 80s and 90s, 70 might be the new B, and 85 the new A; many classes are curved, so absolute grades are less important than relative grades. And everyone is learning the same material and being graded on the same scale. This makes me wonder if maybe instead of saying that grades are too low, we should say that students in all studies were spoiled with too-high grades in high school. Of course that’s not to say that grade deflation doesn’t exist, but for the most part, you earn your grades. Professors aren’t out to get you and they have no reason to grade unfairly.

The last given reason why students switch out of science majors is that it’s simply not worth it. All the hard work and dissatisfyingly low grades aren’t worth it in the end. This is what worries me the most. It’s one thing to be honestly overwhelmed by all the work required to be an engineer or a physicist, but a completely different thing to give up becoming a chemist or mathematician because studying business will earn you more money with a more comfortable lifestyle. I’ve already written about the value of taking your education seriously (post here), but hand-in-hand with that is the value of a good education, a strong education. No one does anything meaningful by settling for what’s easy; ambition and persistence are what make people great and are the qualities of successful science students. If you truly want to be a doctor one day, stick with it. The work will be hard, and the hours long, but if in eight years you’ve made it and walk down that aisle to be handed your MD, you will not only have achieved your dream of becoming a doctor, but you will know that you are a well prepared, damn-good doctor – the kind of person this world needs.


About evajge

A friend once told me that all I eat is chocolate and cheese. I was both disturbed and amused to realize that he was right.
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7 Responses to Are you premed? – not anymore…

  1. nasen75 says:

    You know, you echoed more or less exactly the same sentiment I feel. My running joke is how literally everyone that is already not on some pre-MBA track from the beginning is pre-med freshman year. Then as the years go by, said pre-meds turn into “I’m a bio major…I WAS pre-med, but now I’m just a pure bio major.”

    Also, what I remember after my first semester was a mass exodus of people leaving the engineering college. More often than not, the destination of people leaving the engineering college was majors like economics of ILR; more often than not, again, pre-business. Even if they decide to stay in engineering, I saw a lot of people switching from something like chemical engineering to operations research.

    I’m part of a forum called FYICornell, where people basically discuss stuff relating to life at Cornell. I quote a post, “I was a premed but transferred to hotel. I think it’s mostly because there aren’t that many options for people to study science. You either go to med school or become a professor/researcher. I got smart and realized after 1 year of premed that business is the way to go. Less stress, easy classes, and good job after graduation :)” Basically, this person said s/he gave up on a difficult academic path, and appears to be gloating about it since s/he said that s/he “got smart”. I loved how this person was trying to justify him/herself by saying that studying science is pointless after all.

    For me, this reminds me of the article “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” where students want simply to succeed (i.e. getting good grades and landing a job at Goldman Sachs) and it’s actually at schools like Cornell where people are more likely to drop things like pre-med as soon as the going gets tough. The article basically says it’s due to this sense of entitlement where students take this sort of sour grapes attitude with things they discover they ultimately don’t deserve.

  2. joshz says:

    I think a lot of it is improper preparation for college level classes. Many premeds come to Cornell thinking they’ll get more or less the same grades they got in high school, because they are just /so much smarter/. “Oh yea, I took AP Bio and got a 4. Intro bio’s going to be a breeze.” Well, no, that’s just not how it works. There will be absolute geniuses in that class. There will be students who don’t know anything beyond “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” (guilty), but will work their asses off to ace the class.

    What I’m saying is that it’s more about how much you’re committed to becoming a doctor. If you’re behind everyone else in the sciences coming into university, you’ll just have to work that much harder. If you get one C, quit, and decide business will be a lot easier and profitable, then your passion to become a doctor probably wasn’t ever that strong. If what you really want is to become a doctor, then you should be able to hunker down, study, and you’ll manage to get into some medical school. But if all you want is an MD from a prestigious school handed to you, then you’re not meant to be premed, let alone a doctor.

    For the record, I don’t feel “premed” is a good descriptor for me, because I’m not attending Cornell to eventually become a doctor. I’m concentrating in neuroscience and entertaining the idea of medical school at the moment, because it may open up more opportunities for me to advance the field.

  3. Neiman says:

    While I can assert with complete certainty that there are a multitude of reasons for the dearth of students pursuing study in the sciences, I’ll take the opportunity to focus on the particularly compelling and heated debate regarding premedical student. First and foremost, society holds doctors in high regard (deservedly so), but perhaps in too high of a regard; the needless glamorization of the profession in popular culture and in the fabric of societal consciousness (perhaps the most resounding among other causes) is no doubt a driving force in prompting many in contemplating a career in medicine. Are there souls out there who have a genuine interest in serving others? Certainly. However, I would argue that the majority of budding M.D.’s out there are more drawn to the monetary and societal benefits of the profession.

    What I do take issue with is the lack of attention lavished on how the system actually works the way it’s supposed to. The current paradigm does indeed fare respectably with regard to selecting the world’s brightest to become doctors, and while certainly not completely holistic, not completely free of flaws, is undeniably effective…and at the risk of being politically incorrect and elitist, let me continue. Why allow someone only fit to work in a hotel the opportunity to even attempt to alleviate anyone’s medical woes. Why bother attempting to increase interest in medicine in society if it comes at the cost of patting ones on the head who clearly aren’t up to par? The current paradigm quite successfully selects suitably talented doctors…after all, isn’t there a correlation between the difficulty of a profession with the investment one requires to train for that profession? If so, then that is the reason why science classes are made to be hard, to weed out those who don’t belong? I guess that means there’s also a reason why Hotel and Business classes are suitably stimulating (refer to Business computing in the Hotel School).

    Ricardo’s works on comparative advantage and even Plato’s theory on the division of society into classes suggests that mankind has thought long and hard about some of the finer points surrounding this bigger issue, but I suppose my main gripe is really rooted in my utter lack of understanding on how such people can be so well compensated. One can invoke Bentham’s felicific calculus, where people gravitate to things that maximize satisfaction while soliciting minimal suffering. I would like to believe they fancy rewarding themselves on excessively and often, but no one really tries to challenge that. That’s unfortunate really, but I suppose one shouldn’t really bite the invisible hand that feeds them. To each his own.

  4. evajge says:


    – I don’t think that improper preparation for college classes is necessarily one of the main deterrents from studying science; a relative few number of students have the opportunity to go to prep schools or good private schools. For the majority of students, freshman year is a year to figure out how to do things. Even the most strongly committed and hardest working students might take a while to “get a hang of the system.” and they certainly won’t be alone or in the lone few who feel this pressure.

    – Like Neiman said, even people who do go through med school don’t necessarily have a strong passion to become a doctor. I know my parents pressured me to be premed, because to them a doctor is the ideal profession (respectable, helps people, good wages, well-education). I also know not all students on the premed track define themselves as premed, a number of premed students plan to do other things (MD PhD for research, MD MBA to operate hospitals, etc.)


    – Doctors are so well compensated because well, we need them. Another one of my parents’ arguing points for why I should be a doctor was because despite how bad the economy got, doctors will always be in high demand. Very few jobs that pay so well have so much job security. People will always get sick, and Americans more than anyone else are willing to pay a lot for their healthcare.

    – But I definitely agree that a great number of pursuers of MDs are drawn to the monetary and societal benefits. Just look at how popular and competitive the field of plastic surgery is. And if that’s not enough, how often do you read about pharmaceutical companies providing lavish gifts and paid vacations to doctors who will prescribe their drugs?

  5. Pingback: 100th post! | chocolatepluscheese

  6. joshz says:


    I didn’t mean preparation for specific premed classes. I had extremely easy biology, chemistry, and physics classes (aside from AP Chem) in high school. They were just plain easy classes. It was sciences for the “dumb academies,” which were for visual and performing arts; culinary and hotel; and comp sci. So yeah, I had the same science training (+AP Chem in which I had BY FAR the lowest grade in the class) as the many of the Cornell Hotelies from my high school. Moreover, I forgot almost all of my high school biology and physics when starting Cornell. You don’t need to go to a private school or magnet school to learn how to (eventually) adapt to a more difficult academic environment and work harder. Many take too long to figure it out how to cope and fall very behind.

    Don’t you agree that you’re less inclined to enjoy something you’re bad at?

    As for medical school, I was trying to emphasize that those who are “failing” pre-med classes–while also lacking the passion to become a doctor–usually pursue other tracks.

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