In a former life, I was a reporter, covering international affairs, health and business in the US, France, Botswana and Germany. But this mini-career was a detour from what I think is my true calling in life: medicine.
I was one of those girls who played doctor with my dolls. My interest in the health professions grew stronger in high school, as I volunteered at the local hospital and attended the National Leadership Forum on Medicine. This was also one of the main reasons why I decided to pursue my undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins University.
But these days as you may know, getting into a good college with top grades isn't enough. And the same goes for medical school admissions: good grades are expected. After forgoing sleep and much of my social life for years on end, I had the marks, leadership, extracurriculars and research experiences, but they came at a price: burnout.
So, I decided to take a gap year, which turned into two, then three and eventually ten. I don't regret my odyssey at all, as I globe-trotted and explored different fields - like teaching, music performance and international development, in addition to journalism.
And finally, almost a decade later, I have come full circle back to medicine - now with more wrinkles on my face, but with a refreshed mind.
For a US-educated pre-med like me, it's medical school with a twist though: I decided to study in Germany.
physician in training
Since April 2015, I've been studying human medicine and pursuing my Dr. med. (MD equivalent) at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, one of the largest university hospitals in Europe.
I spent many sleepless nights pacing my bedroom, weighing the benefits and drawbacks of going to medical school in Germany versus the US. After much back and forth, I chose Germany, or Charité - to be specific.
There are a few obvious benefits for studying medicine in Deutschland. For one, education is free here. Yes, that's right - free. Well, it's basically free, considering the tens of thousands of dollars US students have to pay every year. Take University of Chicago, for instance - a school that I was interested in attending. The financial aid office estimates that one would need to pay $79,542 for just the first year of medical school (figures from the 2014-2015 academic year). Tuition alone costs $49,581 there. Compare that with Charité, which requires each student to pay 297.87 euros per semester, or 595.74 euros per year - most of which goes to the public transportation ticket. Although estimates vary, it's fair to say that US medical students expect to be about $200,000 in debt after graduation. German medical school students, needless to say, accrue virtually no debt and even work during their studies to support themselves.
The other substantial draw is that Germany is generally more supportive of families, with paid parental leave for full-time employees. Not only that, students have access to various support networks for parents. In my class, there are quite a few students who are already parents or expecting. And in Germany, it's not frowned upon to have children while studying or working. In the US, I think it's rare for medical students to start a family during their studies, and many residency programs do not offer paid parental leave. Many women also wonder if they would get "mommy-tracked" when they have kids during their studies or residency, barring them from entering certain specialties.
The final big reason I chose to study in Berlin is that Charité has an integrated medical curriculum, meaning its course of study is centered around organ systems. Instead of taking traditional subjects like physiology and anatomy and being done with those each semester, students take modules like "Blood and Immune System" and "Skin." Within these units, they learn about the system's physiology, anatomy, histology, etc. And starting from the first week of medical school, students get to interact with patients, take their medical histories and physically examine them. If I had to sit through undergraduate-style physics and organic chemistry courses again, I think I would have opted for the US in a heartbeat, based on that fact alone.
On the other hand, German medical school lasts six years. And having a non-US degree will ultimately make it harder for me to practice medicine in the states. Competitive specialties (think the ROAD to happiness) will also be a no-go for me, since international medical graduates generally have a harder time matching to US residency programs than US medical school graduates. This isn't a huge issue for me, since I'm more interested in primary care, global health, women's health, emergency medicine and medical education.
One important thing to consider is that the whole program is conducted in German - that means lectures, labs, tests, everything. The language factor is not to be underestimated. It adds another layer of challenge and frustration to an already difficult curriculum. Let's just say, learning in German is not a walk in the park. Instead, it's more like climbing the Matterhorn. In sandals. At midnight.
But if the German medical school option offers a low-risk, cost-efficient, family-friendly option for non-traditional students like me - as well as the opportunity for them to pursue research and earn a doctorate after six years - then warum nicht?
I admit, having a German spouse (or spouse-to-be) made the decision a bit easier.