This week, Prospective Doctor gets Dr. Riley McLean’s take on her path to medicine and career as a physician in Dermatology.
Riley McLean MD is a physician and MedSchoolCoach advisor. She graduated from Boston College in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and a minor in History. During her time at Boston College, Riley served as a Teacher’s Assistant for Introductory Biology, completed research, and arranged her schedule so that she could go abroad during her junior year. Riley decided to pursue medicine late, so after college, Riley taught high school chemistry for a year while applying. This provided her a perspective outside of the normal pre-med student. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Medical School where she gained a keen knowledge of the admissions process, particularly as it applies to students who have taken gap years. She will be continuing her graduate medical education in dermatology at UMass Medical School. Riley is passionate about helping students find their way to medical school while still maintaining balance in their lives. Riley is currently an advisor at MedSchoolCoach which provides medical school admissions consulting to prospective premedical students.
1. When did you decide you wanted to become a doctor? What were your main reasons for going into medicine?
When I originally started at Boston College as a biochemistry major, my goal was to pursue a research career in microbiology. It wasn’t until I began to spend some time with my grandfather, watching him in his role of primary care provider, that I began to consider medicine as a career. I loved seeing the way he interacted with his patients, and the way he supported him through difficult times. After completing a summer of microbiology research in an incredible lab with wonderful team members, it was clear the career wasn’t for me. I could see the good our research was doing and how it would benefit the public in the long run, but I missed the personal interactions that I had experienced with patients when working for my grandfather. That really sealed the deal and I chose to pursue a career in medicine.
||Read Motivation for Medicine: This Moment||
2. How/why did you choose the medical school you attended?
For me, the choice about medical school was easy – I was born and raised in Massachusetts and UMass is an excellent medical school with a great in-state tuition rate. Having seen how hard it is for people in primary care (which I had intended to go into as a career) to pay back loans, I knew I wanted to make a smart decision for my future. When I spent the day on the campus at second look weekend, it was clear the students were actually happy and enjoyed attending UMass and that solidified the decision to attend the school.
3. Describe your medical school experience. How hard was it to finance your education?
I loved medical school – while it was difficult, it was the subject matter I had been wanting to learn for years. Going from learning abstract equations and chemical formulas to learning about disease states and how they impact real people was hugely motivating and it made the large amount of material we had to learn not insurmountable. There was definitely a sense of camaraderie between my medical school classmates which also made the experience much more enjoyable.
In terms of financing my education, it wasn’t particularly difficult. As I said above, UMass has a reduced tuition for in-state students, but it still required taking out some loans. It helped that I had saved money during my gap year between undergrad and medical school, but I still graduated with about 100,000 of student debt.
4. How/why did you choose your medical specialty? Was there any part of your path to medicine that you would have done differently?
I absolutely love my career choice of dermatology. I had entered medical school thinking that I would be a family medicine doc in my home town. At UMass, during your first year you get matched with a physician to attend clinic with regularly, in order to expose you early to the field of clinical medicine. I loved the physician I was working with, I loved the patients, and I loved the clinical site- but I HATED it. I quickly panicked that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life (side note: none of you should freak out that you don’t know what to do as a first year medical student. It’s so unnecessary to do so) and began to shadow physicians in a variety of fields. I knew I wanted a career where my own skills were important in making the diagnosis, where I would see a mix of acute and chronic conditions, and where I had to think about pathophysiology. I fell into dermatology and found that it had all of these aspects that I was looking for.
5. What do you like about your job? What do you dislike?
I am in an interesting spot, because I’m currently completing my internship in internal medicine before going onward to a dermatology residency. For that reason, I can answer better what I like and dislike about internship. I love being able to help patients – it’s an odd feeling when you finally graduate from medical school and your clinical judgment matters. It’s powerful and it’s scary that you can seriously impact patients. Being able to care for others, see some get better and go home, and help others to pass away peacefully and painlessly is probably my favorite part of the job. I dislike the amount of paperwork that needs to get done in a single day – each patient you see requires a note, when they leave they need discharge paperwork, and there are always additional forms that need your attention. That’s definitely the crummiest part of the job.
6. Describe a typical day at work. How many hours do you work a week?
For those of you who may not know, internship (the first year that you are a physician) is in most cases the hardest year of residency. There’s a steep learning curve, and in the beginning of internship you work long hours because you don’t know how to be efficient. Right now, as an intern on medicine wards, I work about 7am to 7pm six days per week. It can be pretty exhausting, but on elective months hours are more like 8am to 6pm five days per week, which is a breath of fresh air.
7. How difficult is it to balance work and the rest of your life? Do you have any strategies on how to balance work and life outside of work?
It’s hard! But it’s so vital. Starting in medical school, it’s very easy to get sucked into the mindset of “I’ll do that when…” It’s easy to say “I’ll see my family when I finish studying for Step 1”, which then becomes “I’ll be there for my family once I’m done third year”, which then becomes “I’ll be at my Mom’s next birthday because at that point I’ll be done internship” and so forth. It’s very important during medical school to force yourself to stay balanced. To be sure, you don’t have as much time as in undergraduate to puruse all of your interests, but you need to prioritize what is important to you. For me, those interests during medical school were skiing, seeing my family, exercising, taking care of my dog Piper, and spending time with my then boyfriend (now husband). It wasn’t always easy to figure out how to accomplish those goals- often times my quality time with my husband, who was also a medical student, was studying. If we wanted to see my family, I would bring flashcards home and study there. Piper and I would take our morning walks and during second year of medical school I would listen to podcasts of lectures. Somehow, you need to find balance.
That balance is even harder to strike during internship, but if I hadn’t made it a priority in medical school I’m absolutely sure I wouldn’t be able to do it now. In order to be balanced during internship, I make it a priority on my day off of wards to cook meals and freeze them (in order to eat healthy), take Piper and our other new dog Max to the park or to visit my parents, and to clean my house. Every night my husband (who is a surgical intern) and I sit down to dinner together for at least 30 minutes. If we need to read or complete documentation, that happens after dinner, but by prioritizing time together we make sure it happens. Learn to strike that balance early!!!
8. Does your job allow you to have the lifestyle that you want?
Well yes, eventually! As an intern, I’m not loving working six days a week, but I know this is temporary. The training period is intense for a reason- it’s a limited period of time in which you have the opportunity to learn under the guidance of others. After completing training, I’ll be working outpatient hours- more or less 8am to 5 or 6pm up to five days per week. That’s much more manageable!
9. What advice would you give to students who are interested in your specialty?
Dermatology is a wonderful field, and because of that it is HUGELY competitive. I would say if you’re interested in dermatology, make sure you get to know your school’s dermatology department early. Go to grand rounds, volunteer to work on clinical research projects, and write up case reports. Research is an important aspect of dermatology, and accumulating publications over time will absolutely help you in your pursuit of a residency position. As high of a priority as research is getting great grades and board scores as a medical student. I would really encourage you NOT to set a high score as your priority- it’s much harder to learn material when you’re going for a score- but to set knowing the material well in order to care for your patients as your goal. If you do that, you have higher motivation for doing well. Lastly, get a great dermatology advisor. Find a person in your school’s dermatology program who you admire and who can help guide you through the process of applying. I’m so grateful for my advisor to this day!
10. What advice would you give to people who are interested in becoming a doctor?
Don’t lose sight of what makes you want to be a physician. Let that desire be your motivation along the road and let it help you enjoy the journey. Don’t think about “checking the boxes” on your application. Complete research because it will help you understand the scientific approach to curing disease. Volunteer because it further validates you going into a career of service. Learn biology because someday knowing about mitosis will be important in understanding why your patient has cancer. It can be really difficult as a premed surrounded by other premedical students to not get caught up in the cycle of obsessing over getting into medical school. If you truly want to be a physician- even if it takes extra time for you to take additional classes, work in the real world to gain experience, or complete research- you can accomplish your goals.
For medical school admissions consulting, contact MedSchoolCoach.