Why I Proposed My Own Elective in Medical School

During my fourth year of medical school, I did something few other students at my school did. While everyone was embarking on traditional clinical away rotations, I carved my own non-clinical electives based on my intellectual interests. Specifically, I am a writer and have a strong interest in continuing that as a physician. Likewise, I have a strong passion for public health, and wanted to participate directly in implementing change. I was able to pursue both as an M4. Although this may not be an option at every school, it is one I highly recommend seeking if possible.

While it may be difficult to incorporate such non-clinical electives into your schedule if you are required to participate in away-rotations for your specialty, it may be beneficial to explore your school’s policies around the number of non-clinical and away rotations you are allowed to pursue.

In order to establish these electives, I had to step out of my comfort zone and ask for opportunities from individuals I did not know. You can do this too! I recommend starting by exploring the work of alumni from your medical school. See if there’s a connection that may suit your interests. Be honest about what you can offer, your skillset, and what you seek to learn and gain from such a rotation. I would also suggest that you are forthcoming about whether this is for school credit (if that is an option for you) or if you expect to be paid (during a flex block for example). Doing so will establish a clear understanding of your goals and allow you to find a mentor who will guide you accordingly.

For one of my electives, I worked in conjunction with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to develop a research project around my passion for women’s health. The opportunity allowed me to spend time in D.C., to learn more about health care policy, and to work on a quality improvement measure with a diverse team. During my time there, I also discovered that I wanted to live in the city, and have since matched there.

For my second elective, I worked with a physician editor at "The Atlantic" researching topics for a nonfiction book on health. The experience was invaluable. It taught me more about writing (my other career) and about the health care industry. I was able to work directly with a mentor whose career had multiple similarities to my own, which helped guide me. I discovered that I was probably not as captivated by writing a book about a health topic as I was in writing about health in shorter formats. This was valuable information I gained in order to make decisions about my future as a physician writer.

On the residency interview trail, these opportunities were often a topic of conversation, in addition to my writing. The combination proved invaluable to demonstrating my passion for specific areas within medicine, and offered insight into what I could offer to a residency program as an individual.   

That said, if you have related interests outside of medical school — research, policy, journalism — I highly recommend seeking opportunities in your fourth year to explore the possibility of how you can use your MD to shape a career outside of clinical medicine. There will be less time in residency to seek such opportunities, and having them may prove invaluable to your ultimate career goals. While I ultimately knew that clinical medicine would be part of my path, exploring these options gave me insight into a future beyond the traditional, and allowed me to consider what my career could look like if I ever chose differently.

Mariam Gomaa is a 2018-19 Doximity Author and the author of Between the Shadow & the Soul (Backbone Press). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, TIME, NBC, BBC, xoJane, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, and more. She is an alumna of Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Northwestern University. This summer she will start her ob/gyn residency at Howard University Hospital. 

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