Liberal Arts

Edge or liability? DO students weigh effects of majoring in the humanities

Humanities majors need to study even harder in med school, but many believe their skills will be an asset in their medical careers.


Of the 5,464 students who began osteopathic medical school last fall, more than three-quarters had majored in the life sciences or physical sciences as undergraduates, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. Only 7% of entering DO students had focused on the humanities or fine arts.

Curiosity about the human condition and love of language and culture often drive the decision to major in the humanities in college. Some premeds choose to study the humanities knowing that they will be immersed in the sciences in medical school. But many med students who were humanities majors decided to become physicians after graduating from college.

Having taken fewer high-level science classes prior to med school, humanities majors need to study even harder than their peers during the classroom years of their medical education. But they believe their blend of communication skills, creativity and analytical abilities will be an asset in their medical careers.

“I did well on the MCAT,” says Laura Leigh Ambler, OMS II, an English major who now teaches a Medical College Admission Test preparation class. She prepared for the exam by taking community college science classes.

“I think being an English major helps with standardized test taking because you become really good at reading,” she says. “I read much faster than average, and I see details that other people might not see because they aren’t accustomed to reading that much.”

Woodson E. Crenshaw, OMS IV, studied anthropology in college, thinking that he would become an archaeologist like Indiana Jones. But he found his archaeology classes to be less exciting than he anticipated.

Then the day after graduation, Crenshaw learned that his father had cancer. He helped care for his father, developing an interest in medicine from this experience.

He aced the prerequisite science classes at a technical college in his hometown of Greenville, S.C., took the MCAT and was accepted at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine—Virginia Campus (VCOM-Virginia) in Blacksburg. He graduates this month.

He notes that his anthropology background has helped him interact with patients but it put him at a disadvantage when he studied the basic sciences.

“I struggled with biochemistry and microbiology,” says Crenshaw, who this summer begins an internal medicine residency at Summa Western Reserve Hospital in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. “But having an anthropology degree helps me understand people.”

As a history major, Karthik K. Sabapathy, OMS I, wrote numerous essays and long papers, honing skills he feels are paying off at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (WesternU/COMP) in Pomona, Calif. “I feel I can articulate ideas better than many of my peers can,” he says. “And I like that I can talk to patients about more than science.”

A classmate of Sabapathy’s, Diego J. Quiros, OMS I, was also a history major. The son and grandson of physicians from Peru, Quiros was reluctant to follow in their footsteps. He pursued paralegal training and worked for the U.S. Department of State, thinking he would go to law school. But he soon discovered that he was interested in medicine after all.

After struggling through science prerequisites at a state university in Maryland and earning a “borderline” MCAT score, Quiros was accepted into an MD school in Puerto Rico. But the school temporarily lost its accreditation, and he ended up at WesternU/COMP, which is known for welcoming nontraditional students.

Quiros says that being a humanities major, as well as a bilingual Latino, helps him empathize and communicate with diverse patients. “Being a history major really does help with written and oral communication,” he says.

Quiros studies with a classmate who has a master’s degree in science. “We have different ways of thinking and complement each other really well,” he says.

Balancing passions

John Shumar, who has a degree in English, will start next fall at the Lincoln Memorial University-DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harrogate, Tenn.

“I had a very good idea that I wanted to go into medicine when I began my undergraduate studies. But even though I have a passion for becoming a doctor, I also love to read and write and particularly enjoy the great 20th century American authors,” Shumar says. “I did well in science in high school and college. But I felt it arduous to study the sciences compared to sitting down and writing a paper, which was as enjoyable to me as school could possibly be.”

While in college, Shumar completed all the science classes he needed for med school. “I found it a very nice duality to be able to study science for a while and turn around and read an assigned literary work that I had wanted to read anyway,” he says.

Shumar, who has worked as a scribe in an emergency department and in other hospital jobs, says he has already begun to see the benefits of his humanities education in health care settings. “In addition to being a good writer, I am able to speak to people easily and clearly express my thoughts,’ he says. “When I’m a physician, my ability to communicate well should help me demystify many aspects of medical treatment for patients and motivate them to take charge of their health.”

An D. Nguyen, OMS II, in comparison, did not have a long-range plan in mind when he selected his major.

“I went to college with no idea of what I wanted to do,” says Nguyen, who attends WesternU/COMP. The son of Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen is fluent in Vietnamese, Japanese, Greek and English. He chose to major in the Asian humanities out of deep interest in Asian literature, languages, history, film and music.

“I knew that I wasn’t going to get a good-paying job with that major, but it was fun,” he says.

Nguyen worked as a teacher and, on the side, shadowed many different professionals—engineers, business people, pharmacists and optometrists, as well as physicians.

“I realized that medicine was very interesting because there are so many specialties you can go into, the job security is great, and it’s challenging, which I like,” Nguyen says. “In the past, I didn’t consider medicine because I didn’t think I was smart enough to become a doctor. I didn’t think I had what it takes to go to medical school. It was only after I grew a little older and matured that I realized you don’t know that you can’t do something unless you try.”

Double-edged sword

For Nguyen, the first two years of med school have been a struggle—but one that has helped him refine his long-term career goals.

“My path definitely has very strong advantages and disadvantages,” he says. “One of the disadvantages is that I was not used to the rigors of being in hard-core science classes. I was not used to very-fast-paced, very-high-volume science learning.

“In addition, when you study the humanities, everything is subjective; whereas in the sciences, everything is black and white.”

Because of these differences, Nguyen had trouble keeping up with his classmates and is currently in the bottom half of his class. However, along the way, he has learned that he has the ideal preparation, cognitive traits and personality for psychiatry, his top choice for a specialty.

“Psychiatry involves a lot of reading and listening and subjectivity,” he explains. “Because I come from that humanistic way of thinking, psychiatry would be a natural fit for me.”

Ambler, who also attends WesternU/COMP, similarly sees her background as an English major as having pros and cons. “There were times when I started classes and didn’t know anything about what we were learning,” she says. “But the nice thing about having a B.A. in English is that I can open any book and figure it out.

“I was a bit behind most of my classmates at the beginning. But I caught up fast because I could just open the textbooks and read. As an English major, I read long novels, thought about them and wrote about them, remembering details. Being able to recall information is crucial in med school.”

Quiros believes that his history studies strengthened his analytical skills. “I read 400 to 500 pages a week for one class and had to synthesize what the main ideas were,” he remembers. “Having to analyze a massive amount of information in a short period of time prepared me well for medicine.”

Leveled playing field

Sabapathy points out that majoring in specific life science courses in college gives those students an edge when these topics are covered in medical school. “A lot of med students are molecular biology majors, so they would have an easier time with a microbiology course,” he says. But this edge is short-lived, Sabapathy maintains.

“One thing med students joke about is that you cover everything you learned in your undergraduate science major in the first day’s lecture,” he says. “So any advantage you had is gone after the first day.

“We’re all on the same playing field.”

Sabapathy advises premeds to follow their hearts. “Major in what you like,” he urges. “You are going to have plenty of time for the sciences. Do something you enjoy and something different.”

He also recommends taking time off between college and medical school to work and travel. “It opens up a lot more options for you. You find out a lot about what you want in life,” Sabapathy says.

Deciding to become a physician during a two-year-long road trip to the southern tip of South America, Ambler knows she made the right decision for herself when she majored in English and traveled after college. About to begin her clinical years, she believes she will fully leverage her humanities background when she interacts regularly with patients.

“I’m a good communicator. And I’m good at figuring out what people are trying to say,” says Ambler, who is leaning toward specializing in obstetrics-gynecology. “As an English major, I read many stories. In part because of this, I am very interested in hearing patients’ stories.”

Jonathan Wong, OMS III, in contrast, majored in microbiology and immunology. Wong says that his intense science training helped him with specific courses at the Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine in Downers Grove, Ill. Developing good study skills as an undergraduate, he learned how to break down dense fact-laden texts and make charts as study guides.

But he would not discourage anyone from pursuing a humanities degree before medical school.

“It’s called medical school for a reason,” says Wong, the president of the Student Osteopathic Medical Association. “You don’t have to know everything you need to know to be a doctor before you go to med school. That’s what you’re going to learn while you’re here.”

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