Well, What Gives?
When I told my family that I’d be taking another year off—my fourth post-undergrad—before matriculating into medical school, I was met with silence. Finally, from my mother: “How old will you be when you finish training?”
She looked at me questioningly. She is a lawyer who, in the ’80s, went to law school straight from undergrad, married two years after graduation, and had three children in quick succession. Hers was an era of economic prosperity and lack of student loans. Her generation embraced linearity without the uncertainty of increasingly competitive admissions processes and job markets, meaning that graduate training was often complete before the societal expectation of building a family came into play.
She, and many of her generation, don’t understand the phenomenon of not just one gap year but multiple—of stretching toward a graduate program for many years, strengthening resumes, volunteering, publishing, finding ways to be competitive in admissions, and finding money to pay for application cycles. The average age of my first-year medical school class is 26. My road toward application was filled with anecdotes about how graduate programs value older applicants and how much richer our experiences are as compared to those of students with only a few months’ distance from college graduation.
The message was clear: graduate programs see advantages in older students.
But the reality of being a nontraditional female student in a doctoral program lay in the implications of my mother’s question. I will be 33 when I finish a four-year medical residency. After that, as in many fields outside of medicine, I might complete a fellowship in an area of specialization, making me firmly in my mid-30s before it’s “time” to fulfill what is still considered by many to be my social duty—to have a family.
It is in this modern delay of graduate education wherein my conflict arises. We are expected at once to fulfill a biological role of parenthood while simultaneously being encouraged to delay our own professional goals by admissions processes and economic realities that might favor older students. At 25 and entering medical school, I faced a barrage of questions: when will I have kids, and in what will I specialize? It became clear that a woman’s worth no longer hinges on either parenthood or professionalism but rather on a winning composite of the two. In medicine, this composite might mean giving birth during residency or choosing a specialty that better accommodates family life. Implied in these questions is the sense that female professionals are somehow incomplete if we don’t satisfy expectations in both of these realms.
As a medical student of nontraditional age, I am left wondering what fulfilling both of those roles will mean to me and how my personal choices about building a family and my professional choice of specialty will inform my social worth.
In due time, I’ll have a ring on my finger, enduring the comments: too soon, and not soon enough.
An English major and psychology minor, Cassie Kosarek ’12 returned to Bryn Mawr to complete the Post-baccalaureate Premedical Program. She is currently a medical student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.