Whenever someone asks me what year of medical school I am currently in, I answer that I am a “four-out-of-five.” To those outside the milieu of Stanford Medicine, this is an odd response — four-out-of-five of what? But at Stanford, this is common parlance to refer to students taking a gap year after our third year of medical school.
Some would reasonably bemoan my choice to take a research year as a loss of a physician’s annual salary, but taking a year off is the norm, rather than the exception at our institution. Most Stanford medical students take at least one gap year (some even take two) to conduct research or engage in other pursuits before graduation, in part because the students are inundated with a wealth of research, artistic, and entrepreneurial opportunities at Stanford.
I want to pursue an academic career, so during my own research year, I focused on picking up translational research experience. After completing most of my core rotations (including a back-to-back marathon of surgery, obstetrics-gynecology, and pediatrics clerkships), most challenges outside of medicine seemed surmountable in comparison.
Starting last July, I worked with my research preceptor and a small pharmaceutical company combing through the data from a large multinational, clinical drug trial for dermatomyositis, a rare chronic autoimmune disease of the muscle and skin. I crunched the company’s data, found new insights into this rare disease, discussed my findings with company executives, wrote up first-author abstracts and manuscripts, and presented my results to other researchers at scientific conferences.
Medical students in their gap year also have the option of taking courses at any Stanford school for no additional cost, so I took the opportunity to take “Introductory Python Programming for Genomics” and “Writing in the Sciences,” the latter of which helped me to develop my academic writing and make progress on my scientific manuscripts.
Most importantly, even during my gap year, I had the opportunity to improve my clinical skills through the optional continuity clinics. Once a week, I went into the clinic to see patients with my residents and attendings. I got to know the people at my home institution, got to know my patients over time, learned how to identify and treat common and rare diseases, and picked-up in-office procedural skills that will come handy when I jump back to the final year of medical school.
Now, as my subinternships loom over the horizon, I feel the need to wrap up my research year. But looking back, I’m also proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish; taking time helped me to reflect on my experiences, develop myself professionally and personally, meet interesting people, spend time with my loved ones, and gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the medical field as a whole. As my graduation date looms in the distance, I hope that these experiences will help me become a better physician.
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