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The Path with Many Turns: Careers in Health Sciences

“I want to be a doctor.” When prospective students are asked why they want to study biology at Albright, this is the typical response. There are variations on this theme, of course.

I have been teaching the introductory biology course for science majors since the fall of 1989. Over the past three decades, many things about entering science students have changed. Their preparation in the sciences, as evidenced by honors courses,  Advanced Placement credits and dual-enrollment courses, has changed. Their use of technology and the many enrichment experiences they have encountered along the way have changed.

The one thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that many students discover early in the fall semester that it was their high school science teacher that they liked, rather than the subject itself! We all know Albright alumni who are successful in business, law or any number of other professions who started out as “premed” until they discovered an academic path that was more suited to their interests and abilities.

It might seem that the path for those who remain in the sciences, tackling the biology, chemistry and physics prerequisites for professional programs in medical fields would  be relatively straightforward, at least in terms of the end goal. For these students, too, the choice of direction has become much more complex. When I joined the Health Sciences Advisory Committee, we worked with students who were applying almost exclusively to MD programs, dental school or veterinary school. While osteopathic medical programs leading to DO degrees were becoming more popular in the United States, the emphasis on osteopathic manipulative treatment in combination with traditional medical education yielded practitioners who were largely limited to primary care until the late 1970s, and so many premedical applicants were reluctant to apply.

With well over 100,000 practicing DOs in the United States today, in all general and specialized areas of medicine, we now have students who apply only to DO programs.

Developing a path following an unsuccessful application to professional programs has always been important for students who want to be more competitive applicants while reapplying. Today, pursuing programs beyond Albright before applying to professional  programs helps some of our students become more competitive in a market that includes applicants with graduate education. PCOM opened its biomedical sciences master’s program in 1993. Many Albright students have participated in this and similar programs, which include course work as well as research opportunities. While some students find this their entry into clinical research, others have the opportunity to enter the professional program after only one year.

Clinical experience is an important component of these post-baccalaureate premedical programs. At Albright, we place an emphasis on helping students gain undergraduate clinical experience. Relationships with the Reading Health System (now Tower Health) and Penn State Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center provide medical externship programs, Scribe opportunities, and the ability to place Albright students in paid clinical nursing associate and phlebotomist positions, to enrich each student’s understanding of their potential place in clinical medicine. These experiences have  allowed students to develop a better understanding of the role of many other medical professionals, including physical, occupational and respiratory therapists, nurse practitioners and genetic counselors. The growth of Physician Assistant programs in the U.S. has opened the door to even more possibilities. These two-year professional programs  train our graduates for health care roles alongside physicians in a wide variety of venues, offering yet another possible path.

So when a student tells me, “I want to be a doctor,” I smile a little. I know it will be a challenge to follow this path, not just because of the demands of the course work, but also because of the ever expanding options they have yet to explore.

– Karen Campbell, Ph.D., Professor and P. Kenneth Nase, M.D. ’55 Chair of Biology