Tips for being a Pre-Med Psychobiology Student

This article was authored by Selam Mulugeta and Danny Rahal as part of the 2020 pre-graduate spotlight series.

It is no secret that many students at UCLA are pre-med. When I first started at UCLA, I was convinced that there was a formula for being the ideal pre-med student. After four years of undergrad and two gap years, I realize that I was mistaken. Everyone’s path to medical school will differ and that is okay. As an applicant with a Psychobiology degree, I understand the challenges of reconciling an interest in psychology with the ultimate goal of being a physician. I have outlined a few tips I think will help others (with a Psychobiology degree, or any other degree) get the relevant experience they need as they work towards becoming a physician. 

No Major is the Right Major

You can apply to medical school with any undergraduate major, so I recommend that you choose a major that you are actually interested in. You will be studying this topic for four years (or more) during college, so let your curiosity lead you. 

I was initially enrolled as a Physiological Science major (now Integrative Biology and Physiology). My reasoning was that I thought it was the major most relevant for medical school and that it would therefore give me the best chance of getting admitted. I started to hear rumors from older students about how hard the upper-division coursework was. I was also advised that the topics that we would learn would be re-taught in medical school anyway. By the middle of my second year, I felt like I wouldn’t excel in my classes the following year. I knew an important aspect of the application process was the GPA–regardless of the major–so I decided to look for other majors to switch into. 

 When I took an Introduction to Psychology course, I really found a passion for the topic. I knew that I wanted to learn more about Psychology and the brain while staying on track to complete my medical school prerequisites. As a result, I decided to switch my major to Psychobiology. Since it is a life science, it required a lot of the science courses I had already taken while integrating Psychology. My interest in my new major allowed me to succeed during my last two years of coursework. 

Having a nontraditional degree as a current applicant helped me for the better. Although I had to take some extra courses, I was still able to graduate in four years. I think my Psychology background has provided me with experiences that set me apart from other applicants. My research has given me experience working with people along with a great understanding of brain structure. Additionally, my coursework was great preparation for the MCAT. When approaching the Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior section, I had zero stress because it was basically a review of all the material from my upper division courses. 

Although I was ultimately successful with a Psychobiology degree, you can be successful with any degree. Maybe you are the type of person who enjoys basic sciences and you want to pursue a Chemistry degree, or maybe you enjoy literature and you want to be an English major. Don’t let your future professional goals deter you. You are not in medical school yet, and college is a unique time to pursue one passion for a few years before you commit to pursuing medicine. Then in medical school, they will make to cover all of the material that you need to be a medical professional. Choosing a topic you care about will ensure that you can be engaged and excel academically so that you have that stellar GPA. You can get that degree AND become a physician.

Research Medical School Pre-Requisites

This is an important step for every pre-med student. Although you can major in whatever topic you want, you’ll need to take a few additional courses to make sure you have the appropriate background to get into medical school and take the MCAT. Regardless if your major does or does not require these courses for you to graduate, you should be aware of the classes that you need to take in order to apply to medical school. Different schools have different requirements, so you need to check the major school requirements so that you are prepared and will not be limited in your application options. For example, as a Psychobiology student, I opted to take Biochemistry and Chemistry 14CL even though they were not major requirements so that I could fulfill the courses on the pre-med track. I would recommend looking up pre-requisites when planning your Junior and Senior year course calendars. You can do that by visiting the admission websites of a couple medical schools you have in mind, and every school explicitly states what courses are required and recommended for admission. By planning your courses ahead, you won’t feel rushed when your graduation date approaches (it comes up faster than you think). If you wait until after graduation, you can always take these courses during the summer after senior year either through UCLA Extension or through your local community college. 

Utilize Resources

There are a variety of resources available to undergraduate students. As a student with a minority background, I was able to enroll in the Academic Advancement Program (AAP) at UCLA. If you qualify for AAP, I would strongly recommend applying to become a member. The support they offer each student was particularly helpful with my lower-division coursework like Organic Chemistry and Physics. The peer tutoring offered by the program, called AAP Peer Learning, was perhaps my favorite part of the program. For my challenging courses, I made sure to enroll in tutoring for that quarter. The supplemental material presented by the tutors along with their first-hand experiences were very helpful. Although it was a big-time commitment, the insights I gained about course material and study tips were priceless. 

There are a variety of resources available to undergraduate students. If you are not eligible for AAP,  there are plenty of other organizations that can lend you academic support. I recommend talking to other students to see what is available to you!

Participate in Extracurricular Activities that You Enjoy

A big misconception about applying to medical school is that the admission committees only care about clinical experiences. Clinical experiences like long-term shadowing, volunteering in a clinic, or scribing are all very important as they can help clarify if you truly want to become a physician. However, other extracurricular activities can look good on your application as well. Being involved in something you are passionate about will always reflect positively on you. If you are able to articulate how and why certain activities were important to you, they are just as important as the clinical experiences you may have. 

One of my most memorable experiences during college had nothing to do with medicine, but with co-founding a cultural organization. This experience highlighted my cultural humility, leadership, and communication skills. It definitely set me apart from other applicants. The application process consists of multiple essays, short answers, and in-person interviews. You will have the opportunity to really go into detail about your experiences and how they impacted you for the better. During your undergraduate career, I encourage you to explore your interests and don’t restrict yourself because you think it has nothing to do with your future career. 

Don’t Be Overwhelmed By Research

Research was a major point of stress for me during college, mostly because I thought I was behind my peers. My advice is to not rush into research if you feel overwhelmed with your coursework. It doesn’t hurt if you start later in your academic career. For example, I started my senior year and followed up with working in a research lab during my two gap years before applying to medical school. Again, you should prioritize your academic work in whatever major you pursue, and you should make sure to be able to commit to the research you volunteer for. If you are looking for a letter of recommendation, you can only get a good letter if you commit to the lab and provide quality work to them such they will want to recommend you for medical school.

Also, please make sure that you are actually interested in the research and don’t mind doing the tasks involved. Can you picture yourself working in the lab for hours every week? Do you hate pipetting? Could you stand working with animal models like mice? Would you be willing to work with human participants? I have too many friends who have made this key mistake and hated every second they worked in their respective labs. 

Because of my wet lab experiences in laboratory classes, I knew that I wanted to be in a research lab that worked with people. One day at the end of my junior year, I was browsing the UCLA research portal for opportunities and I came across the perfect lab. It incorporated my interest in developmental psychology with my desire to work with research participants. Additionally, I would learn how to be a safety second for MRI scans, meaning that I would assist staff in preparing participants for the MRI scanner and during MRI scans, and learn emergency protocol. All of these factors led me to applying right away for the volunteer position. I soon was contacted for an interview and got the position. 

Even though I was only involved in research for one year during college, I don’t feel behind my peers who started much earlier. Because I was so interested in the work being done, I put 110% of effort in. I was extremely happy even though I was volunteering more than 10 hours a week. My enthusiasm led to getting more and more responsibilities over the course of the year. Nearing the end of my senior year, I expressed to the lab that I was interested in working in research during my gap years. They helped me apply for relevant positions at UCLA that required my skill set. I was hired by a lab as a project manager for another neuroimaging study. I have been working in this lab for the past two years and it has been phenomenal.  I couldn’t be happier with how my experiences with research turned out. 

I know some of you reading this may be wondering why I worked in Psychology labs for three years if I knew that I was going to apply to medical school. During the application process, I responded to the essay prompts by discussing why my research experiences were beneficial. For example, working with research participants allowed me to be more comfortable interacting with strangers in a professional setting–a skill that can translate into working comfortably with patients. Additionally, I got experience working with PII, personally identifiable information. I learned how to keep personal information of our participants private. Now it is like second nature to keep everything information secure, which I will have to maintain when working with patients in the future. Also, working as a liaison for the principal investigators, graduate and undergraduate students helped me build my team working skills. Finally, as part of my job I need to recruit adolescents to participate in our studies. I give presentations on neural development to local schools and lead demonstrations in which children can look at sheep brains. Part of my role is to communicate information to children in an understandable way, and as a doctor I will need to adapt my wording for my patients. Specifically, I will need to explain a patient’s diagnosis and disease prognosis in a non-technical way. Just like other extracurricular activities, research can be a great outlet for you to show that you are a hard worker and a great means to gain skills that you can relay to the medical field.

The last thing I have to say about research is that getting published isn’t everything. I know plenty of students who got accepted without getting published. It doesn’t mean anything if you can’t talk about it when people ask you about what you did. When involving yourself in a project, make sure you can speak articulately about what you did, what you learned and what you found in your results, rather than say you were on a publication and have nothing else to contribute about what you actually experienced. Getting published often means that you were at the right place at the right time, and generally people evaluating your application are aware of this and will not penalize you for not having a publication record. Also, keep in mind that attending conferences and presenting posters is also a great accomplishment and excellent to highlight in applications and interviews! 

Take Care of Yourself

Your academic success is not as important as your physical and mental health. It is important that you listen to your body and tend to it instead of pushing yourself to the limit. Now is the time to instill healthy habits to cope with stress. Choosing a career in medicine means you are choosing to become a lifelong learner. Burnout is real among students as well as medical students and physicians, so it is best to start practicing these habits early. In our classes we learn how psychologists study mental health, and you need to remember to apply these lessons to your own everyday lives! You can’t take care of others if you are not taking care of yourself!

Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

Like I said previously, it doesn’t matter what others are doing. Focus on yourself and do what is right for you. Enroll in a major that you are interested in! Participate in activities that make you happy! Don’t rush through your degree! If you know you may need some extra time, take a summer course or maybe a 5th year. 

I didn’t feel comfortable taking the MCAT during college. That was the driving factor for me taking 2 years off. I was able to study for the MCAT without a course-load, which I knew made a huge difference. Even though it was tough to study with a full time job, I wasn’t stressed to take the exam at a particular time. I was able to study for six months, which allowed me to be very relaxed when I finally did take the MCAT. Additionally, the time off really helped me refocus and realize how much I actually wanted to become a physician. As a project manager of a research project my job is about 70% administrative and 30% working with participants. Very early on, I realized that my favorite part of my job was interacting with participants. It verified for me that seeing patients every day as a physician would make me incredibly happy. 

Although this was my path to medicine, please use these tips to forge your own way. Good luck!