Music or medicine – are you thinking you have to make a choice?
If you are passionate about music but also feel like medicine is your calling, take heart: you’re not alone. And the good news is that there’s no need to choose between one or the other. The combined path isn’t an easy one, but it is definitely achievable.
Consider the following insights and advice from prospective and current medical students who have successfully pursued music AND medicine. Here are some of their best tips for juggling the demands of studying both.
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Jimmy Nguyen, violinist
Gettysburg College Sunderman Conservatory ’15, Music & Biology double major. Career goal: primary care physician and member of a community orchestra.
What’s the course load like?
I had the whole “I want to become a doctor” idea since my senior year of high school, so I knew whichever school I picked had to provide me with a strong foundation in the sciences, while giving me the opportunity to continue my love for music.
With classes, research, required ensembles, and time with friends, my schedule is hectic. There are days when I’m running nonstop from early in the morning until 10pm when I can finally take a breath.
One minute I’m in lab trying to purify proteins and in the next, I’m performing Bach’s Chaconne for my studio class. Both subjects are difficult, especially upper-level courses, but they are where I find the most enjoyment. Once you get past the introductory science courses, there are so many interesting classes available like neurobiology, conducting, immunobiology, musicology, and biochemistry. These courses are difficult, but it helps if you love what you’re studying.
Benefits of being a music + biology major?
I’ve learned to work efficiently, to focus my brain when a million other things are swirling in it. I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone, while knowing my absolute limits…Having both disciplines shape how I think has given me a broad range of perspectives (empirical, musicological, artistic) and this, unexpectedly, has prepared me to become a great physician.
Are there any downsides to doing both?
Sometimes you can’t devote as much time to studying or practicing as you want. In retrospect, I would manage my time better and not overextend myself by participating in too many activities.
Advice to someone who is passionate about music but also wants to enter the field of medicine?
I would strongly recommend majoring in both. It IS intense. Figure out what you can handle early on (keep in mind it gets more difficult every semester). Trying to fit two majors into 8 semesters is tricky. If both majors are too overwhelming and your grades are suffering, take it easy with music. It’s absolutely fine. Try just participating in orchestra or performing now and then, or even minoring in music.
What’s it like to get ready for the MCAT while pursuing a double degree?
It’s a lot more difficult than I expected! I find I have to set aside a specific amount of time, which I devote only to the MCAT. It requires a lot of discipline. Studying the material, getting to know the format of the exam, and taking practice tests is a long process. I started studying over the summer, which has taken a lot of pressure off, but having the MCAT loom over my head with a double major course load is still intimidating.
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Alyssa Shaikh, pianist
Western Michigan University ’09, BA in Music and minor in Chemistry. Current: University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry. Career goal: dentistry.
How has your background in music influenced what you’re doing now?
The systematic, step-wise way I approach new patient treatment plans is similar to the systematic way I analyze and begin to learn new pieces of music. Musicians are ingrained with attention to very minor details and have a high ability to pick up on subtleties. Dentistry is ALL about this. Instead of using our ears for these details we critically use our eyes to look at every nook and cranny, curve, and contact of a tooth so that it fits together into an aesthetic and harmonious smile and bite — much like the way the expression of individual music notes creates a harmonious piece of music.
Advice for juggling music and science classes?
Think about taking your basic science courses during summer semesters when you can dedicate your full attention to them. I still say that the most difficult years of my study were those first couple years at WMU. As music majors we are expected to practice so much and take multiple courses with very little college credit reward. Often it seems there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything. Taking summer science courses will significantly help you from feeling “burned out” and will allow you achieve the higher grades that admissions committees are looking for.
Why did you take a gap year?
I took all of my science courses in my junior and senior year of undergrad. They satisfied all of the requirements for a dental school application and were enough for me to be a competitive applicant. However, the dental school entrance exam (DAT) tests students on certain courses that I was taking my senior year, such as organic chemistry. Therefore, I had to wait until I graduated to take the DAT, which meant that there was no way to be accepted to a dental school in fall of 2009.
During the fall semester of my “year off” I took additional courses at Wayne State University since it was close to home. I felt that it couldn’t hurt my application and would help me gain experience in subjects that would be tested again in dental school. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry (UDM) in December 2009 to start courses in August 2010. Throughout the gap year, I had a part-time job in retail to help me save for dental school.
How did majoring in music help you get into dental school?
Admissions committees are looking for diverse candidates. This means that your degree in music will go a long way. In every interview I have had for dental school and dental specialty residencies, my degree became an interesting topic of conversation. I think this broke the monotony of interviewing science major after science major and allowed for discussion of things like “favorite jazz artist” or “favorite era of music to perform.” I feel that this set me apart from other applicants in that I was a “memorable” candidate with a diverse skill set. In addition, admission committees look at music majors as very disciplined and dedicated candidates. Not to mention, aspiring dentists and surgeons need to describe examples of ways they exhibit fine motor skills and advanced manual dexterity!
How do you keep music in your life now?
Though music does not make up the majority of my day anymore, it is still a significant part of my life. I practice several days a week and look to piano as stress relief. There are various organizations for musicians in the “non-musician world.” Detroit has the Detroit Medical Orchestra, made up of physicians, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, and countless other health professionals who are talented musicians. Even though you may not be pursuing a career in music, it can always play a large role in your daily life.
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Terry Lefcourt, guitarist
Berklee College of Music ’10, Music Production and Engineering. Current: University of Colorado School of Medicine. Career goal: Pediatric emergency medicine.
How did you get your science prerequisites?
I always knew that I wanted to be a doctor, and I knew that I could go to medical school with any undergraduate degree as long as I had completed the prereqs. So I decided to make sure my (undergraduate) education was something that I really had passion for. After Berklee, I attended the NYU Postbaccalaureate Prehealth Studies Program to do my premed courses (see sidebar). I found that working hard in that program was more than adequate preparation for taking the MCAT, along with traditional MCAT studying.
Coming from a music background, how are the demands of medical school?
Even at music school, I was trying to combine the two fields. While at the NYU postbaccalaureate program, I worked in clinical and bench research. I basically was working every waking moment of the day to catch up to those with science backgrounds. Four years of research experience along with the pre-curriculum was more than enough to make medical school not seem so daunting. On the other hand, music school takes so much time and dedication that it makes pre-med seem easy. Overall, a music school experience actually helps students understand what a heavy load is. However, medical school is a different beast when it comes to time management.
What could have helped you in your career choices and decisions?
I wish that I worked in the hospital while at music school to have the connection with patients that is the cornerstone of medicine.
Recommendations for anyone who is passionate about music AND going into medicine?
Research what your requirements are to get where you want to go. Go above and beyond getting research and clinical experience. The experiences outside of school are really what count. By the way, the residency director for the vascular surgery department said they have the best luck with people who were music majors. Surgeons appreciate us a lot!
How will you keep music in your life?
I play for fun. I didn’t realize early that I don’t like to look at music as work. And so my music is now my meditation, it is something to relax with. It is an amazing diversion to have when studying medicine. I will play the rest of my life.
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Help for Undergraduates
The best way to get the support you’ll need as a music major considering a career in medicine is to ask for guidance early on. Here’s how some schools are supporting their students.
“(At Lawrence) The double major is a five-year program. The first year and a half is fairly music-heavy. The pre-med or science courses typically come later on in junior and senior years. The music portion of the double major/degree is fairly sequential and predictable — that helps in planning. Some students with AP/IB credit may have a little more wiggle room when it comes to class selection.
In addition to the music advisor, all pre-med students are assigned a pre-med advisor, a professor to guide students through class requirements and MCAT preparation. The health careers advisor committee helps students select courses that will meet the requirements of medical schools and at the same time provide a broad liberal arts education.”
— Paris Brown Wicker, Associate Dean of Students for Campus Programs at Lawrence University, former Director of Conservatory Admissions, Lawrence University Conservatory of Music
“We have had very successful med school applicants out of our Bachelor of Science and Arts (BSA) intercollege degree program. Students in any major can also be in the Health Professions Program, an advising group that helps prepare students for the MCAT. “
— Katherine Drago, former Director of Recruitment and Enrollment, Carnegie Mellon University School of Music
“The BA Music with an Emphasis in Pre-Medicine program at our school is not considered a double degree, it is a Bachelor of Arts in Music with elective studies in Pre-medicine. We use the elective credits in the BA degree and the applicable general education requirements of the university to fulfill the prerequisites required of most medical schools. We can customize this set of criteria for each student based on the medical/dental/ veterinary schools for which they plan to apply. We consider this a collaborative degree in both the School of Music and the College of Arts and Sciences. Students following this degree plan have an advisor in both the School of Music and the College of Arts and Sciences.
— Mark Belcik, Associate Dean of Music, Oklahoma City University Wanda L. Bass School of Music
“Students can have a double major with a pre-med track (usually biology or similar field) and we have a recommended series of courses they can take to prepare for the MCAT while completing their music requirements. These courses could fulfill the requirements for non-music electives in their Bachelor of Music degree. Because of the ease of having a dual degree or double major at NU, we don’t find scheduling problems to be much of an issue here.”
— Ryan O’Mealey, Director of Music Admission, Financial Aid and Enrollment, Northwestern University Bienen School of Music
“Regardless, of whether you complete the traditional Bachelor of Music degree with science electives, or a double major or double degree with music and science, music students can be excellent candidates for a career in medicine (or law, accounting, etc. for that matter). At a university, you not only hone your craft, you also learn a transferable skill set. You are developing personal traits such as determination, commitment, teamwork, and leadership — all of which will serve you well in the demanding field of medicine. If you put in the time necessary to learn your craft and excel in your academic pursuits, you will be a strong candidate for a career in medicine.”
— Brad Andrews, Director of Music Admissions, University of Redlands School of Music