Are Nonmedical Job Experiences Useful?

Sarah Bernstein, MD


October 09, 2009


Are there any advantages to working outside medicine before you begin medical training?

Response from Sarah Bernstein, MD
Resident, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital,
New York, NY

Before I started medical school, I worked as a waitress for a year. It was mainly a way to make ends meet while I finished my premed requirements, but it turned out to be a very beneficial experience and one that has definitely affected my career as a physician. Approaching a table of customers is very similar to approaching patients. You have to read your customers; be approachable, friendly, and professional; and then do your best to serve them well. You need to work well in adverse circumstances: If the chef forgets their meal, a free drink is always helpful! You also need to make everything accessible and understandable to the everyday person.

Back in those days, I often found myself describing the composition of a beurre blanc sauce; now, it is the warning signs of preeclampsia and preterm labor that I must explain. The endurance developed by long nights on my feet carrying trays of food up and down stairs certainly helped as well. Perhaps the most important lesson that I learned was to always check in on your customers. A customer can be content at one moment and then ready to throw the spaghetti at you the next, just as a patient can move from stable to crashing in a matter of seconds.

You may ask whether I'm advocating that all medical students and residents join the food service industry before becoming physicians. Definitely not! I do think, however, that life experiences, regardless of their relevance to medicine, are very helpful in residency. Older residents who may have worked or traveled for a few years generally approach residency with a very different perspective; they understand that it is a very extreme and temporary situation. Many older residents also enter residency with a spouse, family, and maybe even a dog. They are challenged with budgeting their time and not neglecting their loved ones. On the plus side, they are often able to maintain a better life balance with the love and support of their families.

No matter where you are in life, residency will be some of your most challenging years. Once you begin, there is very little time for more than just medicine, so any life experience that you bring from the years before training will be incredibly helpful.


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