Why Students Become Neurologists

Stephen Krieger, MD


July 12, 2019

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Dr Stephen Krieger, the neurology residency program director at Mount Sinai in New York. I'm here at the American Academy of Neurology 2019 meeting in Philadelphia to tell you about an education research project that we presented this year.

We have been very interested in why students become neurologists. This is a topic of interest in our field. A recent publication by Gutmann and colleagues[1] looked at some of the reasons why students said they wanted to be neurologists.

What we looked at in our project was the neurology residency personal statement—the part of the application where students explain their reasons for wanting to join the field. We culled together 2400 neurology residency personal statements from our program applications over the past 5 years, and performed a large-scale computational linguistics analysis of those personal statements to get at the reasons why these people wanted to be neurologists. This has not been done previously in our field.

We found a handful of things. First, the diseases that applicants discussed included stroke, epilepsy, and other major diseases, which is not terribly surprising.

I found it entertaining that carpal tunnel was mentioned in 10 of 2400 personal statements. It's very rare for students to be interested in neurology and mention carpal tunnel even though it's something that, as neurologists, we have to be familiar with. The diseases were, perhaps, as expected.

We also looked at the themes that these students talked about. I think this is interesting and gives us educational opportunities to recruit more people into our field. Students talked about their interest in research and their fascination with the breakthroughs in neuroscience research in recent years.

They talked about how neurologists have deep connections with patients and care about quality of life and education for patient care. They talked about personal and family history with neurologic diseases, which is a huge driver of the interest in joining our field.

They talked about certain people who have been big influences. One of those, which I found interesting, was Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes came up often in the reasons why students wanted to become neurologists because he embodies deductive reasoning, problem-solving, and finding solutions to diagnostic mysteries, which students find intriguing about neurology.

We also looked at subgroups and, for instance, broke out why men and women said they wanted to be neurologists. They had many things in common, such as talking about stroke and the brain itself. However, women talked more about the personal aspects. They talked about family, women, and grandmothers, and they talked about dance. Men talked more about technology, EEG, and suffering.

Perhaps this perpetuates some longstanding gender stereotypes, but we went where the data took us and we're still exploring that.

I'll conclude by saying that one person was brought up most often. The single most commonly mentioned proper name was Oliver Sacks. I think this really reflects Oliver Sacks' influence in inspiring people to join the field of neurology.

So, in memoriam to him, we wanted to point out that Oliver Sacks has an enduring influence on why medical students want to be neurologists.

Reporting about the neurology residency personal statement project from Mount Sinai, I'm Stephen Krieger for Medscape, in Philadelphia.

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