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Overcoming toxic pre-med culture

By Kshef Kamran, July 17 2023—

Between 2017 and 2029 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers are predicted to increase by 8.8 per cent.  Parents, teachers and counsellors heavily encourage STEM-related career paths for their children and students due to the supply and demand of this field’s job market. However, the growing number of individuals in pursuit of this field leads to a larger number of students at universities that are driven to achieve their goals. Unfortunately, the path that students take to complete STEM degrees is not easily navigated. It is filled with obstacles, including each other.

STEM culture is a set of customs, values, and norms practiced within STEM education. The psychological, social and structural spheres within STEM culture can shape a college or university student’s personal and academic identity. The environment that a student is exposed to in university over the course of their undergraduate career can impact the way that they view relationship development, their place in the campus community and their pre-existing goals. In STEM fields the relationship between race, gender and ethnicity is significantly prevalent due to the underrepresentation of women and ethnic groups in these fields. The impact of college or university culture that sustains a hostile or unwelcoming racial environment can lead to academic and social withdrawal

There is a growing wave of competition emerging in all fields, especially within STEM fields. Research demonstrates that during undergrad, students develop ability cues of categorizing varying learning skill sets of who can and can’t which is common in high-stress academic settings. Students that maintained these ability cues were led to develop a fixed mindset where one’s skills in a specific area cannot be changed. The belief that a skillset is a birthright or cannot change can lead to students failing to pursue opportunities that force them to persist or challenge them and increases disengagement. Overall, STEM culture as a whole can’t only contribute to crippling mental health but also lead them to disengage from their career of interest altogether. 

The John Hopkins University School of Medicine received a 26 per cent increase in medical school applicants over the past year. There was a rise of medical student applications by 15 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, only 100 to 200 spots were available despite the influx of students. Thus, with the increase in competition for a position in medical school, the pre-medical journey is made that much more difficult with students attempting to better one another by pursuing research, volunteering, and working. Furthermore, a 2020 survey of 400 pre-medical students demonstrated that 57 per cent of students were self-medicated with alcohol and drugs to combat the stress that they were overwhelmed with in the pre-health care journey. Therefore, destroying their mental and physical health and deterring them away from pursuing medical school. 

Due to the limited number of seats that are available in medical school for students to receive, this heightened competition can bring out the worst in people by resorting to ruthless tactics to benefit themselves and harm others. Moreover, there are various instances of students not sharing information from lectures with their friends in order to prevent them from becoming successful or hiding data from a group member during the group component when conducting experiments in labs. The malicious competition that is spread throughout this environment is not normal and it is unfortunate that it is considered as such in order to pursue the path to medicine. It is crucial to bring awareness to this issue which is so detrimental to many students pursuing a healthcare career.

A healthcare worker, specifically a doctor should embody empathy and compassion as the job description involves helping others and listening to their concerns. When these pre-med students are accepted into medical school they tend to recreate this malicious competitive cycle in medical school as well and bring toxicity along with them. The pre-med culture is attributed to positive qualities being taken to the extreme, for instance being ambitious is a reputable quality to have, however, if it leads to harming the success of others and hurting your friends it has featured toxicity. Having knowledge is great, though becoming smart or arrogant and putting others down leads not only harmful to the mental health of others but yourself as well. One of the primary impacts of this behaviour is depleting mental health, isolation and trust issues. Therefore, in environments such as these ways to develop relationships can be difficult, however, the following can get you started on the right track.

  1.  You are more than just a number 

One of the largest contributing factors to toxic pre-med culture includes spreading false information, lying to benefit yourself or harm someone else and constant competition just to name a few. The underlying cause can often be categorizing the ability to learn and converting it into a hierarchy of who is better than who which can develop into malicious intent. To overcome these feelings of inadequacies that can not only harm your ability in developing fulfilling relationships but also your mental health learn to not compare yourself to others and be happy for others when they succeed. Convert negative thoughts into positive ones. If your friend has a high GPA for instance do not give them wrong answers to a group project or in-lecture material rather focus on your own growth. Focus on your progress which is something that you can track in contrast to the progress of another where you waste your own energy doing so. Finally, be grateful for what you have done or are doing and do not undermine your achievements simply because you have not reached your long-term goal yet and someone else has their own path to venture on.

  1. Find and be a good friend

When pursuing healthcare careers it can be natural to become perfectionists with your studies and extracurriculars while translating that to your relationships. However, it is important to recognize that no one is perfect, everyone has elements of their personality that they can improve and make better, thus the first step is to understand that none of your friends will be perfect. To develop strong friendships it is key to identify traits that you value most such as trust, loyalty, good listening skills etc. Prioritize certain traits that you wish your friends to possess. Nevertheless, it is important to not only find a good friend but also be a good friend in return. Embody the traits that you wish to find in others and be an example for others. Lastly, trust is earned not simply given, so when you find someone that is also pursuing medicine and you seem to connect, refrain from giving this toxic culture the power to destroy that relationship. 

  1. Put yourself out there 

At university, it can be difficult to make friends with other students since the lecture halls are quite large and during undergrad, it can be difficult to develop a social and work-life balance. To avoid the competitive environment it would be best to make friends in group work opportunities that allow both of you to succeed including labs, clubs, or volunteer opportunities when both parties are successfully completing their tasks it lowers the chance of “ability cues” and categorizing skills. In the STEM and pre-med culture-filled environment it is important to rid yourself of the paranoia that everyone is out there to harm you or that others will be more successful than you removing that mentally draining mindset is the key to developing true relationships and missing out on these opportunities can lead to regret in the future. It takes two people to be in a friendship, thus putting in the effort and not relying on others to do the work for you in making plans is crucial in sustaining a healthy relationship.

  1.  Don’t be afraid to collaborate with others

Competition is bred in the pre-med phase of becoming a physician since there are 100 to 200 seats at any given medical school and the number of students applying is on the rise. The competition that encourages better behaviour and promotes you to work harder is beneficial, however, being overly competitive on campus strains any relationship that you have. Also, one of the fears that pre-med students harbour is that “if there are so few seats already then what about me?” The fear of rejection deters them from establishing true friendships because students are too busy weeding out competition against themselves. Though, collaborating with others would be more beneficial as that can help you understand where others come from and show you that what you would have thought as a solo mission may have been a multiplayer game since everyone has their own unique experiences and expertise to learn from. The path of medicine is heavily associated with working in a group setting, thus, begin by removing that overly competitive nature and be more open-minded towards working with others to develop relationships and increase your scope of the world. 

  1. Don’t stunt your social skills

A research survey was conducted where 158 medical students identified the characteristics that they believed were the most crucial in a doctor. Overall the medical students recognized that the following traits were required to become a successful physician: empathy, verbal communication skills, motivation to be a doctor, strong morals and honesty. Though, everything pre-medical school culture is recognized as in opposition to what makes a doctor, ironic is it not? Having malicious intent, constant competition, and harming the success of others is so heavily present in pre-med culture and if this prevents you from establishing relationships and socializing with others that can stunt your social skills that are necessary to be a successful doctor.

The rise in competition within medical school applications globally has given way to an increase in toxicity in pre-med culture. Fighting this systematic problem is complicated, to say the least, but awareness of the issues that silently destroy the mental health of many students throughout various STEM majors on university campuses can be a good way to start. Providing measures to detract from the ever-growing culture that is so heavily prevalent in the STEM field is crucial in order to develop friendships and combat this mental epidemic.

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