Click here to download the PDF of this post
Table of Contents
Pros and Cons of Premed at Caltech
MD/PhD in a nutshell
Advantages of Pursuing Pre-MD/PhD at Caltech
From Premed to Non-premed: Marvin Gee (Biology)
From Non-premed to Premed: Murtaza Saiffee (Electrical Engineering)
Video Documentaries on Medical School/Career in Medicine
Ways to get involved
Pros and Cons of Premed at Caltech
*DISCLAIMER The following account is based on my own perception of how the average premed would fare at Caltech. Of course, my own definition of average may vary with what your definition of average, so please take what I say with a grain of salt. Some may find getting high numbers to be a piece of cake while (very few) others may find getting average numbers to be a challenge. Please compare my opinions with other sources before you make a crucial decision. At the end of the day, your education is in your hands. If you truly don’t mind working hard and love the sciences, then coming to Caltech can be a great choice. However, for the purposes of this article, I am writing under the assumption that you want to minimize the amount of effort exerted to achieve a high GPA, high MCAT score and have time to get involved on and off campus. *
For the typical premed who wants to earn good grades, volunteer and have much free time on the weekends, Caltech may not the ideal college to attend.*
*If your love for science and research displaces getting into medical school as your top priority, then Caltech is a great place to consider. However, let’s consider that your main goal is to get into medical school through the least stressful way possible. To stand a decent chance at getting admitted to medical school (75%+ based on your numbers), you should obtain at least a 3.6+ GPA (around the mean for medical school matriculants), score at least 31+ on your MCATs (around the mean for medical school matriculants), and have solid extracurriculars including community service. Let’s break down what it takes to achieve each of these things at Caltech.
**GPA – **Due to the rigorous curriculum and accelerated learning at Caltech, it is more difficult to obtain a good GPA here than at many other colleges. Additionally, if a student chooses to pursue chemical or electrical engineering, then he may have very limited time outside of academics to do other things like volunteering.
It is a common perception that one would have to spend more effort in order to achieve the same grade at Caltech than at almost any other college. The curriculum is more challenging and more demanding than the same type of class in state colleges. Caltech does not only emphasize breadth of knowledge through the mandatory core, but it also emphasizes depth of knowledge. At many other colleges, Advanced Placement (AP) courses and test scores can be used to obtain college credit to shorten graduation requirements and give students time to do other things outside academics, but at Caltech no credit is given for any AP course a student takes in high school. This is because Caltech goes beyond the AP level and requires much more than memorizing a formula and knowing when to use it.
For example, when I took my first course of calculus (Ma1a) at Caltech, I was surprised to find out that most of the class involved proving theorems and formulas that I had used in AP Calculus. In fact, Ma1a seemed more like an entirely separate class from AP Calculus, where I was tested on understanding how the formulas and theorems I used in AP Calculus came to be. Even though the class was on pass/fail, I had to devote quite a lot of time to understanding how to do proofs from scratch and my shadow grades paled in comparison to what I received in the same type of course in high school. At other colleges, however, the same type of course may be a repeat of the AP-level course in high school, allowing students to get a good grade much more easily.
It is important to note that there is a recent trend in GPA inflation at Caltech as evidenced by an increasing percentage of students graduating with honors. In 2011, almost two-thirds of the class graduated with honors (a 3.5 GPA or higher) compared to around 40% in 2003. While this inflation may be due to Caltech admitting an increasing number of GPA-caring students, it may also suggest that getting a good GPA has gotten easier over the past few years. So, don’t be afraid of coming to Caltech to pursue premed because getting a high GPA is supposed to be difficult. It may have gotten easier over the years.
Some other pros include our highly collaborative rather than cutthroat atmosphere. Students are encouraged, for the most part, to collaborate on projects and problem sets. Especially for core classes, you will be able to work in groups and learn from one another. Since everyone is involved in the struggle, it is much more difficult to get bogged down on problem sets when working in a group. Speaking of the core curriculum, I will reiterate that it does a good job of completing many premedical course requirements, even though the courses themselves may cover more advanced topics at a faster pace than at other colleges.
Graph adapted from California Tech v. 115:4, October 17, 2011, Page 3 (https://caltechcampuspubs.library.caltech.edu/2573/1/Issue_4.pdf)
**MCAT – **Apart from your GPA, your performance on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) can be one of the most important factors that make or break your application. The MCAT is a scientific reasoning and reading comprehension exam that requires basic knowledge that you are supposed to learn in introductory science classes.
As a crucial exam, it is important to find time in college before taking the exam to study sufficiently for it. Typically, three to four months of focused studying should be sufficient to obtain 31+ MCAT and for the truly dedicated, a score of 35+. For some of the more efficient folks with high levels of reasoning, it is even possible to pull off a high MCAT score in 2 months or less, but this is not recommended for most.
The question is, can this time be found? Caltech offers 15 weeks of non-interrupted summer vacation. This time can certainly be used for studying, but premeds typically use it partly for research, internships, preceptorships or volunteering experiences. The question then becomes, is it possible to simultaneously study for the MCAT and take classes? Yes, studying for both classes and the MCAT is certainly possible and sometimes inevitable, but it becomes less efficient because you won’t be able to completely dedicate your time and energy to one task. As a consequence, you will also have less downtime and more stress.
Given that the typical course load of around 45 units is already plenty of work for students, adding another commitment of studying for the MCAT just makes things harder. That being said, it is possible to take lighter load during one term on purpose to make time for studying and make up for the lost time during a later term. This is especially feasible for biology majors, who have one of the fewest graduation requirements. On the other hand, for engineering majors, taking a lighter load will result in more classes to make up in a later term.
Ultimately, what you need to take into consideration is that there is no dedicated premed major at Caltech. The closest you can get to a premed track is to major in biology. Even though many courses in biology satisfy premed course requirements, these courses often go beyond the level tested by the MCAT. Introductory classes may only briefly go over concepts tested over and over again on the MCAT and if you don’t review these concepts thoroughly, you may get by without fully understanding them.
Therefore, it is certainly possible to find sufficient time to study for the MCATs during your time at Caltech, but it is much harder to find uninterrupted time or even time during the term unless you purposefully take fewer classes during one or two terms than compared to other colleges.
In a later post, I will go in detail about the options of preparing for the MCATs.
**Extraccuriculars – **Surprisingly, at a small institution as Caltech, there are many ways to get involved on and off campus. Even though the number of options may be smaller than what a student would get from a larger college, there are still many opportunities to get involved that will make for a great application.
From my journey applying to medical school, I have realized that medical schools are focusing more and more on how well-rounded an applicant is rather than how high his GPA and MCAT scores are. Medical schools are especially interested in students, who have experiences with people of different cultures and of different socioeconomic backgrounds. These experiences don’t even have to be related to medicine, but should be in some way meaningful to the applicant. I will talk solely about how you, as a student, can get involved at Caltech later in this post. First, let’s look at some of the other incentives that Caltech may offer to its premeds and then some interviews of Caltech premeds who have changed their minds about what to do for their future.
Other Incentives – One of the first incentives is the UCSD-med scholars program, which is available only to early action applicants and gives entering students conditional acceptance to the UCSD-med scholars program through completion of premed course requirements and maintaining at least a 3.5 GPA at Caltech. However, seats are limited and only a maximum of six individuals can participate in this program in any given year. Another possible advantage is the ease of obtaining research experience at Caltech. Caltech has a relatively small campus and focuses on science and engineering. Consequently, there are many scientific and engineering labs and they are all conveniently located on campus, allowing students to directly approach professors in their offices for lab projects. Caltech’s reputation also holds some prestige at particular schools, but this is a very small advantage. You still need a strong GPA, MCAT score and extracurriculars to speak out for you, and usually prestige won’t even be factored into the decision until you are competitive enough to be considered as a serious candidate for the medical school to which you are applying. An added bonus is that we have an on-campus premed advisor, who can help you navigate the waters as a premed at any stage of your college career. The premed community is also large and supportive. Most upperclassmen are glad to help and offer advice to underclassmen who may have questions regarding which classes to take and how to get a head start on applying to medical school. They may even agree to revise your personal statement and help you choose the right schools to apply to. .
MD/PhD in a nutshell
First of all, if you’re not familiar with what it means to be an MD/PhD and what it means to train for the degree, then please visit https://www.aamc.org/students/research/mdphd/ and read some of the articles on the page, for a very detailed information about the program.</a> However, if you’re just considering your options and not serious about committing to one pathway or the other, then read on as I describe MD/PhD in a nutshell.
In a nutshell, an MD/PhD is a physician-scientist, who holds (you guessed it) both an MD and PhD degree. The training that is required to obtain both degrees falls into two broad categories – doing each degree separately or participating in a dual-degree program. The difference between the two options is that doing the degrees separately will take a lot more time and usually require you to pay for all of medical school whereas doing the degrees together in an MD/PhD combined program will save you time and usually save you from paying for medical school. In both cases, graduate school will be paid for by the lab you work for during your education as that is the standard policy.
MD/PhDs usually do a mix of clinical work and research. A lot of them end up teaching for medical schools or go into academia at a university with a focus in some aspect of medical research. This option is great for premeds, who want to be doctors, but want to do basic research as well. Notice that regular physicians can do research as well, but the vast majority of their research is clinical. This means that it usually involves large numbers of patients testing some kind of hypothesis/appliance or medicine that is already designed by basic research scientists. It may also involve epidemiology and looking at historical medical data to tease out some trend. Regardless, clinical research usually directly involves people in one way or another and some applicable result can be obtained in a short amount of time and usually within one’s lifetime. Basic biology research on the other hand, usually does not involve human beings and the results are usually hard to apply to human beings in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps what you discover today might be the key to some medical problem way into the future, but there is a good chance that won’t happen in your lifetime or at least, soon after you make your discovery.
There is, however, another type of research, usually conducted by MD/PhDs, known as translational research that combines the virtues of both basic and clinical research. For this type of research, the hope is that an application to basic research can be made and then, tested clinically. Thus, translational research allows scientists to bring research from the bench to the bedside, allowing for the possibility of truly revolutionary discoveries and applications in one’s lifetime. If this idea gets you excited (as it did for me), then pursuing this goal might be a really good decision. Don’t forget that you will most likely have the entire 8 years of training paid for as an added bonus as I briefly described in my first blog post. To become an MD/PhD, however, you must first be a pre-MD/PhD. This is a really good option to pursue at a research-oriented school as Caltech.
Advantages of Pursuing Pre-MD/PhD at Caltech
It may be obvious to you already, but MD/PhDs are expected to focus on research. Luckily, at a research-oriented school as Caltech, finding research is easy to find. You might ask, “Hang on a sec, Yang… pretty much only basic research is offered at Caltech.” Before you get bothered at how most of the research offered at Caltech isn’t immediately applicable to human beings, realize that MD/PhD programs are looking for any kind of research experience. Sure, medical research may look the best, but basic research in biology that may be broadly applicable to human beings somewhere down the line is also valued at a high second if not equal footing as medical research. At some point, even medical applications have to start with knowledge acquired from basic research. So, before you shrug off basic research, realize that it is important even though it doesn’t seem like its immediately applicable for positive benefit to humanity.
Possibly the greatest advantage enjoyed by Caltech students is the fact that getting top-notch research experience from some of the most talented and recognized scientists on this planet is fairly easy. This is in part due to our small student body and high student-to-faculty ratio but also in part due to the recognition that Caltech is among the world’s top research institutions.
Especially, in the field of biology, there are numerous top-notch scientists with fairly large labs. These labs are usually very receptive to hiring Caltech students to work for them over the summers and frequently, over the school year as well. This gives you, as a student, an opportunity to remain with the same lab and do the same kind of research for an extended period of time. This is advantageous because there is a much higher chance of making enough progress to warrant a publication and authorship. While MD/PhD programs love it when students publish during undergrad, they also love to see students with a lot of research experience, especially extended research in the same lab. The great thing about Caltech is that by virtue of our small size and heavy focus on research, fulfilling this big expectation of pre-MD/PhDs is essentially a piece of cake.
Another advantage is that Caltech have both MD/PhDs in training and usually MD/PhDs on the faculty. As part of an elite combined MD/PhD program with UCLA’s medical school, many Caltech professors in biology are aware of what an MD/PhD entails by nature of having trained some of these students. This is great because as a college students, you can somewhat easily get more information about whether you are truly right for this type of program from current MD/PhD students and from their research advisors alike. You can also get a sense of what type of research you might do during your training, allowing a somewhat exclusive look into what the training entails.
There may also be unexpected advantages later on in the journey such as when you interview for MD/PhD programs. For instance, once you figure out what an MD/PhD is about and gain significant research, you are essentially prepared for your interviews since the two big questions every MD/PhD program will ask their students are 1) Why MD/PhD (instead of one or the other) and 2) What is your research about? If you can answer these two questions confidently and with your undergrad career to back you up, then you stand a very good chance of landing into at least one MD/PhD program even if you have few extracurricular activities or if your GPA and/or MCAT scores are somewhat on the weak side. Hence, doing pre-MD/PhD at Caltech can give you a significant boost when applying for this dual-degree program.
A little about me:
Hometown: Frederick, MD
Tuscarora High School
Studied Biology at Caltech
Worked in the David Baltimore Laboratory on TCR immunity
Involved in the Caltech Premed Association (CPMA Member – 2009, Board Member – 2010, President – 2011)
CPMA Accomplishments: Set up the Mentor-mentee program between upperclassmen with underclassmen to help build relationships and share useful information about how to prepare for medical school, Contacted alumni for visits to talk about their current experiences in medical school, Began social gatherings between current MD/PhD students with pre-med students at Caltech
How did you first become interested in being a premed at Caltech?
I was interested in becoming a doctor ever since I was young. As an influential young child, I looked up to my brother, who was a doctor, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I also found biology to be my most interesting class in high school, and I definitely appreciated how wonderfully complex and efficient organisms can be.
What ultimately made you decide to not be premed anymore?
The realization came to me late in my junior year when I was about to apply for medical school. After spending a lot of time in the premed realm, I found that it wasn’t really what I was looking for. I participated in the Huntington preceptorship, and I found that the things that I saw in the six weeks didn’t excite me as much as research did. What was important to me was the freedom in asking questions about biological systems that were complex, yet incompletely explored. That aspect was missing in pursing an MD degree. I knew I didn’t want to do an MD alone and that my choices were between an MD/PhD and a PhD. After talking to several professors and current graduate students either in the MD/PhD program or PhD program, I found that my goal of becoming a professor would be best reached through graduate school alone.
Was your ultimate decision a personal one or were you influenced by others such as your parents?
My parents had no role in my decision. I think it’s important for students to take the time for introspection; to find what they really enjoy doing and pursuing that for their own benefit. I think my decision was ultimately realized when I spent time thinking about my medical school application. I realized all the things I wanted to say were fit for a graduate student and not a medical student.
What do you believe were the pros and cons of your decision? Do you ever regret dropping premed?
The cons in my decision come with the nature of the job. In my eyes, research is more difficult than medicine. Research can be wildly unpredictable, and the success of a researcher is half skill and half luck. Of course, the repercussions in medicine are much more serious, as there are human lives at stake. Researchers can take more liberties with their test tubes. Also, job security in medicine is much better, as many researchers are having trouble finding jobs in academia and industry. When you spend almost 5 or 6 years studying a biological niche, it’s hard to apply that to real world demands. The only pro that is of interest to me is my happiness. I think I would be much happier as a researcher, and I would enjoy my work much more with the freedom to explore and satiate my curiosity. As for regret, only time will tell.
What are some alternative choices/career options for those at Caltech who began training as a premed but then discovered later on that the path is not right for them?
There are many alternatives including research. Many premed students do research, and the natural path for research is graduate school instead of medical school. Out of graduate school, you can enter academia to become a professor or enter industry. Of course, not all premeds are biology students, so those in different majors can find other job opportunities. If you’re coming from Caltech, I’m sure you won’t have any problems adapting to different career paths.
Once you found out medicine wasn’t right for you, how did you figure out what to do as a backup?
I thought about what my interests were, and it was really those interests in research that caused me to jump out of the premed track.
Was there any disadvantage dropping out of premed later rather than earlier?
This can be seen as either a disadvantage or an advantage. Dropping out of premed later rather than earlier forced me to work much harder in school, since medical school requirements are more stringent than graduate school requirements in my opinion. I worked harder in and out of the classroom. I spent a lot of my time doing research and with extracurricular activities, including the Caltech Undergraduate Research Journal, chamber music, and Caltech InnoWorks.
What are you doing right now instead of medicine?
Right now, I’m applying to immunology programs at graduate schools. Update: As of Fall 2013, Marvin will be pursuing a PhD at Stanford University in department of biological research.
What are your plans for the future?
I hope to go to graduate school and do some great research. After that, I’ll probably do a post-doctoral fellowship and try to become an assistant professor in whatever place will take me.
A little about me:
My name is Murtaza Saifee, and I’m a member of the Caltech class of 2013. I entered Caltech as a sophomore transfer student in 2010 after spending my freshman year at UC Berkeley. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California (west coast IS the best coast!). At Caltech, I’ve ethusiastically pursued a degree in electrical engineering, focusing on devices and computer system. At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I decided to pursue a career in medicine.
Why did I choose medicine?
I proudly say that I’m an electrical engineer – I find the material fascinating and I love the lab work. So why am I considering a life in medicine?
As an electrical engineer, I’ve had the opportunity to take on many summer internships at various companies, doing both software and hardware engineering. The idea of working as an engineer – helping to develop cool new technologies to improve the world around us – really excited me, but during these internships, the day-to-day life of engineering didn’t appeal to me. In the jobs I held, independent work was valued above all – you’d be given a computer and a desk on day one, and expect to produce new products for the company by yourself. The technical aspect of the job was very intriguing, but I missed the human interaction. That’s what made me think that although studying engineering as fun, maybe a career in engineering wasn’t what I really wanted.
During this time, I thought back to the winter of my freshman year, when I volunteered at a medical clinic in India for a week. I had originally decided to volunteer just for the sake of trying something new, but my time there ended up being a very satisfying experience. As I began to think that engineering may not be the best path to pursue long-term, I kept remembering my time was in India; I was fascinated by the idea of using medical knowledge to directly improve the lives of patients, and I appreciated the fact that doctors were able to interact with patients throughout the day. I realized that medicine offered much of what I was looking for in a career.
But I was so attached to my electrical engineering degree – I didn’t want to let it go if I decided to switch to medicine. I researched the overlap between the two, and to my surprise, I found that engineering has a large application in medicine. Medical technology – from pacemakers to insulin pumps to imaging devices – all require a technical background to understand and operate, and an engineering background helps significantly in integrating those new devices into the clinical realm. Many of the doctors I spoke to also supported an engineering approach to medicine; both require a clear, logical, and explainable way of thinking in solving the issue at hand. I was convinced, then, that medicine was the right path for me.
After earnestly deciding to pursue medicine, my academic life at Caltech certainly changed. I had to start scheduling my classes with more thought to be able to fit in both my electrical engineering option requirements as well as the medical school prerequisites like organic chemistry, biology, etc. I had to forgo interesting classes that many of my classmates were taking in order to fit in those prerequisites, which was a tough choice. In doing so, though, I discovered entirely new fields in those prerequisite classes, which added a welcomed change of pace to my curriculum; I also gained an invaluable group of friends who were also pursuing medicine. At Caltech, the “premed culture” isn’t a cut-throat atmosphere, but instead a very welcoming one that offers a lot of support to help you achieve your goal of pursuing a medical career – the path isn’t always easy, and I really appreciated having friends who also understood the pains and difficulties I was going through.
I’m really excited to be pursuing a career in medicine. As a doctor, I look forward to treating patients on a day-to-day basis, and I hope to work on the research frontier by helping develop and implement new technologies in the clinical setting.
Video Documentaries on Medical School/Career in Medicine
While clinical shadowing is a good experience for premeds to understand what physicians do on a daily basis, it won’t necessarily reveal how becoming a physician has impacted an individual’s life. This is where video documentaries can help. A documentary that I found informative was Doctors’ Diaries, which follows the lives of seven people over two decades, as they move from Harvard Medical School to midlife. As with any case study of a small number, be warned that what is shown is not necessarily representative of all physicians’ lives. The entire series can be watched free of charge in the United States at the link: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/doctors-diaries.html</a>
For a large list of other medical documentaries, please visit: https://forums.studentdoctor.net/showthread.php?t=831578</a>
Ways to Get Involved
While the workload can get hefty sometime, there there are many ways to get involved on and off campus if you correctly manage your time. Students are given an offering of over 125 clubs and organizations on campus (https://websites.caltech.edu/club-association</a>). The provided link in parentheses contains the complete list of clubs and associations at Caltech with their websites (if one exists). If you cannot find the club you want, you can even start your own. While at much larger universities, there may be many more organizations and clubs, Caltech does clubs and organizations that are involved with different aspects of what medical schools are looking for such as community service, social activism and personal fitness.
In fact, all three of these things can be found at the institute affiliated non-profit organization, Caltech Y (https://caltechy.org</a>). The “Y” has fantastic staff members, who can provide students with many resources and easily allow them to find and coordinate volunteer projects on and off campus. I personally have been involved with the Y since my first year of college at Caltech, and thanks to the organization, I have had many opportunities to volunteer, be socially active and to go on hiking and camping trips.
Among the annual events that the Y has been involved in include the regional and state Science Olympiad in Southern California, Make-A-Difference Day volunteering, off-campus tutoring, visitations to nearby retirement homes, trips to popular LA destinations, hiking and backpacking trips to Yosemite and other national parks, Decompression (beginning of finals free food and entertainment event), health fairs, community service fairs and informational series (such as for maintaining good health at Caltech and doing your taxes).
In addition to clubs and organizations, Caltech also has a diverse offering of sports including water polo and fencing. We do not have a golf team or a football team, however. That being said, nearly all of our sport teams do not cut players from the roster. This is in part due to the small pool of athletes to select from and also the lower level of competition at Caltech, where much more emphasis is placed on academics. While some sports teams such as basketball and baseball are notorious for long losing streaks, most athletes that I know very much enjoy being on a legitimate college sports team during their time at Caltech.
Due to Caltech’s small size, it is also fairly easy to get involved in the leadership through the student government. These opportunities are available both within the housing system and also on the scale of the student body. There are many positions that need to be filled each year, so if you really want to be involved in government, then Caltech is definitely an easy place to get these positions. Our informative student association website (https://donut.caltech.edu/</a>) provides more details on these positions.
Of course, research is a way of getting involved. As I described earlier in this post, it is possible to do research both during the school year and during the summer. Generally, most incoming students first find a lab to join as a consequence of applying for a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). Now a little bit about this program and other summer options at Caltech pulled from my past blog (Summer Tech 2011</a>):
Opinions on summer research programs available at Caltech|Amgen, SURF, & MURF
SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) - The vast majority of Caltech students, who stay on campus over the summer apply for a SURF. According to the SURF website: The SURF program introduces students to research under the guidance of seasoned research mentors at Caltech and JPL. Students experience the process of research as a creative intellectual activity. Basically, for any type of research, you will have to approach a professor on campus and then ask if you can work in his or her lab over the summer. Of course, you should know what the lab does in some detail and what kind of project you are specifically interested in taking part in. A CV or resume may also be required for some mentors, who receive too many SURF students than they can accept, but generally it is easy to find research due to Caltech’s small student body size of 1000 students and a 3:1 student to faculty ratio!
Amgen - If you are interested in doing a biology-related project and may possibly want to pursue an MD-PhD (although certainly not required to do so), then it may be better to apply for an Amgen in addition to a SURF (you can submit applications to both)! You can learn more about the program here! The Amgen program at Caltech provides slightly more income than the SURF program and definitely more social activities as well as mandatory weekly seminars that introduce you to the other types of research of the professors that your peers are working for over the summer. This means that the professors themselves will do the presentations! It’s like taking part in a mini-science conference every week without having to leave campus! Super cool!
I believe the program accepts around 25 (give or take one to two) total students, half of whom are from Caltech and the other half not from Caltech. These are actually pretty good odds considering 1) freshmen and seniors cannot apply (that’s about half the student body) and 2) not everyone is interested in biology, so if you’re interested, definitely apply.
MURF (Minority Undergraduate Research Fellowship) - This is basically a SURF or Amgen for minority students. There are more social activities for smaller groups much like there are activities for Amgen. It is usually only available for non-Caltech students.
There are websites for all these programs that can simply be found by searching them on Google.
Finally, you can become a teaching assistant as an undergrad at Caltech. This is a valuable experience for those looking to teach sometime in the future, a potential career option for MD/PhDs. Opportunities are limited in number and usually to upperclassmen. Getting a TA opportunity generally involve doing exceptionally well in the class (A or A+) and then asking the professor after the course is over whether they are willing to take undergrad TAs the following year and expressing your interest. Sometimes, there are core classes and mandatory option-specific classes that hire undergrad TAs each year. Usually, an email will be sent out about announcements of opportunity as the year goes on, but it doesn’t hurt to ask upperclassmen, professors or even department staff about these opportunities. I personally had the opportunity to TA Bi1 at Caltech two years in a row. Bonuses to being a TA include being paid as it is a job and also having the opportunity to grade or assign homework to your fellow students.
If TA’ing is too much of a time commitment for you, then tutoring might be a better option. Students can sign up to be tutors in subjects where they hold considerable knowledge through the Dean’s office. If you want to tutor high school subjects, then such opportunities are available as well. The Caltech Y usually offers on-campus high school tutoring opportunities as well as off campus opportunities.
**Off-campus Opportunities **
There are several off-campus opportunities available to all students including study abroad opportunities in Europe, domestic and international research opportunities and internships that occur over the summer and domestic and international volunteering trips that usually occur during winter or spring break and also over the summer. The Caltech Y also hosts an annual Washington DC science policy trip that takes place during the first week of winter break.
Study abroad opportunities are coordinated by Caltech’s fellowship advising and study abroad office located at the website: https://fasa.caltech.edu/StudyAbroad.shtml</a>. There are currently six annual study abroad opportunities, five of which are in Europe and one in Australia. Institutions involved are Cambridge University, University College London, Copenhagen University & Danish Technical University, University of Edinburgh, Ecole Polytechnique and University of Melbourne. Studying abroad occurs in conjunction with the Caltech term and therefore, you are required to take an equivalent Caltech course load at the associated universities during your time abroad. Since Caltech’s academic terms do not coincide perfectly with those of foreign universities, students oftentimes have to leave early from break or spend their entire winter or spring break abroad.
There are certainly many reasons for studying abroad in addition to padding your application with activities medical schools want to see. While I have not personally studied abroad, I learned from my conversations with those who did that the experience was invaluable. Studying abroad not only immerses you in a different culture but helps to broaden your horizons by placing you in a group of students from different backgrounds and sometimes with different interests. For instance at Caltech, we primarily associate with students who have a strong interest in science but not necessarily a similar interest in art. When you study abroad, you can be around other groups of people, who may not share the same opinions or interests as you and as a consequence, allow you to understand more about the world.
Most Caltech students, who study abroad, claim to have a very positive experience about their time abroad. The FASA office contains a comprehensive library of these students’ written experiences when they were abroad. These resources can help you decide whether studying abroad is right for you. As you can see in my own case, studying abroad is not necessary to get into medical school, but it may provide you with a small but significant boost when it comes time to apply to medical school.
In addition to the annual science policy trip I mentioned, the Caltech Y also have other off-campus volunteering opportunities that occur through the year, which you can learn more about on its site: https://caltechy.org/programs_services/commservice/workstudy/Agencies/Category/index.php</a>. It always amazes me how few premeds take advantage of the Caltech Y to develop their leadership skills. Of course, the usual reason is that volunteering is a big time commitment that students may not have when they are spending time on classes and doing research during the school year. In these situations, it may be worthwhile for these students to commit to one substantial project that actually takes place over a winter, spring or summer break.
Before I move on, I do want to mention that weekly and monthly volunteering opportunities are certainly available for those who have the time and interest. In the past, the Caltech Y has sent groups of students to the Union Station to cook food for the homeless once or twice a month. There have also been opportunities to teach science enrichment sessions at local schools in collaboration with the Caltech Classroom Connection and Caltech Innoworks. The Y has also sent groups on a weekly basis to tutor at Hathaway Sycamore.
Off-campus projects that take place over break include volunteering within the U.S. but away from Caltech, volunteering abroad and trips to developing countries. All of these trips are usually coordinated through the Caltech Y and are variable depending on the year. I say this because all projects that come out of the Caltech Y are inspired and coordinated by students themselves. This means that if you want to lead a trip to Costa Rica, then you can get the Caltech Y to make your plans into reality. The Caltech Y is there to not only provide opportunities for involvement but also to train students to become future leaders.
One way to do this is to have students coordinate off-campus volunteering opportunities to places like India or Costa Rica. The planning and involvement is certainly big in that you will have to deal with funding, transportation, timing, advertising for the trip and other logistics but the outcome is something that looks much more impressive than merely regularly volunteering. Even though time may be limited for premeds, you can, for instance, start preparing for these trips super early in your freshmen year and lead it a year or two later. This allows you a long time to prepare for the trip and allows you to pace yourself, so you don’t get bogged down with work.
In addition to the numerous volunteering opportunities you can get from the Caltech Y (if you put in the time), there are also other opportunities that allow you to leave campus or go abroad. One of these is to apply for a fellowship from the FASA office to travel abroad. The two that are available every year are the Bishop Fellowship and the San Pietro Travel Prize. Notice that these two prizes do not require any time of community service as part of the trip. It is purely for traveling.
Another is research. While it is usually convenient to do research right on campus in the summer, it is also possible to participate in research opportunities at other college campuses across the United States or even abroad. In fact, many colleges have some kind of SURF program that any student in any college can apply for. The easiest way to look for these opportunities is to perform web searches as most of these research opportunities have their own informational websites or web page. Research does not even have to be limited to universities either in or outside the United States.
You can also elect to do research for companies and national labs, just to name a few. Again, a quick search for these opportunities online might yield results. Alternatively, Caltech will periodically announce these opportunities through its summer research programs office. Upperclassmen are also a great resource for these types of opportunities once you get on campus. Depending on your major, these opportunities may fall under either the category of research program or internship although this is just a difference in wording that usually don’t imply much difference. For those who like programming or financial matters, internships for these opportunities are also available and they may not be bad since some successful premeds do participate in these types of summer experiences and they also count for job experience.
Funding isn’t an issue for off-campus or on-campus paid opportunities since when you are accepted for the job, the money usually follows suit. The one exception is a small number of instances when either the research lab or the summer research program office isn’t able to cover the full cost of your $6000 stipend for SURF over the summer. You will still get the job, but you may only get half the pay unless you can find a different funding source. For study abroad, funding comes from your tuition and room and board costs. These costs may or may not cover the full cost of studying abroad based on the cost of living in the country that you’re studying. In most circumstances, however, this is not an issue.
Funding does become a possibly significant issue for some volunteering projects, especially those that are initiated by you and those that go abroad. The Caltech Y has a list of potential funding sources that you can go seek. The well-known ones include ASCIT, Master of Student Houses, President’s Diversity Initiative Fund, The Diversity Program Fund, The Moore-Hufstedler Fund, GSC, Campus Life, Alumni Association and Student Affairs. However, for one student, it may be easier to obtain funding from a number of different scholarships. Internally, there is the Caltech Y ACT award, which awards students $4500 to do a community service trip over the summer. You can learn about other Y-affiliated scholarships through the Caltech Y office. Externally, there is the Strauss Scholarship, which awards students a significant amount of money to put a project idea into motion for an entire year with the expectation that the project will continue from that point onwards. This type of funding is more difficult to obtain but is certainly possible for the truly ambitious and for those, who have big ideas and enough time to pursue them.