Op-Ed: Competition among pre-meds is unhealthy

Sunday, November 20, 2016 - 12:13pm

As an organic chemistry lab exam is fast approaching, the topic of studying comes up among a group of my classmates and me. How best should we prepare for the exam? We know we shouldn’t simply memorize the material but the temptation to just make up some flash cards and cram information into our brains for a short period of time is too great. However, what started as a seemingly normal collegiate conversation took a turn for the worse as the topic entered a dark place. No, not cheating, but purposefully “helping” other classmates by giving them the wrong answers to questions. Yes, in discussing how best to study, the idea came into fruition to actually lie to fellow students in order to boost one’s own chances of doing well.

As a student who aspires to go into the medical field, my mentality toward classes such as orgo or biochemistry — those that often foster such a competitive mindset — is do or die. Either I get a good grade and my success is secured, or I do not do well and I need to resort to my list of backup plans. The competitive nature of the courses we take has fostered this mindset in my friends and me following similar career pathways.

Courses in which the top 25 percent of students can get an A — even if their actual class grade would be the equivalent to a C — and the lowest 25 percent are unfortunate enough to receive a D, pit students against one another. These courses promote a kind of competition detrimental to not only a student’s success and academic environment, but also the larger professional working world. Students who learn in an environment in which an individual’s success is held to a higher standard than accruing greater knowledge and sharing ideas that could benefit everyone undoubtedly carry those sentiments to their professional careers and future work environments. I don't know about others, but I was hoping constant competition among my peers would end with my academic career. Perhaps this is just the result of naive daydreaming about becoming a doctor.

The reality is the pressures that exist in the academic community for pre-med hopefuls are echoed in the careers themselves. Physicians are among the highest-rated professions for suicide. What’s more, female physicians are two and a half to four times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. And more broadly, those in the medical field are also more likely to develop drug addictions and become depressed. While not all of these issues of mental health can be attributed solely to choosing to become a doctor, there is a clear link with immense amounts of stress and maintaining a professional career in the health industry.

Rather than suggest my peers find a new career pathway if they can’t handle the pressures of the medical field, feeding into the competition that already infests their intended field, I propose a culture shift. Why continue an ineffective system that results in increased suicide and drug addiction rates among our life-saving professionals? Why continue an ineffective system that pits students against one another and fosters a hostile learning environment? Let’s not! While the kinds of classes we have to take may never change, we as students have the right to choose the way we see our education. Rather than seeing our time here at the University of Michigan as a way to crush our competitors in order to become the best and brightest, we should view this as an opportunity to learn as much as we can from the people around us and do the same for others.

Caitlin Heenan is a Senior Opinion Editor at the Daily.