This is an excerpt from the Daily’s 2014 Orientation Issue. To read the rest of the issue, click here.
While freshman year is a great opportunity to explore interests and try new things, many incoming students may already be preparing for the years following graduation. For those interested in the medical or legal professions, we’ve gathered advice from the experts: Steven Gay, assistant dean for admissions at the University’s medical school and Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions at the University’s law school.
What students might be interested in this career path?
Gay: The students I think would be attracted to medicine are individuals who love looking for and trying to find new knowledge, students that want to truly be a part and contribute to their community, to their society and making things better, not only for individuals, but that community as a whole. People who want to be leaders, who love never having the same day twice and are truly interested in pursuing things that can change other peoples’ lives.
Zearfoss: If you love to read and to write you should certainly be thinking about law school … Being a lawyer really involves grappling with text and it’s almost 100 percent the case that if you don’t enjoy working with text you won’t enjoy being a lawyer. I think if you have an inkling, you should be exploring it seriously. On the other hand, because of the nature of law where you don’t need a particular pre-law major, you can come to it late and it’s not a problem. You can reject it now and still be in good shape later.
How do I learn more about my options?
Gay: There are a number of different ways. First, find people who know — talk to pre-med advisors, talk to other students who are interested in taking that path, join the pre-med club, or volunteer in hospital or volunteer in a hospice, and find out what it means to really care for others. Participate in a little bit of research. Just because you are a history major doesn’t mean you can’t pursue hypothesis-driven research — and that doesn’t mean just in a lab. Really go out there and be creatively pursuing those concepts and if you find that type of academic pursuit, along with a real desire to be part of people’s lives and care for them, is right for you, then medicine is going to be right for you.
Zearfoss: One of the great things about this University is that, because of its size, there are so many ways to explore what you are interested in. There are actually multiple really good pre-law groups that you might want to get involved in because you might be able to learn from upper class people about summer internships and things that have been useful to those students … The resources are vast and ever-evolving, but if you have some type of current interest that strikes your fancy, that is probably going to have a legal angle and, if you are interested in pursuing a law degree, you should be looking into that field and look at where the legal issues are there. In summer, working in a law office or working at a non-profit with a legal edge to it are great ways to start thinking about what might be rewarding in a legal career.
What classes should I take if I’m interested in this path?
Gay: In the medical school, we take people from every type of major … I think the key aspects are that you take classes that are challenging — individuals that aren’t willing to take advantage of being in a world-class institution like Michigan and challenging themselves and pursuing something new, those people might not be ready for the challenges they might face being a physician. You’re going to come across things that you’ve never dealt with and have to ask a lot of yourself. Unless you’ve tested yourself in ways like that before, we can’t be sure of how well you’ll be able to face those challenges and overcome them … Pursue what it means to take care of individuals and how to change our society. Pursue things that make you understand what it means to find new knowledge, and look at things in a very academic and hypothesis-driven way.
Zearfoss: Because of the need to grapple with text as a lawyer, I would look for classes that require you to do a lot of serious reading, and that would really help you hone your analytical skills. English can be a great major for a lawyer, but in terms of testing whether you would like the kind of work you would do as a lawyer — history, polisci, philosophy — these are classes that will help you see if you like the sort of work that goes into being a law student and a lawyer. That said, because of the varied fields within law, almost any major could be a great major in combination with a J.D. Some of the people with the most interesting and productive careers in law are electrical engineering majors and computer science majors. Virtually every current issue has a legal angle to it, so we need people that are lawyers who are well versed in all sorts of fields.
What alternative career paths are available with this degree?
Gay: It very much depends on what individuals, during the road of looking to become a physician, find their passions to be. If their passion is to teach and help other people and help to make society better, they may become teachers, they may become politicians, they may become social workers — anything where someone can give of themselves and serve other people for the greater good. If their attraction to medicine is one that’s based on scientific inquiry and the quest for new knowledge, I can easily see them becoming a scientist in any number of fields, and doing research in any number of ways.
Zearfoss: There are so many different ways of practicing law… (and) so many things within the legal profession that you can do with a JD, that it’s hard to even begin to say what would be a good career for one person. If you have these basic predictors, I think there’s such a variety that you can really have a satisfying life as a lawyer and be 180 degrees different from another person who’s having a very satisfying life as a lawyer.
What are the biggest mistakes to avoid?
Gay: Some of the mistakes are easy — first, assuming there is one straight path of things you have to do or boxes you have to check in order to go to medical school. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We want people of diverse ideas and diverse interests. We want individuals who really want to test themselves. The second is, “If I don’t ever do research, I can never get into a prestigious medical school, so I have to work in somebody’s lab for awhile.” That may be very helpful to learn about who you are, but it isn’t cut and dried that it’s absolutely necessary. We do need to see that you want to care for other people and do things for other people. Find a way to be altruistic and reach out to be a part of your community and society and make it better … Find some way to give of yourself and see if that type of thing is important the type of person you want to be and the type of lifestyle you wish to lead.
Zearfoss: First, there is still an idea that law is a great post-grad pursuit if you don’t really know what to do. I never thought that was a great way to approach law school and I certainly don’t think it is now that the legal field is tight. Only go to law school if you want to be a lawyer. There are certainly other things you can do with a law degree if it turns out you don’t like being a lawyer, but you should never start down that path unless you’ve given time and opportunity to really understand what law involves and make sure it’s something you’re interested in. Second, we at Michigan Law School love to get Michigan undergrads. It’s the single biggest feeder school we have. People always think I can’t get into Michigan (law school) if I went to Michigan for undergrad and that’s not the case. In the course of exploring a legal degree, if you want to come over and talk with some of the admissions office, we’d love to have you.