Want to Be a Doctor? Major in Physics

Somebody at work had printed out a table of MCAT scores by major, compiled by the AIP. I couldn’t find it on the web, but I found the original source, and made my own version of the relevant bit. This shows the average numerical scores on the three sections of the MCAT test for students majoring in biological and physical sciences (shortened to “biology” and “physics” for the table), for students who applied to med school, and students who got into med school:

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The results are striking. Not only did the physics applicants do better than the biologists on the physics portion of the test, as you would expect, they scored better on all three sections– including the biology section. You might say that this is just because there are five times as many bio applicants, and thus more weak students, but even when you get rid of the weak applicants, and just look at students who got into medical school, the biologists barely manage to pull even, and get absolutely stomped on the physics part.

The acceptance rate for physics majors was correspondingly higher–almost 51% compared to 46% for biology majors. I think the lesson here is clear…

(Of course, we’ll just gloss over the fact that math and statistics majors had better scores than either biology or physics majors… They’re a tiny fraction of the sample, and can safely be ignored. Yeah, that’s the ticket.)

(What’s even more interesting is the fact that the lowest scores of the lot belong to students in dedicated pre-med tracks– at least, that’s how I’m interpreting “Specialized Health Sciences.” That’s mildly surprising to me.)

Comments

  1. #1 Julie Stahlhut
    February 14, 2007

    I’ve heard from several long-forgotten sources that the best possible pre-med major, in terms of rate of accepted applications, was history. Of course, since history is probably not a common pre-med major, this may be based on a very small N. Also, even if you don’t major in science, you have to take — and get good grades in — a hefty load of science pre-requisites to be considered for medical school.

    History majors presumably have to be very good at reading and absorbing voluminous amounts of written material, which probably beats science aptitude as a single predictor of success in medical school. A history major with a high GPA in both major subjects and science prerequisites would have the whole package. Oh, and a bad case of sleep deprivation too, but when you’re 21, that’s a point of pride.

  2. #2 Jeramia Ory
    February 14, 2007

    Interesting. As a biochemist, I have to wonder; are the chemistry folks in with Biology, or Physics? I’m guessing the latter, and I would be curious about the further breakdown of the “Physical Science” group. However, drawing performance conclusions from data where the standard deviation of all the groups is ~2, and none of the means differ by more than 2, seems a wee bit suspect to me…

  3. #3 Wowbagger
    February 14, 2007

    This doesn’t surprise me at all. At my university, the math majors stomp on the physics majors in classes with a significant fraction of both. Physics majors don’t share many classes with biology classes (and where they do, are usually so outnumbered as to make comparison pointless), but even in those it is quite clear who have the sharper minds.

  4. #4 JSinger
    February 14, 2007

    I’m a biologist and this doesn’t surprise me a bit. In intro physics, most of the premeds struggled to pass in a class where all you had to do was plug values into the appropriate one of the equations at the top of the test paper. (And how hard could it be to figure out which part of “f=ma” is mass and which is force?) You didn’t see any of the physics majors having trouble understanding the difference between a sponge and a jellyfish is in the analogous biology course.

  5. #5 James Stein
    February 14, 2007

    This isn’t surprising. The MCATs test your ability to problem-solve far more than they do your knowledge of the sciences. We presume that there is some correlation of knowledge to problem-solving ability, but when your selection sample consists of people with similar knowledge levels, you can see that the advantage goes to those who spend four years problem-solving rather than those who spend four years memorizing.

  6. #6 Dr. William Dyer
    February 14, 2007

    My undergraduate school had in the Chemistry department the guy who literally wrote the book on how to get into Med school. Ed Trachentberg, the author, was a great guy and said similar to me about my chances for getting into med school by virtue of my Physics back round. He passed on to me that for pre-med’s Physics and Organic Chemistry were considered “wash-out” courses.

    In addition to many leaving behind pre-med after such classes, for different reasons success in both were considered indicative of one’s promise as a med student by medical school admissions boards. Doing well in Organic helped tell how well a future med student would handle committing to memory and using the numerous groups of information. A good Physics student was thought to be able to handle better the abstraction in some of the models of the human body and its systems.

    I ended up getting confirmation on the theme of what Ed had told me years later when I was working in Tufts Medical school and interacted with some of the faculty. The Tufts people mentioned other things they look for, but that Physics and Organic were definetly a key part of their pre-med track for similar reasons.

    In some ways this put a new spin on things for me, since in college I frequently helped and tutored friends in Physics who were pre-med. When I later taught the undergrad classes myself, I had fun pointing out to the already panicky pre-meds I stood between them and their school of choice, and they should bother me again about the amount of partial credit I gave them on the last homework.

  7. #7 Adam
    February 14, 2007

    Physicists rule. It’s a well-known fact.

  8. #8 Mike Walker-Thørsvedtt
    February 14, 2007

    I am not too surprised by this however, I do feel that a break-down of the two groups would be helpful. How, in example, do engineering students factor in and what about chem/biochem? Where are these lines drawn?

    I think there is no need to pussyfoot around the issue that the physical sciences are in general more demanding at the undergrad level than the life sciences. Also, those majoring in physics and entering med school (or even taking the MCAT) probably have a strong research interest whereas those who “just want to be doctors” follow a tried and true pre-med path. The innovative kids will major in engineering, physics, or even history. I think one reason why history was considered a good major for pre-med, by the way, is that any student who majors in history yet pulls the grades in the science courses required for pre-med plus the MCAT scores needed is probably very astute and determined to get into a good med school. He/she also probably is very good at analyzing data, something which historians very much do, and in communicating with others.

  9. #9 Scott Coulter
    February 15, 2007

    Whoever further up in the comments said it’s about problem-solving ability hit it right on. As a computer science guy I struggled through the required 8 hours of intro physics, and I’ve definitely noticed something about physics majors–they just don’t ever give up on a problem until it’s solved. Anytime we have the chance to hire a programmer who comes from a physics background, we grab them fast.
    –sdc

  10. #10 Patrick
    February 15, 2007

    While, getting into medical school is a crap shoot, I don’t think MCATs or an undergrad major can predict who actually does well once they’re in. Of the people who started in my MD/PhD program (I’m finishing this year), several of them who had majored in chemistry or physics and had high MCATs (one had 40+!) have struggled (either in medical school or graduate school or both), while several others who had majored in biology and struggled in organic have done great. While commenters above have pointed out aspects of physical sciences that can be advantageous, if you think about what you value in your own doctor, it boils down to compassion and competence, and those are qualities that can be found in wide array of people who major in a wide array of fields.

  11. #11 Adam
    February 16, 2007

    I would have thought that biggest predictor of later success in graduate research would be determination (more important than test scores as an undergrad). I don’t know about Medical School; it seems to me that managing your workload would be a big deal.

  12. #12 mike
    February 16, 2007

    When I applied to medical school back in the 1983, I read a book suggesting that music majors enjoyed the highest rate of acceptance (in the 60% range) albeit the stats were hampered by a relatively small N. Next to them was Philosophy students, with a rate of about 56%. I was a chemistry major, but hated it, and I always wanted to major in Philosophy, so I switched. Not only did I enjoy my major, but I was accepted to three schools, and ended up matriculating at Mayo Medical School in Minnesota.

    If I had ANY musical talent, I would have thought about that major.

    However, in my experience, you should major in what you ENJOY. The enjoyment shows itself in good grades, a sense of enthusiasm and mastery that no doubt shows in the admissions interview, and will benefit you no matter you decide to do you after graduation.

  13. #13 LJ
    February 16, 2007

    (What’s even more interesting is the fact that the lowest scores of the lot belong to students in dedicated pre-med tracks– at least, that’s how I’m interpreting “Specialized Health Sciences.” That’s mildly surprising to me.”

    What’s suprising about that?

    My experience (I was aphysics major in college) is that pre-meds typically take the easiest classes (including science classes) to keep their GPA up.

    It has alos been my experience with doctors that many of them are simply incapable of dealing with symptoms that they have not committed to memory from a book. On the whole, they are much better at giving the memorized answer than they are at analysis.

  14. #14 kat
    February 16, 2007

    This doesn’t actually surprise me either. At my school (large, public, well-respected), biology majors far outnumber physics majors, because, well, “physics is hard.” I think that the population of physics majors is self-selecting (like, say, chemical engineering, or math) and attracts a student body with a higher average aptitude. Conversely, biology is the default major for many kids who have always wanted to be doctors, but may or may not have the brains necessary. Physics requires good spacial and mathematical abilities, both of which are also good qualities for a physician.

    I’m a biology major, and not med-school bound, but as someone who’s consistently at the top of the curve in biology courses, I can say with confidence that I would not be one of the curve-setters in physics classes. Not that I suck at physics, I’m just not a supergenius, which I (correctly or incorrectly) perceive many physicists to be.

  15. #15 Frumious B
    February 16, 2007

    I bet there is a gender effect. The MCAT is a standardized test, and women and minorities typically score worse on standardized tests than men or whites. One thing we are looking at with those scores is a comparison between a group which is heavily dominated by males and a group which is less dominated by males. You would expect the group with larger male representation to have higher standardized test scores.
    There may also be an ethnicity effect, but I am not familiar with the proportions of ethnic minorities in Physics vs. Biology.

  16. #16 kemibe
    February 16, 2007

    I was a physics major and a math and chemistry minor and was accepted to medical school. I think the key to doing well on the MCAT and academically was not being smarter but being comparatively isolated from other pre-meds, who drove me and each other absolutely batshit, at least before many of them opted out of the pre-med track.

    It’s funny, because in spite of this finding (probably related, IMO, to the tendency of mathy sorts to do especially well on standardized tests) I would never reccommend being a physics major if you have no intention of pursuing a career or a graduate degree in a physics, materials science or a related field. I would have been much happier as a life sciences major or even a psych major. Of course, everyone probably says something similar down the line, when it doesn’t amount to squat.

  17. #17 bob
    February 16, 2007

    I think the real value of physics and organic chem is that the material covered is consistent between universities. Many is the committee I have seen where we can agree that those 2 courses (and maybe intro stats) are the only ones that are comparable. Everything else on the transcript is comparatively idiosyncratic.

  18. #18 iGollum
    February 16, 2007

    I could be wrong, but is it possible that those who chose physics were expecting more difficulty from the start, and therefore were prepared to work harder, than those who chose biology? I’m a biologist and I remember many freshmen in my cohort admitting to having chosen to do biology after high school because it seemed like the ‘easiest science’. Most of those with that mindset got cut down in the first six months, of course, the poor deluded buggers.

  19. #19 Barry
    February 17, 2007

    Jeramia Ory:

    “However, drawing performance conclusions from data where the standard deviation of all the groups is ~2, and none of the means differ by more than 2, seems a wee bit suspect to me…”

    Not to me, but then again I’m a statistician. Remember that the standard deviation of the *mean* is the standard deviation of individual values divided by the square root of the sample size.

  20. #20 Shane
    February 18, 2007

    In undergrad I majored in biophysics and I’m now a 3rd year med student. I agree that my undergrad degree loosened the bolts on the MCAT (note: I’m also white and male if that’s your hitch). Most pre-meds spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on MCAT prep-courses whereas I felt comfortable on my own. Maybe that confidence was born from my struggles with quantum mechanics and the like.

    In any case, now that I’m well into my med school experience I’ve learned a few things. The type of learning that actually happens in med school still requires problem solving. However, the deluge of information is something that a physics degree does not prepare you for. It took a big shift in mindset on my part to go from absolute reduction to simplest form to not forgetting anything. Also, I’m totally sleep deprived right now. I worked hard in undergrad, but the hours don’t even compare.

    It would be interesting to compare board scores by undergraduate major to see if medical school is the great equalizer.

  21. #21 iv
    February 14, 2009

    Dear Fellows,
    i am a person from Physics background,infact a Ph.D..
    I am interested in earning a degree in medicine so that i can practice for marginalized section of society.I had read about one university i united kingdom which offered degree in medicine part time for working professionals of any field but i am failing to track this.Please, help.

  22. #22 A Coloured Woman
    July 7, 2009

    To Frumious B:
    I don’t know where you’re getting your data from but I’m assuming it’s from personal prejudices. What you wrote is overtly sexist and racist and I can’t believe noone has said anything against it.
    “The MCAT is a standardized test, and women and minorities typically score worse on standardized tests than men or whites.”
    woww
    I respectfully disagree with that statement. Yes, there is a difference in interests- there are more men in physics than women and following this thread, it is evident that physics students do better. That would be a viable presumption. But to generalize and say that women and minorities always do bad is an overtly sexist and racist comment. It is a difference in opportunities too: there are far more opportunities available for white men than anyone else. If you’re comparing data of who got into med schools, this difference in opportunity should still be considered.

  23. #23 A Coloured Woman
    July 7, 2009

    To Frumious B:
    I don’t know where you’re getting your data from but I’m assuming it’s from personal prejudices. What you wrote is overtly sexist and racist and I can’t believe noone has said anything against it.
    “The MCAT is a standardized test, and women and minorities typically score worse on standardized tests than men or whites.”
    woww
    I respectfully disagree with that statement. Yes, there is a difference in interests- there are more men in physics than women and following this thread, it is evident that physics students do better. That would be a viable presumption. But to generalize and say that women and minorities always do bad is an overtly sexist and racist comment. It is a difference in opportunities too: there are far more opportunities available for white men than anyone else. If you’re comparing data of who got into med schools, this difference in opportunity should still be considered.

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