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    How Does Someone Become a Dermatologist

    Over the years, I’ve gotten used to complete strangers approaching me in a variety of different social settings after learning that I’m a dermatologist and partially disrobing to show me some problem they are having with their skin. A slightly different variation on that theme occurred recently while I was attending a very large wedding that included a number of attendees from all over the country, many of whom I did not know. I was somewhat surprised when one of the guests, a 17-year-old high school student, approached me (again after she learned I was a dermatologist) and asked point blank:  “How does someone become a dermatologist?” 

    It seems she had developed a strong interest in skin diseases as she had long been under the care of a dermatologist for treatment of atopic dermatitis and she enjoyed those interactions very much. As a result, she wanted to know what she had to do to become a dermatologist and I was the “lucky person” she had chosen to answer her questions. After ascertaining that she was indeed serious about this, I agreed to help. I generally enjoy this type of interaction, just not at the exact time and venue she had selected for this discussion to take place. I was able to postpone our phone discussion for a few days later after she had returned home. This also gave me the advantage of some time to organize my thoughts and try to be a better mentor for her. 

    Over the next few days, I gave this subject a lot of thought, trying not to make the whole process seem too overwhelming to a high school senior. After all, I remember when I was a high school senior trying to decide if I even needed to go to college at all in order to become the “surfer dude” to which I was aspiring. I sat down and came up with the following suggestions.

    Disclaimer:  Even though I have been chair of three different dermatology departments and a member of three others, these are my thoughts about preparing for a career in dermatology and while they are valid in my experience, there are certainly other points of view that are also valid.

    Attend college

    Yes, certainly go to the college of your choice, apply yourself and get the best grades you can without sacrificing the enjoyment of being in college, like participating in social activities, making new friends, joining clubs that interest you and volunteering for some worthwhile cause. If you don’t already play a musical instrument or sing or dance, take lessons! Do things that appeal to you but also help to make you a well-rounded individual. If you can find the time, get a part-time job so that you get to learn how to handle money and be at least partly responsible for your educational expenses or your extracurricular activities. This will also give you a chance to meet more people and also learn how to work effectively as a member of a team.

    Choose your major

    I’m not a believer that to get into medical school you must major in one of the sciences, but I do believe you should have a good foundation in the sciences, perhaps just as a minor. Remember, medical schools are trying to train doctors who can best care for their patients. In my opinion, that requires someone who can understand a patient’s concerns, effectively communicate information and answers to the questions being asked and do so without sounding like “Doc Martin” on PBS! In my experience, these physician qualities are found more commonly in an individual has a broad background and greater life experiences. 

    Make a sincere effort to get to know your professors and teaching assistants. If they have office hours, go see them to learn if there are things you can do to assist them that also interest you, perhaps assisting in a research project or developing a public information pamphlet, brochure or a lecture that may be of interest to seniors or elementary school students. Your professors are the same people who will be asked to write you a letters of recommendation for medical school, but they can only do that if they know you.

    More about Dr. Wheeland:

    Dr. Wheeland honored as Leader of Distinction

    Next: How to apply to medical school and what to do once you're there

    Ronald G. Wheeland, M.D.
    Ronald G. Wheeland, M.D., is a private practitioner in Tucson, Ariz. He is former president of the American Academy of Dermatology, the ...

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