Elizabeth Phillips

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After studying biomedical engineering, Elizabeth changed directions to pursue medicine and complete a dual MD-MA in bioethics, specializing in emergency medicine.

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Undergraduate: Duke University, 2005
Medical school: Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, 2011
Residency: The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
Specialty: Emergency Medicine 

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

My mother is a nurse, so I was exposed to the medical field early in my life, but I started out a fan of Indiana Jones and always wanted to be an archeologist. My interest in medicine blossomed in high school after I shadowed a few doctors at my pediatrician’s office. I loved the patient interaction and the challenge of the work. I was hooked after my first experience.

What made you decide to go to medical school?

Medicine is truly challenging as a profession but also truly rewarding. I was impressed with the caliber of people that I would have the privilege to work with in the field of medicine. My fellow premed students all had ambition, drive, and fascinating backgrounds that led them to the field. I believe that medicine is a profession of service, and although I have a range of interests and may have a unique professional path, I like that my job gives me the opportunity to truly help other human beings.

Did anyone discourage you from applying to medical school?

Yes! There were several residents and physicians who told me not to go to medical school when I was an undergraduate. They were cynical about the future of medicine and seemed disgruntled with their work-life balance. In fact, now that I am in residency, I understand the challenge of working intense hours, the demand on your personal life, the struggle of the educational debt, and the chaos of our disjointed medical system. However, I have learned to maintain my personal balance, which has protected me from such overt cynicism. I understand that you really must love medicine to be a physician, and if you do, it’s completely worth it.

Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?

I had a wonderful mentor, Chi Chi Onyewu, who was an MD-PhD candidate at Duke while I was an undergrad. She represented the kind of doctor and all-around human being that I wanted to be. She possessed an excellent bedside manner, was smart but not showy, was caring but pragmatic, and fun but responsible. She always made time for me or anyone who wanted to learn from her experience.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

In addition to my undergraduate premedical advisor, I primarily leaned on my mentors who themselves had recently gone through the application process. Their advice and experience were instrumental to identifying how to be successful, balanced, and happy as I navigated the application process. I made sure to have more than one person review my application but not more than 4. I submitted early, but only when I was comfortable with my materials. I utilized contacts at institutions who knew my work ethic and personality; sometimes it is about who you know, and if someone is impressed with you for the right reasons you should certainly take advantage of that.

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT® exam?

Yes! I did not consider myself a great test taker and I was concerned that my MCAT® score could become a potential roadblock to my dreams. Therefore, I choose to take a course, study for a longer period of time, and utilize the study tips from successful students.

Did you need financial aid to pay for medical school?

Yes. I don’t know anyone who didn’t need financial aid. But don’t let the fear of debt prevent anyone from pursuing medicine. There are plenty of opportunities to pay down your debt and get financial assistance.

What memory stands out from your first day of medical school the most?

On the first day of medical school we were shown a slide of the personality types that were drawn to each specialty and the drug(s) most commonly abused by each specialty. I was shocked! We all giggled, but now, looking back, I would agree that specialties are very personality-driven, and yes, I have even encountered some doctors with addiction issues.

What was your first year of medical school like?

Tough. Medical school requires you to learn an immense amount of knowledge at record pace. When you begin, the task seems daunting, but it is important to remember that you are not the first to address this feat, and you are not alone. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel; use the strategies and resources of peers and mentors. First year is not a year I would want to repeat, but I came out with some of the strongest friendships of my life.

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

I worked hard and played hard, and I’m most proud that I have held on to my optimism and enthusiasm. I learned how to enjoy life while going through some of my toughest training years and I think it has made me not only a better doctor but a better human being.

What makes your story unique?

I did not take a traditional educational path. I started off studying biomedical engineering, but after discovering that I was not all left brain, I completely changed direction and ended up designing my own major in medical ethics and religion. I continued to pursue my interests in ethics in medical school and completed a dual MD-MA in bioethics in four years. I am looking forward to using my background in the field of health policy, and I hope that my unique background will give me a foundation to become a physician leader with a truly diverse career experience.

How did you balance the demands of medical school with these additional obligations and challenges?

Both are important, so I made both a priority. I rewarded myself for achieving small goals, such as completing an exam or research paper, by taking trips with friends and utilizing that time to decompress and reflect.

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

The people! My peers, my patients, my faculty. I enjoyed the diversity of people I met, and came out of med school with great friendships, great mentors, and great memories.

What surprised you the most about medical school?

The volume of knowledge you have to learn seems impossible at first but gradually you absorb more and more. Now I can’t believe how much I know … and how much I still need to learn.

Are you a member of a unique demographic? If so, please describe how that shaped your medical school experience.

As an African American, it was important to me to represent my background and culture with pride. I served as the Co-President of SNMA (Student National Medical Association) and was very dedicated to helping build the minority physician pathway. I relied heavily on other minority students and mentors to meet my goals. I also loved the feeling of working in predominantely Black patient populations who are so proud to see me serve them as a physician.

Please describe your participation in special programs such as volunteer work, research, or study abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

As part of my bioethics master’s, I completed an international research project that allowed me to travel to Costa Rica, the U.K. and Japan to interview emergency physicians about health care structure and their opinions on an ideal health care system. I compared these interviews to U.S. doctors who reflected on our struggles to have successful health care reform. This process allowed me to see how medicine was practiced in different countries and was a wonderful experience that fueled my desire to continue to do policy research.

What advice do you have for new applicants considering a career in medicine?

Learn to balance your life and work now. It can’t be, “I will take a break after this test,” or “after I get into medical school,” or “when I’m done with residency.” In order to be happy, you have to learn to balance your life struggles with activities that fulfill you, whether that be family, sports, travel, or friends. So many doctors end up cynical and perverted from the stresses of this field. Make it a goal to be a happy person, and you will be a better doctor for it.

Do you have additional information or thoughts to share that would be helpful to prospective students?

Take time to shadow and speak to anyone you know in medicine. Everyone’s story is different, and you have something to learn from others’ successes and their failures. Do not be afraid to ask for help. You will be with a lot of smart people, so just get over the fact that you can’t be the best and brightest at everything. Knowing your weaknesses is an important life lesson — addressing them and growing will help you throughout your career.

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