Student Doctor Network and Unsafe Spaces

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If you’re a premedical student, it’s very likely you’ve heard of Student Doctor Network (SDN).  If you haven’t, just as a quick history, SDN was founded in 1999 in attempts to fill the unmet need in advising for many aspiring physicians. It sort of sounds like a lofty, if not nebulous mission, and a goal that is easily lost on the current state of “access to information”. If you’re too young to remember what Oregon Trail was, and with the current adult use of the internet being around 85-87%, it’s hard to imagine a time before the internet for context of the access to information at the time:

  • 1996: 23% of US adults went online
  • 1997: 36% of US adults went online
  • 1998: 41% of US adults went online

Pew Poll

As access to the internet was still blooming and more importantly “content”, however at that same period of time there was a large gap between those who seemed to know how to get into medical school and those that don’t. Around this time, 1999, access to the big three MCAT prep companies often meant heading to the library: Kaplan (est. 1938), The Princeton Review (est. 1981), and Examkrackers  (est. 1997,  a baby company at the time, had a 100 registered prep students). In that period, if you wanted to know information about the MCAT you had to have a buddy that took the MCAT. Didn’t have a decent advisor? Tough.

This was long before the time of Twitter, and even several years before the first global hit social media “Friendster” was founded. Indeed, if you were a premed, the days before the internet were dark times if you weren’t “in the loop”. Because of SDNs victory at being the torch in the night for some, SDN must be given credit where it’s due.

However, the experience that both enhances and perhaps detracts from the premed experience are the pre-allopathic forums. When I was still an early premed, I heard whispers of this foretold website I could visit where I could learn how to apply to medical school the “right way”. Although I had no intention to post yet, I remember being very excited, I think I made an account immediately. At the time I used the site, I was still a community college student — I hadn’t taken any of the premedical prerequisites yet (I took them all at a university I transferred to). Being no stranger to forums and message boards, I felt comfortable forum FAQs and utilizing the seemingly unknown by new users search function. Because of this I think I stayed away from what is ubiquitously and now arguably haphazardly as trolling — “trolling”, a term that has lost it’s oomph, while it used to refer strictly to the succubus like internet user destroying others’ lives for attention, it’s now used as a pejorative for any dissent against the major opinion. Though, user board nuance terms aside, over time, I found like any standard distribution: most people who post are fine, if you move far away enough from the norm, and there’s a minority of both jerks and excellent people. The more you skim, the more jerks you find, it’s merely a properly of statistics known to any populous message board — see 4chan, for gamers old gamefaqs (general discussion) and Shoryuken, and for the modern man and woman Reddit. Thus, it’s easy to just dismiss the negative experiences felt by some on SDN as “par for course”. The new movement and very ironic movement, the anti-PC police, might even want to say you still wear diapers for being flustered.

When I first found SDN I wasn’t yet sure about medicine, though only a movement held by a few with “garbage” arguments, I quickly found that there was an almost anti-underrepresented minority tide. At the time, I recognized that it wasn’t a safe space for me to mature as an young African American male with no role models around to put things into perspective. It wasn’t really until after I had already at least gained one admission spot that I felt comfortable freely perusing SDN, I thought why freely stay somewhere where you’re not welcome — instead, I did all of my MCAT/admissions prep via Google and books, and any advice I could catch along the way.

However, what lies within the “garbage” of SDN posts is a lot more insidious. Even with the most open mind, and turning a blind eye to the rampant ‘joke’ sexism and womanizing of seeming pubescent boys, it’s hard to humor the recent posts where the killing of Tamir Rice was being justified and the work of civil rights allies were mocked. When I was admitted into medical school, across the nation there were only 514 other black males also admitted across the country — around the same or less than in 1978. Though, why this stuns analyst is somewhat of a mystery. Regardless of race, unless you’re in the minority, a successfully matriculated premed’s parental income statistically will come from the upper middle class. There’s a correlation between scores, including the MCAT, and parental income/capitol. For the average American, their capitol and family net worth is based on their house ownership. From the 1930s until 1968, the federal government specifically excluded African Americans from federal home loans — delaying the amassing of family wealth. Even afterwards in 1988 and 2013, in Boston and Philadelphia respectively, suits and evidence brought forward of intentional segregation and discrimination. So, even working hard and being able to afford a house doesn’t promise being able to secure a loan. So, it’s not to say that the African American middle class (and missing African American applicants) aren’t trying, it’s more so that they’ve tried for decades and have failed to gain traction until very recently. But hey, its not reasonable to expect everyone to dive into law and socioeconomics, nor do I expect people to realize that even being a black Harvard Law professor still affords you little hope for a safe space (his own home).

With that being said, the African American community (and really many people who happen to be in the SES category) have much to gain from the free resource SDN offers. Therefore, it comes with great solace to admit that when it comes to recommending using SDN, especially if you’re a PoC, do so with great reservation. As a minority and former premed, if I had stayed on Student Doctor Network because of how discouraging the general tone was for minorities; I probably would have never applied to medical school. And really, I suppose the part that disappointed me wasn’t that there was a dissenting opinion than mine, nor did I think I was a special snow flake that needed protection. Instead, it was the disappointment of thinking that this was my potential peers that affected me. I’ll even admit in my limited experience thinking SDN was “truth”, subconsciously, this scared me off the track of pursuing medicine. Eventually, I feel in love with the “hard science” crowd, and just assumed I’d pursue a PhD. Later, though I had already been accepted into grad programs, I changed my mind and decided to apply to medical school after a mentor convinced me that I let others psyche me out — that was my own failing in not believing in myself and letting negative echoes get to me. However, in the end, SDN will eventually have to come to terms that the site where professionalism is supposed to be exemplar has members that join in the ceremonial stabbing of premed Ceaser.

And as one, I can only say in solidarity with the poll towards SDN, “Y tu Brute?”

Though, in the modern age, SDN may continue to live on with its useful archive while some premedical students continue to gravitate towards safer spaces to escape having their soul ripped out. And, what does it say when one of the most popular spring boards for premedical students doesn’t function as a safe space for people of diversity (including financial SES ORM). If this doesn’t bother you, and you benefit from the status quo, bravo to you. But, do know that some are steered away from potential opportunities because of their lack of safe space that you are so entitled to in the locker room of life. And it wouldn’t be fair to ever suggest, without evidence, that SDN steers minorities away from medicine. However, because there’s no evidence that it’s particularly helping in terms of diversity — diversity goes beyond race, and are not merely “cards to be played” —  we can only wonder what type of positive effect the forums could have had diversity were guaranteed the same “safe space” enjoyed by the majority/typical applicant.

Twitter Premed Opinin Poll of SDN Use and Value




One thought on “Student Doctor Network and Unsafe Spaces

    Susana said:
    February 10, 2016 at 11:54 am

    I absolutely LOVED this. I stopped using SDN bc as a non-trad who likes to complain I was told multiple times that I was never gonna make it if I kept looking at the obstacles. And I am here like, but but I just want to meet other people who also work 9-5 and are trying to figure out how to pay for all this. But all the privileged SDNers would give me the, oh I work too, volunteer, shadow, study, fly, have super powers. Nobody actually acknowledged their privilege, it’s really unsafe and unfriendly towards low income and POC.

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