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Friday, July 30, 2021

Postbaccalaureate programs provide a career alternative to students pursuing health professions

Academic enhancer postbaccalaureate programs aim to help students reach their professional goals

For students who are pursuing careers in medicine and other health professions, there may be significant pressure to perform well during their undergraduate studies. Some may be discouraged if they do not graduate with a grade point average (GPA) as high as they had hoped. Postbaccalaureate programs, however, can provide an opportunity for these students to enhance their academic abilities and become stronger applicants for professional health schools.

The UC Postbaccalaureate Consortium is a collaboration between postbaccalaureate premedical programs at the Schools of Medicine at UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles and UC San Francisco (UCSF). Cassidy Kays, the UC Postbaccalaureate Consortium coordinator, works with all four of these programs. According to Kays, their mission is to increase the number of physicians who practice in areas of California that face shortages in healthcare workers by helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds gain admission to medical school.

“We’re looking for students who have that passion, and in particular, want to give back to those communities who have physician shortages in California,” Kays said. “We are really big on networking and connecting you with inspiring faculty that work in medicine, so you can see all of the different pathways that you can take as a future doctor.”

Kays explained that there are two common types of postbaccalaureate programs: academic enhancers and career changers. Academic enhancer programs focus on improving students’ GPAs and enhancing their metrics in order for them to be more competitive medical school applicants. Career changer programs cater to students who decided to switch their path to a career in medicine after completing their undergraduate studies in another field.

“A big thing about postbacc programs is we understand that students don’t live their life in a vacuum,” Kays said. “Life happens. You go through different experiences that may impact your GPA or what you were able to do in your undergrad. So this is really an opportunity for students to showcase their ability to handle academic rigor and to prove themselves to those medical school admissions committees.”

The academic enhancer program includes enrollment in upper-division science coursework to boost students’ science GPA, practice with the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and hands-on support with the medical school application process in the form of interview practice and letters of recommendation.

“What’s different from undergrad, especially for our students who might be first-generation students or who may be underrepresented in medicine and don’t see themselves reflected in those positions, is that this space really tries to cultivate support and mentorship that you may not get as an undergrad student trying to navigate higher education institutions,” Kays said. 

While the UC Postbaccalaureate Consortium focuses on students who are pursuing medicine, postbaccalaureate programs can cater towards other health professions as well. For example, the UC Davis Health Professions Post-Baccalaureate Program is designed for students pursuing not only medicine, but also dentistry, veterinary medicine, nursing, physician assistant positions or other health professions. 

Kays noted that there are several factors to consider when choosing which postbaccalaureate programs to apply to. She encourages students to ask themselves what they want out of the program in the first place, then decide whether the academic enhancer or the career changer route works best for them. The next steps would be to consider additional factors such as location, cost, mission and culture of the program. To find what works best for you, Kays recommends reaching out to pre-health advisors.

Carlos Moya, a UC Davis class of 2019 graduate with a B.S. in cognitive science, made the decision to attend a postbaccalaureate program after meeting with a health professions advisor.

“We sat down and looked at my stats, then looked at all the schools that I’m applying to this year,” Moya said. “That’s when I came to the decision: ‘I think my app is strong right now, but it could definitely improve if I do a postbacc.’ If you feel like your application is strong in everything but your academics, I would say to look into it, speak with an advisor and see how your stats align with the schools that you want to apply to in the future.”

Moya attended the academic enhancer track of Cal State East Bay’s Pre-Professional Health Academic Program (PHAP). The program is semester-based and requires at least two semesters for a certificate of completion.

“It’s not really a structured program, per se,” Moya said. “For the most part, you have control over how long you stay in the program and what classes you take. But we do have really good advisors who guide us.”

Moya began the program in spring 2020 and is now finishing up his last semester. Afterwards, he plans on applying to dental school.

“If you’re thinking about doing a postbacc, it’s not something that can hurt your application,” Moya said. “East Bay has a lot of good connections with the Bay Area health schools. They even write you a committee letter, which is essentially one letter where the school is writing on your behalf instead [of] just one professor. At the end of the day, they really do want you to matriculate to your top school.”

Melissa De Guzman, a 2018 UC Davis graduate with a B.S. in neurobiology, physiology and behavior, attended the same program at Cal State East Bay. De Guzman noted that the program offered more specialized science classes compared to undergraduate courses.

“We took classes in advanced molecular cell biology, parasitology and major organ biochemistry,” De Guzman said. “A really nice thing about the postbaccalaureate program is that there was a lot more life application in our studies. They allowed us to use the foundation of what we’ve learned in our undergraduate studies but in a new way, and it made us think a little bit harder.”

Postbaccalaureate programs differ from undergraduate studies not only in regards to their course content, but also in the size of their classes. De Guzman noted there were typically 25-30 students in each of her classes.

“It was definitely a lot smaller than our regular undergraduate classes,” she said. “It felt like how high school classes are set up or even discussion groups in college. I think a lot of our learning in our undergraduate courses was most effective in discussion groups because we got to talk a lot with our classmates, so it was a really nice way for [the program] to be set up.”

De Guzman finished the program last year and is now working as a medical scribe while applying for medical school. She stated that the amount of support she received while attending the program helped her stay on track to reach her goals.

“During the program, you’re with a group of people that are in the same place as you,” De Guzman said. “They set you up with advisors, and the professors know very well what your situation is. And being in classes specifically with only postbaccalaureate students was definitely a big plus. It was very catered to help us succeed and to recognize where our flaws were and what we need to improve on as students in general.”

Michael Baliton, a 2016 UC Davis graduate with a B.S. in neurobiology, physiology and behavior, also attended the program at Cal State East Bay and is now in his first year at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Baliton stated that attending a postbaccalaureate program helped him develop better study habits, which he carried into medical school.

“I felt like I developed really good habits in postbacc,” Baliton said. “The course material was really valuable too. I think a lot of the material that I covered in postbacc was covered in medical school, so I didn’t feel like a fish out of water coming to school.”

In addition to building these habits, Baliton stated that the postbaccalaureate program helped him grow as a professional. The flexible class schedule gave him free days to study, work and volunteer.

“I got more work and volunteer experiences that I felt were really meaningful to me,” Baliton said. “I tried to stay engaged with the Filipino community in the Bay Area through the Mabuhay Health Center that’s affiliated with UCSF. I was also a medical scribe for Stanford Healthcare at the Women’s Cancer Center, so I developed a deeper, more specific interest in that. So I think there’s a lot of benefit that comes with taking your time after college, just thinking about yourself as a developing professional.”

Baliton stated that coming out of college, he did not have the best academic standing. He stated that while most undergraduate students should not come into college thinking that they have to do a postbaccalaureate program, it’s also important to recognize that there are still options for them if they do not go straight into medical school after graduation.

“For those who feel like they need to strengthen their application in one way or another, I really encourage you all to just hang in there,” Baliton said. “If this is really your dream to give back to patients and communities in the way that doctors do, you’ll know that in your heart. I just want to encourage you [to] keep the faith and keep on it, because we need people like you to serve the patients and communities who are out there.”

Written by: Liana Mae Atizado— features@theaggie.org

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