Professor Larry Singer: The Force Behind USC’s Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program (PPP): Career-Changers Welcome!
While many students spend their college years pursuing a life-long ambition to become a doctor, taking the required science and math courses in linear progression and applying to medical school as seniors, it was only after Heather had graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles with a degree in French that she realized she wanted to be a surgeon. Enrolling as a “limited status” USC student in Professor Singer’s organic chemistry class, she sat in the front row, took copious notes, and earned an A in the course, capturing Singer’s attention.
Realizing that there were dozens of competent students who, like Heather, had pursued other areas of study in college but wanted to attend medical school, in 1998 he launched USC’s Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program (PPP), a three year program offering an opportunity for students with an undergraduate degree to fulfill their pre-med course requirements while taking part in outside clinical or research-based experiences that will help them prepare well-rounded applications for medical, dental or veterinary school. “We started with only three students that first year, and then it took off,” recalled Singer, explaining that there are now 95 students enrolled across a three year timeline. Coursework comprises the first two years of study; students use the third year to apply to medical school while deepening their hands-on experiences in clinical or research medicine. “We purposely draw it out so students have more time to do clinical work or research study. They pick up invaluable experience in large hospitals, small neighborhood clinics, international missions, and research labs,” explained Singer. “Two years of postbac work is just the tip of the iceberg. We encourage our students to make sure this is what they want to do so they don’t wake up in their third or fourth year of medical school realizing it was the wrong decision,” he added forcefully.
Like Heather, who successfully enrolled in USC Medical School and is about to begin her 6th year of a 7 year long residency in general surgery (she’s currently at Harvard, having taken 2 years in the middle of her training to earn a Master of Public Health degree and a research fellowship at Children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard Medical School), about a third of the USC PPP students enroll immediately after their undergraduate study. But a surprising two-thirds are career-changers, leaving vocations in acting, business, engineering, computer studies, professional athletics and a host of other seemingly unrelated fields to answer the call of medicine. “One of our students had a 25 year career as a movie producer. He entered USC’s Keck School of Medicine at age 47. It’s never too late!” chuckled Singer. Career-changers often tell Singer that they’d been thinking about becoming a doctor for a long time, but became side-tracked: “Medical schools appreciate the motivation, commitment, added maturity, and additional life experience of the career-changers,” he reflected.
While there are now dozens of PPP programs across the country (Columbia University was the first, back in the fifties), there were only two others on the West Coast when Singer started the program at USC. And while there continues to be a strong demand (Singer even projects that applications may spike because interest in “stable professions” like medicine peaks during economic recessions), these programs are not cheap. Tuition alone can amount to $45,000 for two-plus years of study, and that doesn’t include living expenses. “It’s a considerable financial burden for students,” admitted Singer. But the success rate is high: 75 percent of first-time USC PPP applicants get into medical school, and 85-90 percent of those who reapply are granted admission, matriculating at such schools as Dartmouth, Emory, Vanderbilt, UCLA, and USC. Singer is a strong advocate for his students: “I tell them that you don’t need all A’s to go to medical school. You need to show an admission committee that you have the ability, and that takes many different forms,” he summed up.
Singer, who is revered by his students (“he’s a guiding light...a mentor of mentors,” extolled Heather), continues to find ways to improve his own teaching of complicated chemical concepts after several decades in the college classroom. He eliminated chalk board lectures early on in favor of power point-enhanced presentations, but he is adamant about the continued need for face-to-face interaction, where he can forge “an immediate connection with students and further develop ideas that need more elaboration.” Like other master teachers, he’s proudest of his ability to reach out and change lives, adding humbly, “We are serving a need for people who are looking for their life’s work. If we can help someone get on that path, we have done our work well.”#
The USC PPP website can be accessed as follows: http://chem.usc.edu/postbacc/index.html