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First semester: complete!

Stefan Tarnawsky • 12/16/13

I have just completed my first semester courses in graduate school!  As an MD/PhD, I was able to transfer-in 30 of my med school credits towards my Biochemistry degree and opt out of introductory courses. Instead, I took: research ethics, biostatistics, and a seminar in molecular biology. Although each of these subjects was covered in medical school, I found the graduate courses to have a very different style and approach.

Student participation was much greater in graduate classes. My seminar, a formalized journal club, had eight students who took turns leading the discussion. Each week we would present a primary research article figure by figure, drawing conclusions from those results, and critiquing the authors’ methodology. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to practice oral presentation and verbal on-the-fly reasoning; two skills that were never formally evaluated in medical school.

My stats course had 40 students and attendance was nearly 100%, compared to its medical counterpart that had 170 students and ~30% attendance. Dr Williams – our grad stats professor, was a marvellous lecturer. He knew each student’s name, called on us individually to answer questions, and adapted his lectures based on our interests and level of understanding. His enthusiasm was infectious and made for a captivating weekly hour.

Even the ethics course, whose enrolees included weary-eyed medical residents and fellows, had nearly perfect attendance. The diverse backgrounds of the students and the wide range of lecturers made for lively discussions.

My grad courses were also heavily focused on immediate and practical applications. Instead of ethical theory, our course sought to teach us how to avoid ethical mishaps by giving us subtle and not-so-subtle examples of misdeeds. The molecular biology seminar refined my ability to critically analyse journal articles. This has made me more efficient and confident in my daily literature review.

The stats course, in particular, was designed to help us answer questions that we will face throughout our research. Each lecture was devoted to a specific tool – t-test, chi squared analysis, ANOVA, etc. – and a scenario that requires its use. We learned to use these tests as buffers for our intuition, which may steer us in the wrong direction and give us a false sense of confidence.

I miss the clinical content of my medical courses. Nonetheless, I am very pleased by those I’ve taken as a graduate student. It’s very motivating to go to class when there is immediate benefit to be gained from its lessons. Rather than wonder ‘what’s on the test?’ I can sit in class and thinking ‘how will I apply this to my current experiment?’ That change in mentality is truly refreshing.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.


Stefan Tarnawsky

MS4 MD/PhD Student. Going into Internal Medicine; interested in Heme/Onc. Bread baker, bonsai artist, aspiring astronomer.