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Becoming a doctor and a lawyer – at the same time


Recently, I had the opportunity to lead an ethics forum at the American Medical Association meeting. It was the first time I’ve been publicly introduced as an “attorney.” I was caught off guard since I haven’t sat for the bar yet, but it was a reminder that my time in the MD/JD program at the University of Florida is reaching its end.

While my friends became doctors and lawyers, spouses and parents, I was holed up in libraries, feeling as though time stood still. As graduation nears, I have had time to reflect on the questions I am most commonly asked when people learn about my endeavors. Is it harder to become a doctor or a lawyer? Which program do I like better? Would I do it again?

The first answer is easy – they are incredibly different programs and challenging in their own ways.

Medical school is pass/fail, and there are several exams for each course, so the stakes of any individual exam are considerably lower than a law school final. This created an atmosphere of collegiality instead of competition among the students, which I sometimes felt was missing from the law school.

On the other hand, a final exam in medical school could cover thousands of power point slides, whereas my law school outlines were normally 25-30 pages in length.

Another big difference was the time commitment required by the two programs. Medical school classes were scheduled like a full-time job, and any studying was done after school or on weekends. When I showed up to law school in my third year of the program, I couldn’t believe that I only had class 15 hours a week. It was like the glory days of college all over again!

Transitioning from medical school to law school, I decided to continue to approach school like a full-time job and planned to be on campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. With only 15 hours of class a week, that left 25 hours a week of built in study time, thus freeing up my evening and weekends. The flip side of this is that weeks leading up to law school finals were a type of purgatory reserved only for our licensing exams in medical school.

When I look back over the first four years of my program, which were evenly split into two years of medical school and two years of law school, neither sticks out as more treacherous than the other. Both were time consuming, intellectually demanding, and wonderful. That being said, the year I spent as a third-year medical student working full time on the wards and going to law school at night is a period in my life I never wish to relive.

So which program do I like better? Neither – the experiences between the two can’t be compared. What I really enjoyed about law school was all the time spent thinking. There is a lot of media coverage these days about the amount of time physicians spend doing paperwork, and this extends to medical students.

As a third-year medical student, a significant amount of my time was spent writing medical record notes that would never meet a pair of eyes other than mine. In law school, there was nothing like that. Instead, class time was spent discussing cases and postulating on what if’s. Office hours were a chance to hypothesize, conjecture, and theorize with professors. But for all the rote memorization and chart writing in medical school, there were things like caring for a patient’s family as their loved one died, helping a new dad clamp an umbilical cord, an explaining to young women how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and I would not trade these moments for the world.

Would I do it again? Wholeheartedly, yes. I am writing this blog post from the airport as I wrap up a three-week trip up and down the East Coast. On this trip I have visited eight cities, interviewed with eight residency programs (the training doctors do after medical school), attended one wedding, took one of three licensing exams I will take this year, received one phone call from a colleague asking to review the history of Supreme Court rulings on contraception and abortion, and lead one ethics program at a national meeting.

While most medical students are able to spread their interviews out over several months, I have had to condense mine to make time for the Bar exam I will take in February. But no matter how jam-packed my schedule is, it’s also filled with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

So for anyone considering the MD/JD program, or any combined degree for that matter, my advice would be do it! (But, buy a planner first.) I have constantly been on the go for the last six years, but the experiences I have had and the rewards for this grueling schedule are far beyond anything I imagined at the outset of this adventure.

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Kimi Chernoby Kimberly (Swartz) Chernoby is the first graduate of the University of Florida MD/JD program. She also holds a Masters in Bioethics from New York University. She currently works as an Emergency Medicine resident physician at Indiana University. Her interests are FDA law, reproductive health policy, and wellness. She is a member of the Indiana Bar, and a Trustee of the Indiana State Medical Association. In her spare time she bakes sour dough bread, and spends time with her husband and dog.