Hypercompetitive Pre-Med Academic Culture Includes Sabotage and Bullying

Doctors have the most prestigious job in America, according to a Harris Poll, and they earn the highest average salary. Now it appears that some pre-med students and professors are trying to control who gets to live in their academic universe. A new survey of MCAT® students finds that they think the pre-med environment is […]

BY Terri Williams

Hypercompetitive Pre-Med Academic Culture Includes Sabotage and Bullying

Doctors have the most prestigious job in America, according to a Harris Poll, and they earn the highest average salary. Now it appears that some pre-med students and professors are trying to control who gets to live in their academic universe. A new survey of MCAT® students finds that they think the pre-med environment is downright ruthless.

According to the survey, conducted by Kaplan Test Prep:

  • 86 percent of future doctors think pre-med culture is too competitive.
  • 19 percent say they have been bullied, or know others who have been bullied – within a pre-med academic setting.

Some of the specific examples from survey respondents include the following:

  • “I remember during my sophomore year, pre-med students would try to sabotage other pre-med students by offering them incorrect study guides or learning objectives in hopes of other students getting lower test scores and raising the grading curve.”
  •  “It seems there is a constant need for pre-med students to make themselves stand out to professors and other authority figures, including speaking in class over others, asking questions simply to ask a question, and accosting medical professionals to the point that they turn and run as soon as they hear you are pre-med.”
  • “One student in my class had the top grade. Another student was competing with her for the top grade and somehow emailed her from the professor’s email address telling her that the exam had been moved and that class was canceled. This sounds like something out of a movie, but it really happened.”

However, the behavior can also be downright abusive. For example:

  •  “Some students were bullied by professors every time we would receive our exam grades back to either drop the course or change majors.”
  • “I know students who have made comments to other students about how smart they are and have basically told them they’re unintelligent and shouldn’t be pre-med.”
  • “There was a student in my cohort who had to temporarily take a leave of absence from the program due to a medical illness. While she was gone, and even when she came back, some students began spreading rumors that she was not really sick and that she was just saying that she was in order to hide the fact that she simply wanted to take time off to get a break from school.”

Why the pre-med environment is so competitive

A variety of factors contribute to the level of competitiveness usually seen on Survivor or some other last-contestant-standing reality TV show. Eric Chiu, executive director of pre-medical programs at Kaplan Test Prep, tells GoodCall, “Pre-meds are among the hardest-charging, self-motivated groups you’ll find on campus.” Their ambition and enthusiasm have been nurtured for a long time. “Many of them have wanted to become doctors since before high school, so there’s a sense of urgency among some of them that may lead to crossing the line between healthy competition and poor sportsmanship.”

Chiu says only half of all medical school applicants are accepted, which creates fierce competition and may cause some students to look for an extra edge. “Most students play within bounds, but as our research shows, some don’t, and we strongly discourage that kind of behavior.”

So, is this a new phenomenon or have pre-med students always tried to best the competition? “We’ve known anecdotally for a long time that the academic environment for pre-meds can be hypercompetitive, but this research really quantifies it and helps identify some of the problems,” Chiu explains.

Pre-med: The exception or the rule?

Is this type of behavior prevalent in, for example, pre-law, pre-business school and other types of selective graduate programs? Chiu believes the pre-med community is unique because students tend to apply to med school as soon as they graduate from college. “This means that their academic performance – which includes their GPA and performance on the MCAT – plays an extra important role in the admissions process.”

On the other hand, he believes that students may not even know if they want to attend business school until several years after graduation. “To a lesser extent, that’s true for pre-law students, though many do apply while still undergraduates.”

In addition, Chiu notes that law school applications are down. Harvard Law School recently dropped its mandatory LSAT admissions requirement (allowing applicants to take either the GRE or the LSAT), and while applications are actually up at Harvard, the Law School Admissions Council admits that overall, there’s been a drop in law school applications. Some people believe that accepting the GRE might increase the number of students accepted in law programs. Lawyers and doctors, together with dentists, are in a profession where you wouldn’t expect to find a gender pay gap but often do.

Jonathan Westover, associate professor of Organizational Leadership and Ethics; and director of Academic Service Learning at Utah Valley University also doesn’t think the bad behavior is a new phenomenon – it’s just being studied and gaining attention.

“Generally speaking, a hyper-competitive culture leading to some bullying behaviors is very common in not only professional graduate programs, but in much of academia,” Westover says. “In part, professors set up graduate programs to support and encourage this sort of culture as a gate keeping strategy – keep the ‘weak’ from completing, or even entering – and as a rite of passage: for example, they might think, ‘I had to go through hell in grad school, so my students should too.’”

But professors aren’t the only offenders as Westover explains, “In part, students perpetuate this sort of culture because of an increasingly competitive labor market and a fear that their classmates may beat them out for the best specialty programs or jobs.”

In fact, Westover can relate on a personal level. “I have experienced many of these behaviors myself, while as an undergrad and graduate student in one of the country’s top business schools and as a Ph.D. student at one of the flagship research universities.”

Westover doesn’t believe that it is widespread, but says, “I have personally been impacted by bullying behaviors from both classmates and professors at various stages of my academic career.”

Bad behavior may deter some students

Is it possible that some students may decide not to attend med school based on their knowledge of – or experience with – sabotage and bullying? Chiu doesn’t think so. “Pre-med students know going in just how competitive the undergraduate experience, admissions process, and medical school experience are.”

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, by 2025, the U.S. might have 90,000 fewer physicians than it needs. “It would be a real shame if something like this stopped aspiring doctors from reaching their career goals and patients from getting treated by outstanding professionals,” Chiu says.

However, Westover believes that it can have a deleterious effect, particularly on certain segments of the pre-med population. “I believe such competitive bullying behaviors are a deterrent to many students, but particularly to first generation students, non-traditional students, and those from underserved populations.”

Handling abusive situations

While no level of abusive or undermining behavior should be tolerated, Chiu emphasizes the most of these students are working hard and helping their peers. “Most pre-meds know, or should know, that collaboration is a huge part of the medical school experience and the medical practice, so this is a character quality that will serve students well into the future.”

But there could be a few bad apples in every setting. Westover believes that being aware that these types of behaviors and situations can occur in hyper-competitive programs is the first key to avoid becoming a victim. “Additionally, students need to carefully self-monitor and be ready to report harmful behaviors of other students and/or faculty members; this becomes particularly difficult when the perpetrator is a faculty member, as they are often perceived to hold all of the power.”

Westover says school administrators should have policies and procedures that govern this type of behavior and how to report it.

Chiu adds, “If you are a pre-med student who feels like you are being bullied by a fellow student, it’s important to stand up for yourself and let them know this is not acceptable behavior.” If that doesn’t work, he recommends contacting the professor pre-med advisors. And Chiu believes that classmates should also stand up for peers being bullied. “Everyone has a role to play in fostering a healthier academic environment.”