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Public Health or Biochemistry?

I'm an incoming college freshman, and I'm debating whether I should major in public health or biochemistry as a pre-med student. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both majors in preparation for medical school and other healthcare careers or graduate school paths?

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Midwest’s Answer

Amanda, both would be great options! In my opinion there are not totally objective advantages to one over the other for medical school preparation for you as an individual. Biochemistry pros include that it is a traditional hard science major and will take you through rigorous versions of each premedical required course, which will prepare you well for medical school. However, this may also be a con because if you are a biochemistry major but not independently truly interested in these sciences, then it is likely you will not enjoy it as much and accordingly may not do as well as majoring in something you truly enjoy.

Public Health is highly relevant for parts of medical school including population health and evaluating many national and international health efforts. However, this similarly may ultimately be a detriment if you have majoring in this to prepare for medical school rather than because you enjoy it.

Currently, medical schools value diversity not only in college majors but in race, background, thought diversity, and all different perspectives. Because of this, you should not feel pushed into one particular major over another and this really comes down to which of these you enjoy more, since you will therefore do better. The pure premed required sciences classes will likely be more difficult as a biochemistry major than public health. One principle to remember is that for the purpose of medical school, since so many thousands of students apply, there are filters applied to applications to "weed out" some. Accordingly, it is always better to have a 4.0 GPA with mostly "easy" courses compared with a 3.4 GPA with the most difficult courses in college. That is not to say taking the more challenging courses isn't overall beneficial in your life, but you will not be rewarded for it in your application unless you too have a 4.0 GPA.

As you allude to at the end of the question, both biochemistry and public health are amenable to other healthcare careers and graduate school paths. If you are considering a career in public health research, this will of course be highly beneficial. Biochemistry will prepare you well for any number of careers in the pharmaceutical industry and many other scientific careers.

Hope this helps!

Midwest recommends the following next steps:

Make a list of pros and cons based on your individual interests
Consider alternate careers in healthcare if you choose not to go to medical school
Map out the coursework pathways of each major and feasibility of switching during different periods of college
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Basel’s Answer

Amanda,

Congratulations on graduating high school and considering the arduous path of becoming a physician.

I read the answers given by the experts before me on this thread and I agree with their advice. I’m going to give you a personal spin on this question.

I was a biochemistry major in college and I did it because I had a passion for chemistry and the inner working of the human body down to the cell level but in my own experience, being a biochemist didn’t impact my ability to gain medical school admission. I found it easier to comprehend/master the first two years of medical school classes (which are medical science and preclinical in nature). So I echo the advice of majoring in something you’re passionate about.

Think about your goal of becoming a physician and if being in public health is important to you then majoring in public health might give you a head start in that career avenue. Think along the lines of doctors who are on the forefront of fighting infectious disease (such as Covid) or setting healthy policy for governments/organizations.

Hope this helps!

Best of luck in all your endeavors! Medicine is a noble and fulfilling profession for most of those who choose it.
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JOHN’s Answer

Hello:

Though not a direct response, this can be thought-provoking in regard to you thinking about your path.

"UC Davis’ admissions office, Dr. Fancher said, doesn’t give more weight to one major or another as long as a student has completed the required prerequisites. “We look for mastery in an area that a student is passionate about,” Dr. Fancher said. “That could be in the study of art or history or science, in participation in college athletics or music or dance, or in making an impact in their community.”

That holistic approach to admissions may have benefits. A December 2018 study published in the journal Medical Education, “Pre‐medical majors in the humanities and social sciences: impact on communication skills and specialty choice,” found that medical students with premedical backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences may be more effective at communicating with patients.".

- https://www.ama-assn.org/medical-students/preparing-medical-school/which-undergrad-majors-are-best-med-school

Also: "Why a shift from the traditional science track to public health and human sciences?

Schools want diversity in their population,” says CPHHS advisor Carey Hilbert. “They like seeing students who aren’t all coming from chemistry, biology and biochemistry. Yes, you need science, but the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) has added new emphasis in psychology, psycho-social dimensions of health and medical ethics.".

- https://synergies.oregonstate.edu/2020/more-pre-med-students-attracted-to-public-health-degrees/

Thankful to your roads.

God Bless,

John German
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Mary Jane’s Answer

Hi Amanda! Congratulations on your high school graduation and admission to college!

You should major in the area that you are most passionate about. Medical schools have absolutely no preference or bias towards undergraduate majors so premedical students can major in any field as long as they complete the prerequisites for medical school. The prereqs vary by school but usually include a year of introductory biology, a year of introductory physics, a year of general chemistry, a year of organic chemistry, some math (often calculus or statistics) and English/writing. The MCAT exam for admission also tests biochemistry, psychology, and sociology so most applicants take some of those courses.

I think both majors have pros and cons when considering the premed track:

> Either major would put you well on the way to completing prerequisites and MCAT courses. You would need to supplement with classes outside the major to fulfill all the requirements with either.
> Both would give you a strong foundation for med school, either in the sciences or in the social and cultural issues that impact health.
> Biochemistry is sometimes thought of as "easier" because you will complete most of the med school prereqs as part of the major, but if you hate being in the lab and love thinking about how systems influence people's behavior and health, public health might be "easier" for you.
> With public health, the community is your "patient" so despite the word "health" in the name, it's not like medicine where you have responsibility for an individual patient. Biochemistry will focus on the internal workings of cells, so at times it might feel far removed from the patient-doctor interaction.
> You might have more opportunities for internships and off-campus study with public health, but that might require you to take some science courses over the summer or take a gap year (which is no big deal to med schools but some students refuse to consider gap years).
> If you don't get into med school, either major has options for graduate degrees. Biochem PhD programs usually include tuition waivers and stipends while MPH programs often are funded with student loans. Both majors have good job prospects after graduation.
> I might recommend someone majoring in public health or a non-science area take a couple of additional upper-level biology courses (something like anatomy, microbiology, immunology) to demonstrate their ability to handle science courses beyond the intro level. I would recommend biochem majors ensure they do enough community service and clinical experience to demonstrate their commitment to improving the lives of others because they tend to focus a lot of time and effort on research.

As an incoming freshman, you have a lot of time to decide on a major. Speaking with your premedical advisor once you are on campus will help you discern the best path forward. I would focus your first year on getting your chemistry sequence started because that's the longest part of the path -- biochem is tested on the MCAT and usually requires a year of organic chem, which often requires a year of gen chem, so you're looking at 2.5-3 years of chemistry before you can begin thinking about applying to med school. If you can also start your biology and/or math in the first year, that would give you more flexibility for timing med school prereqs in the years ahead. Depending on your preparation in high school, it might take you a little longer to get the science and math started, but don't get discouraged if you are on a slightly longer path. Med schools aren't going anywhere and want you to take the time you need to prepare yourself to be the best possible doctor for your future patients!

Good luck and congrats again!
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Pamela’s Answer

Save as much money as possible, med school is expensive. I went to a small liberal arts college with a strong science program and yes I did not have a lot of access to enrichment programs but I still made it.


If you work hard and make good grades and have good tests scores that is the most important thing.

Most universities offer programs for premed students, and you can seek those out.

Also the American Medical
Association has a list of programs for premed students.

I participated in one of those summer programs doing research and that is where I ended up attending medical school.

Good luck things work out the way God intends.
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Sabrina’s Answer

Biochem is better for your circumstances. It will prep you better for the MCAT.
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Gloria’s Answer

Congratulations on graduating! I hope you're excited to start the next chapter of your life. I studied public health and had classes with many people who were pursuing medical school. The biggest benefit to studying public health is having a good understanding of the systemic issues that impact health and people's access to quality health care. It allows you to see the patient through a wider lens and not only based on their health issue. The technical science classes will always be there, but having a public health background will allow you to see beyond the disease and provide support for patients in different valuable ways.
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