I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

Dropping Out

By Tim Currier

A waiting room. House plants in need of watering, stacks of two year-old magazines, water cooler in the corner. Clock ticking furiously on the wall. Why are waiting room clocks always so loud? A middle-aged woman with soft features and reddish-brown hair pokes her head out of an office door.

“Tim?” she asks.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I say, rising from my seat.

“OK, just one more minute, please.”

I sit back down as she closes the door. The placard on it reads “Jane Hanscom1, CSW.” A stack of pamphlets on the table next to me details steps to take when you feel like killing yourself. This doesn’t feel right.

“Come on in, Tim.”

In her office, I reseat myself in one of those overtly comfortable therapist’s office chairs. Jane grabs a notepad and seats herself across from me, legs crossed. Sunlight streams in through the window behind her.

“Tell me a bit about yourself.”

She knows I’m here because I feel like garbage. Can’t focus on my school work, no interest in socializing. Can’t fall asleep at night and can’t wake up in the morning. I’m depressed, and we both know it. But I tell her a bit about myself. I’m an only child of divorced parents. Two half brothers on my father’s side. Catholic high school, small liberal arts college in upstate New York. Privileged. Sheltered.

I tell her about how I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was 16. Back then I did a summer internship in a cardiovascular research lab, and my supervisors were some truly amazing MDs. As if to reaffirm my childhood dream, college professors would often tell me, “You’ll make a great doctor one day.” And now I’m a medical student. I’m fulfilling my dream. What’s wrong with me?

“How long have you been feeling this way, Tim?” She uses my name a lot. Probably some psycho-nonsense.

“Four months, give or take.” I’ve been a medical student for 5 months.

“It sounds like you’re having a tough time,” she says in a light tone. “Depression can be really hard to deal with, but fortunately there are many treatment options.”

She suggests medication. This doesn’t feel right.

“The truth is I just don’t fit in at med school.” How do I get people to understand? “I’m definitely interested in what we’re being taught. Actually really interested. My roommates say I’m too interested, whatever that means. But I waste hours and hours digging too deeply into the material. When a professor says, ‘The kidneys do X, Y, and Z,’ all I can think about is ‘how do we know that?!’ And down the rabbit hole I go.”

My grades have been slipping since the first month of classes, but I can no longer muster the energy to care. Jane asks me if I can’t just tone down my curiosity and focus on what I need to do. It’s a familiar refrain. My parents, friends, classmates, and professors have told me the same thing. But it doesn’t feel right.

We agree on a prescription. It’ll start working in six to eight weeks. Great.

***

Two months later, I’m back. House plants in need of watering, stack of two year-old magazines, water cooler in the corner. That damn clock is a hammer beating time into a bloody mess. The pamphlets haven’t been touched. Seriously, who is going to sit there, publicly reading about suicide?

“Come on in, Tim.”

Do therapists actually believe that a comfortable chair will make a difference?

“The medicine isn’t working.”

She asks me to explain.

“I’m a successful, young, white male. I’m being trained for a noble and prestigious profession. I’ve got no reason to feel like I do. I can’t relate to my peers or my professors. They’re so devoted, so determined. I’m not. Medical school was a mistake.”

I make a decision. I tell Jane that I need to leave medical school. A frown creases her soft features. But in this instant of simply letting go, leaving medical school couldn’t be more obvious.

“Since interning with the cardiovascular research lab, I’ve worked for five different scientists. Every experience was overwhelmingly positive. I love sifting through data, digging endlessly for answers. I live for that moment of discovery; when you’re the first and only person in the world who knows what you just learned. And I took it all as reinforcing my dream of being a doctor, thinking it meant I would love being a physician…”

But no, it meant I would love being a scientist.

 


1Not her real name.

 

Tim Currier is a graduate student studying neuroscience at New York University. He was enrolled in the University of Massachusetts’ Medical School for nine months before dropping out.

 
Illustration by Angelika Manhart