It occurs to me that some people might be reading this and scratching their heads, thinking, “What the heck is a postbac? Is she a grad student? A med student? Why does she keep acting like the world as she knows it ended last Monday?”

It’s a fair question. Especially if you consider that a year ago I didn’t even know what a postbac was, or that such a thing even existed. (Back when I was interviewing, the director of one program admitted they had a bit of a problem with exposure. How do you advertise a program with such a small target audience?)

Basically it goes like this: there are people out there, apparently far more than I had ever guessed previous to this venture, who are interested in medicine but who chose to study something other than chemistry and biology in college. There are a lot of reasons for this; perhaps they thought they wanted to do something else in life or didn’t really think they were capable of handling the workload. Perhaps they knew that at eighteen and on their own for the first time, they didn’t want to limit themselves socially by choosing a major that required them to study constantly.

Whatever the reason, these individuals, like me, found themselves with a college degree, a burning passion to practice medicine, and none of the prerequisites that would qualify them to enter medical school.

Enter the postbaccalaureate premedical program (often shorted to postbac because, seriously, who wants to say that mouthful all the time?). These programs are designed for students who already have a degree, but need to take specific science courses to apply to med school.

Officially, the postbac curriculum is as follows:

One academic year of general chemistry (with lab)

One academic year of organic chemistry (with lab)

One academic year of biology (with lab)

One academic year of physics (with lab)

Most postbacs seem to range from one to two years, depending on how rigorous the program (and possibly how much money they think they can wring out of you.) My program is one year long. I take general chemistry and the accompanying lab over the summer. That’s one year of chemistry crammed into about two and a half months. Fall and spring semesters include the rest of the classes and labs, and in my program there is an added pass/fail class where we discuss current topics in healthcare.

It’s basically med school boot camp, and I have been told by more than one person that the experience is actually more challenging than the first year of medical school. The other metaphor attached to both med school and the postbac (I’ve seen it more than one place so I don’t know whom to credit with the phrase) is: “like trying to drink from a firehose.” After one week I can say that this seems an apt description.

In addition, medical programs expect applicants to have actually spent some time working in a medical field. (It’s one thing to understand the concept of science, but it’s quite another to spend your days treating actual human beings with all their eccentricities.) In addition to our studies, the postbacs are expected to volunteer on a semi-regular basis, usually in a hospital or med center, and also to shadow doctors in various specialties to get a feel for what their lives are like. All of this serves the duel purpose of reminding our poor frazzled brains why we signed up for this torture in the first place, and also to show the admissions committees that, no really, we know what we’re getting into and we still want to be doctors.

Ultimately the students who survive the postbac year make up an older, more mature, more definably driven portion of medical school applicants. Not only that, but they often tend to be a more diversified group, as many have already held full-time jobs and earned degrees in a wide variety of subjects. For the most part they are applying to medical school because they want to be doctors, not because it was expected of them by their families. We’re a different breed, possibly one a bit touched in the head, but a determined one nonetheless.