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About Heather T. Whittaker

Heather T. Whittaker is a fourth-year MD PhD student at McGill University, where she is researching the effects of noninvasive brain stimulation on memory processes as a therapeutic approach for people with neurocognitive decline. She previously studied at the University of Winnipeg (BS in biopsychology) and University College London (MS in clinical neuroscience).


Congratulations, you’ve turned the page to a new chapter of your life—the beginning of your training as a physician-scientist! The corresponding chapter of this book is meant to help you orient yourself amidst all of the excitement and the uncertainty of beginning medical school and chart a course for the long journey ahead. Maybe you already have a concrete plan for the next 8 years of school before residency. For that, I admire you. Maybe you tend to take things one step at a time and, like me, are wondering how to shift your focus now that you’ve gained acceptance to your dream program. Whoever you are, now is a good time to pause and reflect on your accomplishments, evaluate your goals, and most importantly, celebrate.

You’ve worked long and hard to get to this point, to be selected amongst thousands of highly qualified applicants and earn a place in your program. This achievement cannot be understated and should not be downplayed. Relish the feeling that your future as a physician-scientist is now more tangible than ever. Becoming an MD-PhD trainee brings both a well-deserved sense of security and the humbling knowledge that ever-greater challenges lie on the horizon. Life may not get any easier from here on, but it will hopefully become more rewarding as you develop your dual career and begin to apply your knowledge and skills to improve patient care. It will be critical to your well-being and success that you learn to pace yourself. In moments of uncertainty, remember how you felt reading Chapter 1 (“Is the MD-PhD Path Right for You?”) of this book, and be reassured that you are in a supportive program that exists to help you flourish.


  • Get to know your classmates and surround yourself with supportive people.

  • Consider altering your study strategy and expectations for exams.

  • Say yes to learning opportunities and keep an open mind about what interests you.

  • Search for a career mentor who inspires you professionally and personally.

  • Focus on establishing and maintaining healthy habits in your personal life.

Building a Network

The single best piece of advice I can give to first-year medical students is to spend more time getting to know your classmates and less time comparing yourself to them. These two deceptively simple objectives will enhance both your professional and personal growth. The benefits of making strong connections with classmates extend beyond your social fulfillment; these people will be your support network ...

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