Here’s the personal statement I used for my psychiatry residency application (continued from How to Apply to Residency in Psychiatry):
I came to the field of psychiatry circuitously. For almost as long as I wanted to pursue medicine, I thought my future would be in surgery. At an early age, I remember visiting my mother’s laboratory, where she worked as a neuropathologist, and helping her dissect neurological tissue under the microscope. I would sit with her, mesmerized, gently teasing tissue off a monkey spinal cord with the delicate instruments, and imagining a future using similar tools to manipulate tissues and heal illnesses of the body. But while I believed that my future path was in surgery, I naturally gravitated toward the study of the human mind and behavior.
My father is a psychiatrist, and between him and my mother, the dynamic between the mind and brain were always topics of conversation at the dinner table. Partially because of their influence, and largely because of my own inclination and interest, I have always been driven to understand not only the “how” of thought processes and interpersonal interaction, but the “why”. Why do some minds create happiness, and others suffering, in the face of the same external circumstances? How do our internal states transform our external experiences? To what extent are these habits and predispositions fixed, and to what degree can they be reconstructed to improve our relationship with the external world and with ourselves?
When I entered college, instead of focusing on a basic science such as biology or chemistry like many of my pre-med colleagues, I was drawn to the study of psychology. It was here that I first began to investigate the more mysterious aspects of the human mind, and learned the ways the mind and brain can act unpredictably and destructively. I was fascinated by the complex psychopathologies of mental illness and motivated to understand the anatomical and biological basis of psychiatric disorders. I was struck by the realization that often our own mental processes, in trying to alleviate suffering, would instead create it.
When I graduated, I decided to further investigate these ideas in a research context. I joined the Department of Psychiatry at Stanford University and delved into the study of the relationship between stress, cortisol levels, APOE genotype and cognitive decline in older adults. I found the subject matter challenging and stimulating, and loved the excitement of discovering something new and contributing to the fund of knowledge available to all clinicians and practitioners. But when I entered medical school, I was drawn back toward the surgical specialties. I appreciated the technical aspects of surgery, the almost artistic nature of the field, and the dedicated, conscientious and disciplined nature of the surgeons. I focused on urology as a subspecialty, and directed the same interest that led me to pursue research at Stanford to a project at the USC/Norris Cancer Center investigating comparative pathological findings in men who underwent prostate biopsy and subsequent radical prostatectomy.
I began my third year surgery rotation excited to finally put into practice what I had studied from a theoretical perspective for so long. But instead of dreaming of spending time in the OR, I would look forward to clinic days, where I could sit across from patients about to have surgery, or recovering from a recent operation, and listen attentively as they told stories of fear, sadness and apprehension. I learned how underlying anxiety or distress could manifest as subtle physical complaints, such as pain or insomnia. I began to appreciate how mental states could influence a patient’s interpretation of his or her illness, and either aggravate or mitigate the suffering the patient felt in the face of the same degree of pain. I learned that by simply being attentive and mindful, I could demonstrate my empathy and concern, and show these patients they were not alone in the process.
Physicians in both surgery and psychiatry share a profoundly intimate role in the patient’s life. As a surgeon plunges into the body to heal with a scalpel, a psychiatrist plunges into the mind to heal with a few well-chosen words, an empathetic nod, or medications that modulate the neurochemistry of the brain. My subsequent third and fourth year psychiatry rotations have confirmed that my passion lies in alleviating suffering through reconstructing the mind, rather than in fixing the mechanics of the body. I look forward to developing the skills to transform both the mind and brain to serve my patients in a meaningful way, and am enthusiastic to combine my interest in clinical practice with my passion for academic research to create a fulfilling career in psychiatry.