Making a Podcast to Choose a Specialty
Ian Drummond is a rising fourth-year medical student getting his MD-MBA at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. In 2016, he launched a podcast called The Undifferentiated Medical Student, which aims to empower medical students in the process of choosing a medical specialty. For the podcast, he is interviewing one physician from each of the 120+ specialties listed on the American Association of Medical Colleges Careers in Medicine website; he has already published interviews with 64 physicians.
After discovering Ian’s podcast, as a medical student unsure of how to choose my future specialty, I reached out to him to hear what motivated him to start a podcast in medical school, and what it has been like to embark on this creative endeavor.
Vidya: What motivated you to go into medicine as a career? Were you sure about that, or where you “undifferentiated” between many careers?
Ian: Like many others in medicine, I liked science, I liked helping people, and I saw that being part of human relationships was very special and there was a great chance to have those relationships in medicine. Your decisions matter in medicine, you have a lot of responsibility, and I really liked that. And there’s also probably an element of financial security that you’re not allowed to talk about on the interview trail. Before applying to medical school, I was actually playing minor pro ice hockey in Sweden. I remember thinking, as I was playing in this minor league, which was so much fun, that there were a lot of 35-year-olds. I didn’t want to be still playing in the minor leagues when I was 35, even if I was having a blast. I realized that if I didn’t make a decision about the future direction of my life, I could easily spend the next ten years of my life doing something that would have been fun, but ultimately not satisfying.
Vidya: When did you get interested in podcasts?
Ian: I got into listening to podcasts at the beginning of medical school. I got to medical school in 2013, and I quickly realized that I didn’t have a whole lot of free time outside of studying. I found podcasts to be a wonderful way to get an infusion of something that wasn’t medicine, and it went a long way to helping me feel well-rounded about myself and more like a complete person. Especially during studying for Step 1, I was like, “Oh my god, medicine better be what I want to do because I literally have no time to do anything else.” I realized that on the walk to school and back, or when I was making breakfast, or doing the dishes, I could be listening to a podcast while doing those things. I could deep-dive into anything I was interested in, and I think it went a long way in preserving my sanity.
Vidya: What are some of your favorite podcasts?
Ian: I listen to the NPR five-minute newscast every single morning. I listen to the Tim Ferriss show, he calls himself a “professional dilettante” and dabbles in all sorts of random esoteric skills and knowledge, and has interesting conversations with people. The Moth is a good one. There’s also one called The Unmistakable Creative.
Vidya: Are there any medical ones you listen to, or do you stay away, because you get so much of medicine through being in medical school?
Ian: Yeah, very few medical ones. I do have two: one is called The Doctor Paradox, about how people come into medicine really passionate to practice it, and then they burn out. The podcast is an exploration of what physicians do to take back their careers. And then Behind the Knife, which is a surgery podcast. I interviewed the doctors who runs the podcast, he’s here in Cleveland.
Vidya: What made you want to start a podcast? How did you do it?
Ian: The Undifferentiated Medical Student podcast is about choosing a medical specialty and planning a career in medicine. I was struggling with those things. I came in first year not knowing what I wanted to do, and the administration and upperclassmen told me I’d have plenty of time to figure it out during third year. But I got to halfway through third year and was like, I don’t really know what I want to do. I saw a lot of grumpy interns and grumpy attendings. I didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted to do with my life, and so it was kind of a forced stop, to take some time to figure this out. I have this creative streak, and I like podcasts, and so at the end of my third year, in June 2016, I took some time off and started making a podcast. I just looked up how to do it, did YouTube tutorials, and started interviewing people. During that year off, I also worked at a medical device startup.
Vidya: What kind of response did you get when you launched the podcast?
Ian: Not much of a response, initially. It was about 20 downloads a day—it was probably all my mother. I launched in November of 2016, and then slowly the word spread, especially as I amassed more interviews. In January of 2017, I got a big break. I talked to the admissions officer here at Case Western, and he sent out an email to all the admissions officers, and then I went from 50 listens a day to 1,000 a day, and that was the beginning. Now the podcast has about 300,000 downloads.
Vidya: Has this process helped you choose a specialty? Are you still undifferentiated, or leaning towards something now?
Ian: I think I am finally starting to differentiate. I started out thinking Orthopedic Surgery, then I was like, maybe Internal Medicine, but it’s completely different. Then I discovered Med-Peds. Then I thought, if I like adults and kids, and I really enjoyed my Ob-Gyn rotation and my Psych rotation, why not Family Medicine? Then I realized that I like the inpatient setting better. Not even Med-Peds felt totally right, though, and I enjoyed my Surgery rotation but not that much—I really realized you had to love the operating room. I liked the OR, it was a happening place, and that’s where Anesthesiology came into the fold. They aren’t tied to the OR, like surgeons are, but they get to do procedures, and I realized that there’s a lot of medicine in Anesthesiology. I liked kids, and wanted to be sure that was part of my process, so I have ended up on pursuing a combined Pediatric-Anesthesiology residency.
Vidya: Did making the podcast, or any of the podcast interviews, help with that decision?
Ian: You know what, it did. I was editing episode 34, anesthesiology with Dr. Daniel Lee, he’s the program director at UC San Diego. At one point he was like, “Hey Ian, I want to make sure to mention the combined programs.” And I didn’t really hear him say it during the interview; I registered it, but I was thinking about my next question so I wasn’t contemplating it as deeply as when I was editing the audio. There was a light bulb moment and it was the first time in all of medical school that I actually started thinking about what I have to do to look good in the eyes of residencies. This was the first time I was forward-looking, and not just stuck in place. Another thing he said was that because you have this wide scope of practice in Anesthesiology, working with kids, adults, medicine, procedures, and context switching from the wards to the OR, you become an expert in two spheres of the hospital. This gives you a better idea of how hospitals function in general, which lends itself to eventually being a dean of students or being in management. That’s kind of where the MBA comes into the picture.