Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Disclosure of the Self in the Personal Statement

Amber Dunbar, Ph.D.

“Do you think I should mention my recovery in my personal statement?” I was an MS1 wandering the halls of Dell Medical School when I received this text from a friend I met a decade ago back in my Stanford University days. We’d first met in our dorm, then at an alcohol-filled undergrad party, and then again, months later, at a 12-step meeting. Neither of us would have thought that we’d one day both have 9 years in recovery from alcohol and drugs and that we would one day both be student doctors.

But the truth is, I didn’t know what advice to give my friend at the time. To disclose or not to disclose–that is the question. What a risk it is to put oneself on the line, to let oneself hang vulnerable to the judgment of others who decide our fate. But what a burden it is, what shame it can bring, when forced to conceal such a singularly formative chapter of our story, such an integral part of ourselves, especially in an essay that by definition requires talking about who we are and what motivated us to apply to medical school.

Yes, I did choose to include a nod to my recovery in my personal statement, but mainly because it helped explain a few failing grades on my transcript, why I left Stanford after only two years. And after 7 years sober at that time and with a PhD in Psychology from Yale University, I thought that the admissions committee would be less likely to judge me a risk to their program. But what about the person with 1 year in recovery? 2 years? What about the student with mental illness? Does one need to spend 6 years in graduate school to prove their capability? Where is the line drawn for what the academic medical profession deems is “acceptable?”

We bring our histories with us into medical school and into the medical profession. Every step of the way, our histories inform us. Read by the wrong eyes, the history written in a personal statement could very well hurt an application. But histories can help, too. For me, my history was integral in my transition from helping myself to helping others. During my 2 years at Stanford, I studied international relations with dreams of traveling the world. But once I became sober and returned to undergrad at the University of Houston, I quickly changed my major to psychology so that I could better understand human behavior, why someone like me, with so much to lose, could become a slave to a dangerous chemical. My psychology classes led me to a lab studying the neurobiology of binge alcohol drinking, which later led me to my PhD thesis investigating potential translational treatments for addiction.

During my medical school interviews, several interviewers did ask me about my recovery. But none of them wanted to know the unsettling details of the past; rather, they were interested in better understanding my story. They asked me about my recovery with sincere interest, with compassion, with curiosity. I understand enough to know that behind closed doors some individuals at some universities likely viewed my past as a liability, but during my application and interview process, not once did I feel judged, shamed, or patronized. And now, as an MS2, I don’t have to portray myself as something I am not. Better still, my experience can benefit others, students and staff alike, who may have a friend or colleague struggling with issues similar to mine.

Today, I would answer my friend’s question with a resounding “yes.”  I would tell this friend to share their story proudly, without shame, knowing that it will bring him to a school that will be the right fit for him. Finding a medical school that accepts my history as a virtue is a medical school of which I am proud to be a part, and I hope my friend finds the same.

About Amber Dunbar, Ph.D.

Amber Dunbar is a medical student in the inaugural class at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin and will be graduating in 2020. Amber has a Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale University and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Houston, near her hometown of Sugar Land, TX. Amber is passionate about providing medical and mental health care to underserved populations. She has served as a director for two student-run free clinics, HAVEN Free Clinic in New Haven, CT, and C.D. Doyle Clinic in Austin, TX. She has also been and editor for the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine and the Journal of Student-Run Clinics. In her free time, Amber loves kayaking, camping, and hanging out with her two dogs.

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