First Term of Medical School

Fall 2012 at National College of Natural Medicine (NCNM) where I was enrolled as a first year ND (Naturopathic Doctorate) and MSOM (Masters of Science in Oriental Medicine) student.  Unfortunately, ‘Dual Degree’ students, as they are called, do not get any MSOM classes until their Spring Term during the first year.  So this summary is on the ND classes only.

Overall Summary:  The common euphemism for medical school is that “It’s like drinking from a fire hose”.  That is to say, that there is so much information coming at you, so fast, that it’s hard to catch and retain any of it.  While it does feel like a fire hose of information – you are expected to retain ALL of it – at least until the next exam.  (Luckily, at NCNM, most of the exams are not cumulative).  In some cases, you are given only the highlights of topics and have to go fill in the details (which are necessary to pass the exam) from a book you might buy, the internet, or hopefully, pulling from the pre-reqs you took.

What’s nice is that the classes start to overlap.  Anatomy and Organ Systems.  Biochemistry examples and Organ Systems.  Clinical Correlates case studies and Organ Systems, etc.  Even during the first term you start to see that the information isn’t endless – the body only has so many parts and so many key processes.  Learn those and you can start applying future classes to that base knowledge.

Words of Wisdom:  Take as many courses as you can before you start medical school – not just the ones required to attend the school, but the ‘Suggested’ courses too.  Take lots of physiology and anatomy.  I didn’t have any.  Every class has these subjects as their basis, even if it’s just in the use of examples.  Even though you might take these courses you will still  find the curriculum challenging.  Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Organic Chem., BioChemistry are all necessary as well. These concepts are assumed to be in the forefront of your mind (luckily for me that was the case).  The medical courses take off from there.  Get a ‘private’ tutor immediately – these are upper classmen on Work Study.  An hour of their insight can save you 3 hours of trying to decipher Power Point slides.  And it gives you unparalleled access to the type of questions that will be on exams.

My experience:  I am 41 years old.  I have a Bachelors Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan.  I have an MBA from my time at General Electric, from a program they have with Marquette University.  I am an overachiever.  I took every course at GE I could – including their intensive Statistics Training called “Six Sigma”.  I learn fast and I’m into details.  None-the-less, this curriculum required 110% of my time.  Finding time to eat or exercise was nearly impossible.  If you get sick or have to attend to personal business, nothing slows down, sure you can ‘make up’ exams – but when?  It’s like you fell off of a train going 80 miles an hour and now you have to run to catch up.  It may sound like I’m being overly dramatic, but I’m not, you’ll see.

I had another 40 year old tell me it was like a 9-5 job and she didn’t study evenings or weekends.  She must have taken all the classes before she got here.  I don’t see any way to pass the tests unless you are studying in between classes, at night, and at least one and a half days on the weekend.  It’s just too fast, you are in class too many hours, and the level of detail required on the exams is too in-depth.  I have always been a B+/A- student.  For the pre-reqs I was an A+ student.  At NCNM it’s Pass/Fail but you still know your percentage:  mine was 60-80%.  Passing is 70%.

I found the information extremely interesting.  And it would be great to slow down a bit and absorb it.  But there is so much being crammed into the 4 years to prepare for the State Board Licensing Exams that slowing down is not possible.  And this is how MD medical schools are too.  How are any of the schools turning out decent Doctors?  The 4 year curriculum is ridiculous.  And yes, it’s doable (but at what cost to your personal health?), so the pace continues.  At least at NCNM the Administration knows how hard it is and offer alternatives.  They offer 4 year ND because all the other ND schools do too.  And ND schools offer it because MD schools do it in 4 years.  At NCNM there is an established 5 year track and some students take even longer.  Don’t worry, the 5 year track will still be challenging – do yourself a favor and start in that.  I’ve heard many students call the 5 year ‘The Happy Track’.


Organ Systems

This is the bulk of the first year classes.  Extreme detail of body organs and how they work is taught.  Very interesting – to a point.  And then your mind says – really? I need to know these minute details?  Yes, you do for the test.


This is the little brother of Organ Systems.  Just as much detail is required, but the amount of material is less.  It’s really challenging for non-science majors.  Only the highlights are given and you have to go find resources to teach yourself the material.

Anatomy – 

If this is your first exposure to anatomy and physiology you have a LOT of memorizing to do.  The professors are so flexible at NCNM that they don’t require a text book.  This was NOT beneficial for me since I hadn’t had anatomy before.  Get one of the recommended texts ASAP and start memorizing.  I found ‘Clinically Oriented Anatomy‘ by Keith Moore, et. al. to be great – it has drawings, real cadaver photos and x-rays….all of which you will need to know.

The ND Professors – 

The professors of these main classes are excellent.  They know their subject area extremely well, try to keep up with the latest developments, and aren’t afraid to tell you when they don’t know something.  They are more dedicated to the students and more personable than most college professors at the three other colleges I’ve attended.

NOTE:  As of 2013 the ND Curriculum at NCNM is going through a review and will be changed.  Check out their website or call the Admissions Counselors for more information.

10 thoughts on “First Term of Medical School

  1. Hi Amy thank you so much for posting this. As someone who is considering attending and is very torn this insight is invaluable. I am glad you are enjoying yourself and it sounds as if you are doing an excellent job. Are you no longer in the ND program, just the MSoM? Are you still going to be able to practice as a medical doctor? Do you plan to stay in Portland? Is the Portland market saturated, in your opinion (with NDs and natural health people)? What do you think of the new masters in nutrition? Have you heard that they will have an MA in global public health? Sorry for all of the questions, but I would really appreciate your input!! My main concern with NCNM is the debt load, as you can imagine. I read that NDs only make about 30-40k the first year. Of course the landscape is changing and natural health in general is becoming more prevalent. AND I don’t want you to think I am money oriented that is not the case, I just fear being in a bad position financially, with lots of debt to worry about. I wonder if I should simply stick to practicing as a Master Herbalist and Certified Nutritionist (two credentials I am currently working towards). Then again, NCNM sounds amazing — if incredibly intense. Thank you again for your insights.

    • I understand you completely…but although i am not even close to where you are at (i am still earning my bachelors degree!) i think you should go for your gut. No joke. And if the opportunity to go to NCNM is right, and/or your life seems to give you subtle hints that take you on that direction then by all means listen! On the other hand you have a good point: what is said earlier could also apply to your other dilemma (working with what you’ve got)-technically you could do very well with your credentials in the future (hopefully/knock on wood). Good luck though!:)

    • To answer the questions above: This post was on the ND classes only, which I took for 8 weeks. I then realized with all the energy work I was doing that I would not need all this information to help my patients. So I switched to just MSOM, which is the curriculum I’m in now. No, I will not be practicing as a medical doctor or naturopathic doctor….I will have my License in Acupuncture and I plan on getting the Doctorate in Chinese Medicine that NCNM will offer soon. Yes NCNM has a Masters in Nutrition and will offer a Masters in Global Health soon; I don’t know anything about either of these programs. Surprisingly Portland isn’t saturated with natural health people….there are lots of people in Portland that don’t know what alternative medicine even is! I saw some stats. that put NDs average salary 5 years out at $80k and most of them were working less than 5 days a week! The loans can be repaid based on your current income, the amount changing as you earn more….so no worries about defaulting or not having any money of your own. If you are earning $0 then you pay $0 on your loan(s). There is also a shortage of doctors, especially family/general physicians in the USA, so I can not imagine you running out of ‘customers’, i.e. patients. (Note: I also wrote this person back personally, so this is just a bare bones answer to the questions for continuity sake on the blog).

  2. Hello Amy,
    Hang in there! You have helped me get a much clearer view of NCNM and its intensity with this post so thank you!!! I had a couple of ?s myself: 1. Can you switch from a 4 year track to a 5 year track if it gets as intense as you say it will? 2. Although it may sound corny considering that i am only 19, i do plan on getting married one day, but after reading what you are going through it seems very stressful balancing “it all”, as in children and a hubby…how are you holding up, if i may ask? Gosh, i didn’t know that graduate school was so expensive! Anyway, thank you and good luck on your quest (and continue to post please:)

    • Hi Abraham, Thank you for all your comments! I’m glad you find the blog helpful 🙂
      1. Yes you can switch tracks either way from 4 to 5 year or from 5 year to 4 year. Do yourself a favor and start out in the 5 year, then if you are bored you can switch to four year the next term.
      2. Having a life while in medical school….the administration has made comments that students with significant others and/or families do better overall in school. It allows more of a balance in your life – you are forced to focus on more than just medical school! And an administrator also commented that the students who have a partner that is working/making money while the student goes to school also fair better in their relationships. A lot less stress that way I suppose.
      3. I’m doing well with family-school balance. Although my extended family suffers a bit since I have no time to call or visit them. My husband and kids are being amazing and so supportive of me going to school.

      • Thank you for the advice…I wish you the best of luck! I will continue to check up on your journey, and get some inspiration from you lol. Take care.

  3. Hi Amy, stumbled upon your blog after looking up reviews between Bastyr and NCNM (previous blog post of yours). I recently interviewed for fall entrance into the dual ND/MSOM at both NCNM and Bastyr. My initial assessment of both schools was pretty much the same as yours, even more so after interviewing at both places. Although I understand you switched fully over to MSOM (and soon to be Doctorate)…. Do you find your initial perception of the school still holds true? I hate to judge a school based on a few bad days but NCNM comparatively seemed very professional, intentional, and like they placed high value on academics and you as an individual rather than a number.

  4. Hi Amy! What was your schedule like as a ND student? How many hours a week were you in class/studying? Thanks so much!! 🙂

    • I feel the above post covers this question well, but if you want actual numbers I would say about 30 hours of class time per week; and I needed another 30hours of study time.

  5. Amy, thank you so much for writing this blog! I’m working on my prerequisite classes now, and it can be hard to connect with other naturopathic students to find out what school will be like once I start. After reading your posts, I’m very excited and confident that this is the right path for me. I’m currently planning on applying to both SCNM and NCNM and it seems that loans cover housing for SCNM but not NCNM. From what you say it seems that having a part time job would be out of the question, but if so, how do students afford housing? Personal loans? Any insights would be appreciated! I plan on calling NCNM and finding out more details on financial aid tomorrow 🙂

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