words by Eve Jacobs / photograph by Pete Byron
t’s September 2007 and John Schiltz can say he’s finally arrived, or is very close to it — this after almost 18 years in the hallowed halls of higher education, he tells me with a wry smile. A highly educated, youngish father of three (all under age 5) with a twinkle in his eye, he is finishing the second and final year of a fellowship and is beginning to look for work — not a problem, he says, because the need for child psychiatrists is huge.
Many roads lead to Rome, and Schiltz chose one of the longer routes, but he’s not sorry. Always interested in science, and the son of a PhD in biochemistry, he never questioned that a laboratory would be his second home. A 1994 Rutgers graduate in physics and biochemistry, he loved his college career, including going to football games, and planned to continue on to a PhD in the sciences. “It was not in my original plan to do medicine,” he says.
But a suggestion to apply for an MD/PhD program made sense to him, so Schiltz took the MCATs (medical school admission tests) on a whim. On a practice test just the day before, “I got a 3,” he says laughing. (For those not familiar with the scoring, this one is exceptionally low.)
Obviously, when push came to shove, he made the grade — scoring a 35 on the MCATs, an exceptionally high score, putting him in the running for the country’s top programs — but applied so late in his junior year that Harvard and Washington University asked him to reconsider applying the following year. He didn’t take their advice.
“I’m the luckiest man alive,” he contends. He applied “next door”— to UMDNJ — and was accepted into the MD/PhD program.
“I thought research would be my job and the medical degree would be the foundation for my work,” he explains. “Actual doctoring hadn’t entered into it.”
His first two years in the MD program at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) were followed by five years getting his PhD (in the UMDNJ Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences). “I started thinking that whatever I do research-wise has to make sense clinically. Physics was not in the picture anymore,” he says. “There is so much to do to understand the human body. I was no longer as interested in relativity or subatomic space.”
He studied mouse development in the laboratory of Kiran Chada, PhD, RWJMS professor of biochemistry, working with transgenic and knockout mice, “a powerful tool in genetic research,” he states. “I was looking for my area of interest and came out thinking it might be cancer.”
When he returned to finish medical school, his mindset had changed. “I felt significantly different. My friends were chief residents by then, and I was not young and naïve anymore. It was a big adjustment,” he remembers.
He surprised himself by his reactions to the clinical rotations he did during that third medical school year. Schiltz didn’t like internal medicine as much as he expected, but did like obstetrics and surgery. He found pediatrics exhausting, but enjoyed it the most. (“I didn’t mind getting up in the middle of the night for a child,” he says.) But when he got to psychiatry, which he didn’t expect to like, “I had a fun fun time,” he says. “I need variety and psych filled the bill, but I still had no plans to do this professionally.”
But sometime in the hectic days of the end of that year, he stopped to ask himself an important question: “What makes me happiest?”
And answered: “I enjoy talking with people. I enjoy getting to know them. I love getting to know about the stuff that matters to people most….the stuff that’s going on in their brains and I enjoy helping them.” So he started reconsidering his career choice. “What do I want to know in 50 years?” he finally asked himself. “I want to be up-to-date with, and advance the state of, our understanding of the mind before I die. That is much more interesting to me than antibiotics or cancer. It’s what I lie in bed at night wondering about.”
So he started a psychiatry residency at RWJMS in 2003, which he greatly enjoyed, and is now in the second year of a two-year fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry. “I want to understand how and why kids behave the way they do, and I would sure like to do all I can to help them,” he says.
So far, the fellowship has been all that he had hoped for, giving him a wide range of experiences in his specialty, including six months on the inpatient unit at UMDNJ-University Behavioral HealthCare (UBHC) on the Piscataway campus, three months at Princeton House working with substance abuse patients, and three months in children’s crisis intervention and as consult liaison at the new Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. He is pleased to find he enjoys providing psychotherapy as much as working with complicated psychopharmacology cases.
In the first months of the second year of his fellowship, he is truly enjoying the variety of experiences, spending a half day each week at multiple sites. His experiences this year include: the Pediatric Psychopharmacology Clinic; the BRIDGE program in South Brunswick’s middle and high schools; the Early Adolescent Therapeutic Day School; the eating disorders unit at Somerset Medical Center; the UBHC outpatient office in Monmouth Junction; the autism clinic at UBHC; and the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, as well as seeing psychotherapy patients in his own office. He also moonlights several hours a week in a private practice “to get more experience.”
“Psychiatrists are needed everywhere, but child psychiatrists are really needed,” he states. “I’m already getting bombarded with job opportunities, which is a good thing.”
While 18 years may seem (to some) like an inordinate amount of time to invest in preparing for a career, Schiltz has no regrets: “I zigzagged a bit, but I found the right place. I can’t imagine getting better training or picking a better career. Choosing my career was a daunting decision but I’ve never looked back.”