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The Scariest Med Student of All

NewannaAnna Burkhead -- We’ve all seen them. Lurking in the library. Buying residents’ coffee. Offering to do extra presentations or talks.

You know those med students I’m talking about.

The Gunners. Every med school class has them. Usually there are multiple Gunners to a class. Being a Gunner isn’t necessarily all bad, all the time. In fact, some people take it as a compliment, meaning they’ll go the “extra mile” to learn.

But it doesn’t stop there. There exists something much more evil and far more frightening. The evil med student archetype that you may not know about, though nearly every class has one, is The Gunner’s more extreme counterpart, The Sniper.

Being a Sniper is different. It’s all bad, all the time. The term itself is relatively new, occupying the extreme end of the med school overachievement spectrum. While a Gunner is aggressive, a Sniper is malicious. While a Gunner shows off, a Sniper puts you down. Next to the guy who coughs in your face every morning during Pediatrics, a Sniper is the last person you want to do a rotation with.

A few comparisons:

-GUNNER: Reads. A lot.

-SNIPER: Checks out all four library copies of the “suggested” textbook for your rotation.

-GUNNER: Puts his pager number at the top of the list on any given service.

-SNIPER: Creates the pager list on any given service, and accidentally mistypes the pager numbers for the other two medical students.

-GUNNER: Suggests during rounds that perhaps he could give a short presentation on Disease X, prompting you to follow with “And I can present Disease Y.”

-SNIPER: Approaches the attending after rounds to offer a similar presentation, and then surprises you by doing said presentation the next day, while you remain presentation-less and lazy-looking.

-GUNNER: Finds obscure online resources and/or notes from previous classes, posts 20 links to online forum under the heading “FYI”.

-SNIPER: Finds online resources and notes, denies having any study materials when asked by a classmate in need.

Unfortunately for them and for all the hard work they put into their craft, being a Gunner or a Sniper can backfire. (You get it? A Gunner/Sniper backfiring? Haha. Ok.) Residents and attendings often see right through the aggressive attitude, and some don’t like it.

I’ve had classes with many a Gunner, and rotations with a few, and been called one myself. I don’t think I’ve ever made direct contact with a Sniper (although part of their sneakiness lies in their non-identification). They can be hard to spot. Beware!

If anyone out there has had a run-in with a Sniper, or a particularly bad experience with a Gunner, do share!

June 12, 2008 in Anna Burkhead | Permalink


I was on the same inpatient medicine team as a sniper, and boy did she make me look bad. The attending LOVED her, and gradually found ways to publicly offer 'suggestions' to me like, "you should consider an approach like student doctor sniper." My experiences were akin to these two situations:

-SNIPER: Approaches the attending after rounds to offer a presentation, and then surprises you by doing said presentation the next day, while you remain lazy-looking.

-SNIPER: Finds online resources and notes, denies having any study materials when asked by a classmate in need.

I can squarely blame student doctor sniper for the single "Pass" (our lowest non-failing grade) evaluation. Snipers make me embarrassed for medical studenthood.

Posted by: thomas | Jun 15, 2008 12:38:43 PM

Thanks for dissecting the vicious underbelly of the overachievement spectrum. I have only heard rumors of the infamous Sniper beast--never a face-to-face encounter. However, as you said, they may be lurking around me at this very moment...

Posted by: | Jun 17, 2008 2:53:05 PM

Don't get too upset about "snipers." Only a bad attending would directly compare you to another person on the same rotation at the same time. I hope most attendings have been around long enough to know the difference between a an average student and an overachiever (and maybe even a sniper?).

Posted by: T | Jun 17, 2008 2:57:19 PM

Interesting...we've always used the "sniper" term at my school to mean the person who does all their gunning in secret. While the gunner will brag about the time they spent over the weekend at the Library, the Sniper would try to tell you about how wasted they got Friday night and how they didn't do anything on Saturday and how far behind they were, when in all actuality they spent 20+ hours hitting the books. Usually they have some far off study location and are discovered only by some random chance encounter. Our definition is as such, much more benign than yours.

Posted by: G-off | Jun 17, 2008 3:02:43 PM

Gunner: Stays on campus past midnight and when the cleaning crew comes in discretely obtains access to copy room where they obtain copies of the next day exam by going through the recycled white paper can for discarded copies.
Sniper: Marries a security guard who guards the copy room and obtains every exam through covert operations by the guard, and then disses the guard after graduation.

Posted by: mikaellangner | Jun 17, 2008 3:06:04 PM

Interesting. Now let's delve into provenance: how many 'snippers' come from undergrad bio departments? From art or lit. backgrounds? Don't be coy, or worried about statistics here; do you think you see some sort of phylogenetic trend, a rapacious Darwinian drive in some of the carnivores out there?

Posted by: WB | Jun 17, 2008 3:07:53 PM

Interesting... and FYI (Ha Ha) they exist in Nursing and PRE-nursing programs as well.... Believe me, I have come into contact with both the Gunner and Sniper in my program. Regarding the comment Thomas made, "I was on the same inpatient medicine team as a sniper, and boy did she make me look bad." I think that the main goal, aside from being an "insane" overachiever is to do just that, make the others look bad!

Posted by: Sarah E. | Jun 17, 2008 3:14:10 PM

How about the malicious biochem Ph.D. sniper who gives other students wrong information? I witnessed this right before a biochem exam where said sniper was "helpfully" dispensing tips that were obviously wrong - when I tried to correct him I was given strange looks of trying to discredit a PhD. The same sniper would also call himself Dr. while on the floors 2 years later, confusing nurses as to who was the resident, and who was a medical student.

Posted by: | Jun 17, 2008 3:17:51 PM

A group of students in my class created a gmail account to share documents. While studying for boards they thought that they'd share it with the rest of the class...within thirty minutes of the class email being sent out the password was changed. Thankfully google was willing to reset the password. It doesn't get much lower than that.

Posted by: Tim | Jun 17, 2008 3:38:30 PM

Medicine would be better if gunners and snipers were eliminated from the profession. They usually don't make the best doctors, per patient reports. Who cares if they're smart. Programmers who write computer viruses are smart too, but they're just parasites on those who are just trying to accomplish something worthwhile.

Posted by: | Jun 17, 2008 3:53:49 PM

Seems like bizarre use of language, sort of the opposite of what they represent elsewhere, where a gunner 'sprays and prays' without regard to backstop and a sniper has to worry about where that projectile will eventually find its terminal rest long before it even considers bending a finger into the trigger guard.

I suppose then an 'officer' is someone who doesn't bother studying at all and goes straight up the administrative chain, perhaps a 'tanker' is someone who drinks from a large cup while simultaneously giving a very important lecture. I wonder if special forces guys call 'interns' people who wear bright easily targeted clothing , and 'doctors' folks who hold fast to diplomacy and prayer in the middle of a firefight. This foreign language stuff is harder than I thought.

Posted by: pmv | Jun 17, 2008 4:05:40 PM

Usually one can tell if the person in question is mean. Gunners who are nice people are probably harmless. Anyone who has ethical problems and a mean attitude is someone to be wary of no matter what their position.

Posted by: ZB | Jun 17, 2008 5:16:32 PM

I have a Gunner friend who stresses me out by pulling out notes and books to read during a regular, relaxing lunch hour. As a 1st-Yr medical student, she attends the Orthopaedic grand rounds every Friday morning and carries a pocketbook about trauma injuries. She's always hoping that the attending would pick her to ask her questions. She's a hardcore "I want to be an Ortho" person and nothing much else.
Strangely, I've so far outdone her in every class and in just about every exams by a good margin. LOL.

Posted by: vince | Jun 17, 2008 5:21:52 PM

I think your use of the term Sniper describes behavior that has historically been covered under the umbrella of 'gunner'. Over-achievers are the kind who study long and hard and might brag, but gunners are the ones who will subvert you. 'Sniper' is then in a sense, redundant. Like all slang, however, there are regional differences. At my school, gunners are the subversive, nasty overachievers. I don't personally know any, though the law of averages dictates there should be one or two.

Posted by: GG | Jun 17, 2008 5:49:35 PM

This is type "A" personality disorder; there will always be a proportion of any population who are blind to the fact that they are part of a community. I have only known one person like this in my class, and I have made every attempt to avoid him. My sense is that people like this have the potential to poison the culture of whatever environment they are in.

Posted by: Chris | Jun 17, 2008 6:45:08 PM

You what's funny, most of friends from high school think I'm a total gunner, yet in med school I've been told I'm a slacker...lol.

Posted by: vp | Jun 17, 2008 6:50:08 PM

Interesting post. At my med school, the terms means something a little different. A gunner is as you described, but a sniper is a gunner in secret, meaning a person who was high achieving but nobody really knows it. I guess this applied more during the basic sciences years.

Posted by: Avaron | Jun 17, 2008 7:16:52 PM

I am a shield.

You are probably wondering what this has to do with anything.


But I am made of strong metal, with great tensile strength.

Stopping deer horns in their tracks is nothing for me.

Shields are the best.

I am a shield.

Posted by: Sheild | Jun 17, 2008 9:28:49 PM

This is ridiculous. No one does this, and if they do, it's a joke. There are no snipers in top-tier medical schools. Perhaps at the lower end of the spectrum. Either way, they should grow up.

Long-live gunners!

Posted by: Dork | Jun 17, 2008 11:48:08 PM

It occurs to me that some of these gunners (like, for instance the "ortho" person mentioned by vince) might be a little insecure about their ability to do a good job as a doctor. The tendency to carry pocketbooks, study during lunch, and attend extra rounds could be interpreted this way. This is especially true if, as vince says, he is still outdoing her. I'm not saying this is the case here. I obviously don't know this student. I'm simply using this as an example to suggest that not everyone who lives in the library and takes on extra work is trying to show off. I know because I live in the library and try to get involved so that I have a solid skill base as I move forward.


Posted by: Mukfay | Jun 18, 2008 3:42:18 AM

As an undergrad, I had lots of classes with pre-meds, and one semester encountered a sniper-in-training. It was an advanced synthetic chem class, where the instructor gave us starting materials and graded us on the yield. You guessed it, future-sniper took enough starting material for three or four students. For my take, the guy wasn't the smartest one in the class, by a long shot.

Posted by: oldtimer | Jun 18, 2008 3:42:52 AM

For our cohort, 'gunners' tend to 'gun' (ie. blitz) the exams and receive ten prizes at graduation. Most of us look up to the 'gunner' because they are hard-working and committed in a way we secretly want to be, but too lazy or more interested in other things to train ourselves to be gunners. (By studying everyday for hours, including on the weekends.)

I there are two sub-types of 'gunners'...

Type A is the 'follow-me, and I'll gun the crap in front of us' type who is boisterous to some degree but is willing to help everyone in their group with notes, extra(!) tutes during lunch-breaks, and other annoying but helpful things.

Type B is the 'I'll gun the crap in front of me - you included' type who is boisterous and makes sure everybody knows they're the incredibly hard-working gattling-gunner of the universe and that no-one is going to ever usurp their gunnery-sergeant position. Anyone deemed as a threat will automatically ignite the afterburners of the Type B gunner, who will proceed to turbo-charge their WoMD and blow away all competition. There will be massive collateral damage.

On the other hand, the 'snipers' in our cohort are more like assassins.

Type A assassins:
To consultants and tutors, they are the sweetest, most enthusiastic students who quietly approach them after class or during lunch breaks to suck-up. Everything they do is a ploy to set themselves up in an advantageous position compared to their peers. However, unlike the gunner, they cleverly mask their ways to those that matter to them....but anybody who is not important to their schemes are treated in a superficial way and eventually find out about their noxious ways. (And bitch about them on Medscape.)

Type B assassins are the people who may show type A traits but work to much more insidious and subversive levels as mentioned by most people here. They hide a copy of popular textbooks in a completely unrelated location in the library which only they know about, so that only they can have on-demand access the books, come exam time. Type B assassins love to claim they know nothing and that they don't study at all. They study ten million metaphorical hours a day and NEVER share information or tips they receive, in order to maximise their leverage over peers. (Or they share the info in a friendly way AFTER the usefulness of such info becomes zero) They end up doing well in whatever they aim for, but inevitably find themselves alone. They may form a bunch of similar minded snipers, not for friendship, but to maximise the benefits of herd-behaviour and leeching. Even then, are they poised to surreptitiously assassinate each other when opportunities arise.

But what am I?
I am the brewer of bitter ichor.

Posted by: Y | Jun 18, 2008 4:27:37 AM

This was an interesting read and something for us all to keep a heads up about. It sounds like some people have had some pretty intense experiences too. To some degree, I believe the gunner types can be people who are genuinely interested in reaching the highest levels of academic medicine and getting the best rotations and residencies. To another degree, I believe the people who go out of their way to hamstring others are ultimately insecure, immature and end up isolating themselves in the long run. All any of us can do is to give it everything we've got. The rest is out of our control.

Posted by: John D. Pitt III | Jun 18, 2008 5:51:17 AM

I have met these Gunners and Snipers and I recognize that they are in the realm of SOCIOPATHY at worst and psychopathology at best. Their intentions are self serving and hurting you is not a problem; they are particularly danerous, yet common in helping professions. Remember, Karma will pursue them.

Posted by: VforV | Jun 18, 2008 6:05:08 AM

I saw comments that snipers exist even in undergrad programs, and I have witnessed that first-hand in a lab partner who wanted to get into nursing school. He made it clear he had to get an A, and went so far as to lie one day and tell me he had to work the day of a quiz, and thus got his quiz postponed for 2 days. In the meantime, I was to take the quiz and call him with the questions. He called me over and over at all hours of the day to ge the questions, assuring me he would do the same for me. What an assumption!

Posted by: Nancy Davidson | Jun 18, 2008 6:55:12 AM

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