Well, surprise, surprise! A how-to-med-school guide from a med student!
Practically in all the online articles and blogposts I’ve read describing life in Medicine, authors never fail to mention some of these things about med schooling: that it’s no walk in the park, that you will soon have an existential crisis and question why you wanted this in the first place, and that, more often than not, you will feel alone and miserable as you witness your former colleagues and non-med friends step up in life with their overseas travels, new cars, houses, spouse and kids…while you’re just here sitting in front of your desk, laboring the days and nights away poring over Robbins and Harrison to memorize disease names you can’t even spell, wondering if getting that MD title after your name is ever going to be worth all the sacrifices you’re making.
While all those said articles could go on and on about why you should think twice before pursuing a career as a medical doctor, I am writing this to say something you don’t usually hear from relatives, friends and loved ones in medical school: it’s not as bad as it seems. Now, I’m not saying that it gets better, because really, it only gets worse as you move on (Hello, 24-36-hour shifts!), but as difficult as it can be, there’s always a silver lining somewhere, if only you will stop for one moment and reflect on some things you have been overlooking all this time you’ve been wallowing in self-pity and pain over that failed exam.
Whenever you feel like complaining, giving up or breaking down in tears because of the stress and frustration med school has brought upon you, remind yourself of these things you can do to make your present life better, even by just a little bit.
- Be grateful of where you are.
Whether you’re in a developing or advanced country, going to medical school is considered both as a privilege and a prestige not everybody is entitled to. The mere fact that you are sitting in class getting your daily dose of mental torture is in itself a true blessing in disguise, for I personally know people who would do anything just to be in your shoes, but could not because of various reasons. No matter how hard it gets, never forget that your academic slot is a highly coveted one, and that you are fortunate enough to have the means and prerequisites to qualify as a med student.
- Don’t make excuses.
The mental trap I am most vulnerable to is making excuses for not doing what I am supposed to do, which is, of course, study hard and learn. It is so much easier to make lame excuses such as “not doing my best” and “because of so and so” to justify a failed exam and subpar performance, or mediocrity in general. It is harder to accept that yes, I have my own shortcomings, flaws and limits, and yes, I should try harder to overcome them if I want better results. Don’t make excuses! Always do your best and do not sully the noble medical profession by doing things half-heartedly.
- Savor the pain.
Sure, we love to complain about our workload, all the time. We want the world to know how mentally and emotionally exhausting it is to be in medical school. We want everyone’s sympathy and empathy. We want free hugs (food is also accepted).
But the thing is, that is what it means to be in med school. This is part of the daily grind. This is what you signed up for. Studying is exhausting enough, and complaining relentlessly about it is proven more toxic than therapeutic. Accepting the fact that you are paying sky-high tuition to be sleep-deprived and mentally and physically bludgeoned will considerably motivate you, because, yes, upon enrolling in your first year in med, you have decided that this is what you wanted to do for the next four or five years of your life, and that you should at least make all the suffering count.
- Rest, if you must.
Doctors and med students are also humans. The amount of things to learn in a (very) short time is overwhelming, and you could not even begin to see the light of day with that pile of reading and lab homework you need to get done overnight. Sometimes, when the stress levels are reaching an all-time high, the best thing to do is take a small break to reorient yourself.
Burnout is the last thing we want in our life, especially when the school year has just started. Take care of your mental health, take a twenty-minute break for every hour of intense studying, take power naps, go out and run a few laps, write on your blog (like me), do anything that will keep your sanity intact. Med school requires resilience of the mind and body, so your overall wellbeing is the most important factor that will affect your performance.
- Don’t make it all about yourself.
Perhaps one of the most common dilemmas of med students is finding their purpose for willingly submitting themselves to the giant pressure cooker that is med school. Of course, in our application interview, we were asked the question, “Why are you here?” and back then, surely we have answered, in our most convincing tone, that we are here for purposes we find most noble, thinking that we are on our way to become people who will someday make a huge impact on society (and lots of money, too, on the side).
Then med school begins, and we realize quickly that we are not all that. We look at the grades we get and we question if we will ever be good doctors. We look at the number of years we have to study and work without much pay, and we wonder if we can ever earn back the money our parents selflessly spent on our education. We begin to doubt if this is worth the blood, sweat, tears and cash, and we slowly lose the confidence we had on that interview day, once upon a time, when we were so naive and idealistic and inspired.
But then, we see the proud look on the faces of our family and relatives when we volunteer to measure their BP, we hear the silent ‘thank you’ when we try to explain the little physiology we know to our friends and loved ones who call or text us in the middle of the night to ask for medical advice, we feel the reverence from a random patient or watcher in the hospital when they refer to us as “doc” while asking questions as simple as directions to the X-ray lab, then it dawns on us that we are not in med school for self-service, but for service to others. We did not go to med school to feel more intelligent, superior or richer compared to the rest of the population. It is not about money, or glory. It’s not about elevating our status. Rather, it’s about elevating theirs. Somehow, it makes all the pain more bearable, knowing that the happiness is not only yours to enjoy.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Let me get this out: failing is inevitable. Failing is not measured just by transmuted grades. We can fail in so many ways, and med school has a way of making us feel that we are failing in all aspects of our life. Of course, as aspiring physicians we expect nothing less from ourselves, and it is natural to beat ourselves up when we think we did not live up to our self-imposed standards, be it in our academic or social life. But then again, we are humans too, we have limitations, we are not omnipotent. It’s okay to fail sometimes.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, because you deserve another chance. What’s important is you always learn from mistakes and know how to avoid them next time. Don’t worry if Plan A doesn’t work, there are twenty-five more letters in the English alphabet anyway.
- Stop competing with others.
Healthy competition is encouraged because it shows you that there is always room for improvement. What is not encouraged is using another person as your own standards of success.
Each person has different capabilities. Like what that popular Einstein quote says, “you cannot judge a fish by the way it climbs a tree.” Yes, one can argue that we are all in med school and that makes our performance level comparable, but the thing is, our personality is not standardized. You are your own person, with your own pros and cons, and comparing with that of another person’s ultimately deteriorates your sense of self-worth and influences your performance in school. The only serious competition you should have is with yourself, because it is your own flaws that you should constantly try to overcome, no matter how hard it can be.
- Give yourself a pat on the back from time to time–you deserve it!
Reward yourself with a nice, full meal and twelve hours of sleep for surviving this hell week. Go out and watch a good movie for passing a test. Give yourself credit for staying alive in med school so far. Hey, it helps!
- Make time for other things.
Time is the med student’s greatest enemy. No matter how far from the exam date you start studying, there just seems to be no time to cover all the topics. Sometimes, you even feel guilty for taking time to eat, because you feel like you’re stealing precious study time while chewing. There are some days you can go on without a wink of sleep, because sleeping seems to be a luxury you could not afford, with what little time you have. This is why med students are infamous for disappearing from the social grid once school starts.
I have personally proven that, contrary to popular belief, allotting all my time on studies decreases my performance significantly. When I started to make time for activities not related to studying, such as writing this blog, no matter how strained I am because of tight class schedules and submission deadlines, somehow my stress levels are not as high and my mood is consistently lightened up, and this has made me study more efficiently.
- Be a friend.
Misery does love company. You feel not as bad knowing that you are not alone in your plight as a struggling med student. An even greater feeling is when you have someone who can personally feel for and talk to you on the same level with full understanding of where you are exactly coming from.
The road to MD is dark and full of terrors (high five to anyone who gets the reference), and traversing this treacherous path with a loyal friend is a hundred times better than having to do it alone. Your study buddy, emotional sponge, personal motivator and instant good vibes companion–all in the form of one or two persons–may just be all you need to make your whole stay in med school not as bad as it seems. Finding a real friend is not an easy feat, especially in a highly competitive environment such as med school. So how to you find them? It’s easy. Don’t find them at all.
Instead, be the friend you want to have, and soon enough, someone will reciprocate your sincerity with equal kindness and compassion. Nurture your friendship, and before you know it, they will be there for you through thick and thin, perhaps even in the years to come after med school. In the future, when you are already an established physician, you will look back on all those med school memories and say to yourself that indeed, in spite of all the hardships, your stay in med school has been the greatest time of your life, all because you had made a couple of friends, that, like your MD degree, would last you for a lifetime.