I am a first year medical student, and have been experiencing the struggles and joys of medical school ever since I was draped in a white coat and summarily banished to the library eight months ago. Now it’s spring break, and I thought it’d be fun to write up a list about what my experience have been like so far. I’ll start with the tough stuff, and then I promise I’ll work my way to the positive side! Without further ado….
What It’s Like Being in Medical School
1. I think I have every disease and medical condition on the planet.
Ok, maybe not ALL of the diseases, but most of them. About once a week in lecture hall, a professor will be going through a long list of risk factors or symptoms for some disease I’ve never heard of before, and I’ll sit up a little straighter and think to myself “Oh wow, I could totally have that.” I’ll stay calm and take my notes, and then go home and feverishly Google that disease to reassure myself that I’m fine. And God forbid I actually get an abdominal cramp or a slight cold- the former is probably either an ectopic pregnancy or appendicitis, and the latter could be an opportunistic infection taking advantage of sudden (unexplained) immunodeficiency. Beware future students; medical school will turn you into a hypochondriac.
2. I never feel truly off.
I envy people who have the typical 9 to 5, Monday through Friday jobs, and not just because they’re getting a paycheck. While my weekly schedule does vary, a lot of days I’m in classes and lab from 9 to 5. Then I leave school, go to the gym or (more likely) watch an episode of TV to unwind before dinner, and then I study for around four hours. Weekends are for studying too. Even when I’m not studying, I feel like I should be studying. My internal dialogue goes something like this: “How dare you decide to stop studying cardiac anatomy in favor of catching up on Criminal Minds?? Your future patients deserve a doctor who has absolutely mastered all things anatomy!” “But I love Criminal Minds….”
I do understand that feeling busy and sometimes overwhelmed is not at all unique to medical students, and that lots of people on all sorts of life paths are working very hard. Having not tried any other career paths, I’ll just say that, true to its reputation, I have found medical school does in fact involve a lot of work.
3. I miss both social interactions and “alone time.”
This goes along with the above point, but I miss the amount of social time I used to have as an undergraduate (don’t we all??). I’m lucky enough to live in the same city where I went to college, and a lot of my best friends still live in the area. It’s amazing to get to see them when I’m free, but unfortunately there are a lot of nights when I have to decline an invitation to happy hour or a concert or some such event because I’m studying- and I worry that after too many times people will just give up on me. Everyone, please keep inviting me to your things!! I really did have exams the last two times you asked me, but please ask again and maybe this time I’ll be free!
On the flip side of the coin, though, I also miss having time to be alone and just do absolutely nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I spend plenty of time alone, but fun intimate evenings with my note sets and Gray’s Anatomy (the text book, not the TV show) just don’t count. Whenever I do have a few free hours or even a free post-exam weekend, I’m always torn between “Who should I get to hang out with me??” and “Excellent, time to hang out with my cats and re-watch Game of Thrones in preparation for this upcoming season.”
4. I’m pretty broke.
Sometimes people make comments about how much money I’ll be making in the future, and I’m looking forward to someday working hard and being reasonably compensated for it. But for the next few years, it’s probably a good thing that I’m not free to go shopping or out to bars a lot of the time, because I do not have an income and I’m on a serious graduate student budget. As an undergraduate I usually had some sort of side job going on, but I don’t feel like I have the time to devote to something like that in medical school (and sincere kudos to any med students who are holding down part time jobs on the side- I find you extremely impressive).
5. I have to do things that I can’t mention in polite conversation.
Anatomy lab is something that most people are aware happens in medical school, but most people also prefer not to think about it. Most of the time I too would prefer not to think about it, but alas, this is not a responsible option for me. Working in anatomy lab is mentally tough, and not just because there’s a lot of material to learn; I’m also often a little uncomfortable or scared to do the dissection itself. There are also not very many people I feel safe talking about this with, even among close friends, because I don’t want to make them uncomfortable. Luckily there are a few hundred other students in my class going through everything that I am, and it helps to have this experience be a shared one.
Have I frightened any pre-medical students yet? I hope not, because contrary to what you may think if you’ve made it this far, I love being in medical school. And here’s why:
1. My classmates and I are learning at an incredible rate.
As medical students, we voluntarily signed up for (and actually worked really hard to get into) four extra years of school, and this to me indicates that medical students have a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge. And that thirst is absolutely quenched by medical school. There’s a commonly cited statistic that medical students learn over 10,000 new words in their first year alone, and while I haven’t been keeping an exact count, it feels like that’s about right. We get to learn about the human body in intricate detail – and while memorizing how muscles, nerves, and vasculature all come together isn’t always thrilling, it is really cool to step back and realize how much we’ve learned since we began.
2. I’m pushing myself to be better, and not just academically.
I am so impressed by my classmates. Everyone is studying all the time in order to keep pace with the material, but so many students also find time to get involved in community service and other extracurricular activities, to do independent research, and to work out and stay in shape. I am surrounded by high-achieving young adults, and watching them go about their days pushes me to work harder in many aspects of my life. My medical school class is made up of an incredible bunch of students, and I feel privileged to be a part of it and to be able to draw inspiration from my peer group.
3. I’m working towards my goals.
No matter what life path you’re on, it is an amazing feeling to know that each night when you go to sleep, you’ve worked yourself one day closer to your goals. It doesn’t matter how many hours I spent studying or slacking on a given day- I love closing my eyes at night knowing that I’m one day closer to getting that MD and being able to practice medicine. I can’t wait to fully join this profession in which I will get to make people healthier and happier through my work, and at the same time be able to be constantly learning about new advances in science and medicine. Medicine is an exciting field to be joining, and medical school is just the beginning of what I hope will be a long and fulfilling journey.