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What I Wish I Knew When I Started Medical School

Starting medical school can be such a big transition in students' lives. It brings along many changes and emotions, and it can be overwhelming! Student Doctor Tanya Thomas joins the blog today to share her best tips on what she wishes she knew when she began medical school!

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As I start my 4th year of med school and look back on this incredible journey, there are a few things I wish I did differently, and others I’m so glad I did. Everyone has their own path, but I really think you can’t go wrong (both academically, and for life in general!) with these guiding principles. Medical school will stretch and push and mold you into becoming a better physician and person. I wish you the best of luck on this once in a lifetime adventure!

1. Ask for help, every day!

I made so many mentor and peer friends just by admitting that I was having a hard time grasping an anatomy concept or feeling overwhelmed by an upcoming test. It’s tempting to put on a tough face and appear invincible, but most people respond really well to vulnerability. (And if they don’t, then they’re not someone for you to lean on anyway.) Oftentimes they’re struggling too! I got really helpful study advice and resources from upperclassmen and classmates just from opening up to them in passing. Medicine is a team sport, and I couldn’t have survived my first semester without my teammates.

2. Know thyself (and where you’re most productive)

What gets you in your study flow zone? Do you need to sit in a library cubicle with some flashcards in utter silence? Do you need to stay in your apartment with snacks at the ready? Is your vibe an empty classroom with a whiteboard for scrawling notes and a computer to fact check yourself? Know thyself, and once you know what works for you, run with it. There’s always some benefit to trying various study strategies, but try to establish your foundation early on, and modify as you go.

3. Study WELL

If there was a single best way to study and ace every test, everyone would do it and life would be fair. Sadly, this is not the case. However, there are tried and true study principles that have been vetted by research. Doing practice questions and learning from your incorrect answers beats reading a textbook. Doing flashcards or quizzing yourself with peers trumps watching videos. Mixing concepts in a testing session is more effective than studying systems in isolation. There is a time and place for reading textbook sections or watching a video on a tricky concept, but do try to use these methods as supplements to active learning strategies rather than the main method. Active learning definitely feels more uncomfortable and frustrating than passive learning because you’re getting immediate feedback on your weaknesses, but let your grades, not your feelings, guide how you study!

4. Start studying for the boards-- NOW

It’s so easy to say that Step 1 (or 2) is so far away and that you’ll have learned so much by the time you get there. Not true!! One of my biggest regrets is not incorporating studying for boards as I studied for my classes. I thought it would be confusing to study for different exams at the same time, and I was worried about failing my class exams if I didn’t study everything on the lecture powerpoints. Here’s a secret: all med schools have a slightly different curriculum, but they’re all required to teach you what’s on the boards! You really can’t go wrong by studying for each exam by using board review resources, then supplementing that by reviewing “home-grown” materials to fill in any gaps. An added bonus is that it helps you figure out early on which resources work for you and which aren’t worth your time (and money!).

5. Live your best life

Med school was truly the time of my life. Yes there were pre-exam meltdowns and rages over failing grades, but the post-exam celebrations are priceless. Go out with your friends, take a beach day, spend a day with your family. If you’re in med school like I was, take advantage of those home-cooked meals and staying in touch with your family. If you’re far from home, like I was for undergrad, treat it like a 4 year year vacation. Make a bucket list of all the activities and sights in your city. Talk to peers who are locals or who went to your school for undergrad. Learn a new hobby, read books to challenge your worldview-- don’t stop growing. You’ll be a better person and physician because of it, I promise.

6. Shadow, shadow, shadow

Never again will you have this much freedom to explore specialties just for fun w/o the pressure of a rotation evaluation or a less-than-stellar rec letter. If you’re not sure what you want to do, you should shadow to see what piques your interest. If you’re sure of what you want to do, you should definitely shadow and be exposed to as many things outside your specialty. Being a knowledgeable physician about more than just your area of focus is what separates a doctor from a great doctor. The next time you’ll be able to explore specialties for fun will probably be your MS4, by which point (I assume) you already know what you want to do. Take advantage of having the world of medicine at your disposal to learn from! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

7. Get a therapist

Your school should offer free counseling and psychotherapy services, and if it doesn’t fight to change that! Therapy isn’t about lying on a couch and recollecting traumatic childhood memories (if you’re not into that). A therapist is a professional who is trained to help you think in a way that’s most beneficial for you. They are a judgement-free resource to help you process the stress of your upcoming exams, develop realistic strategies to juggle the competing obligations in your life, and to productively figure out why that attending (or patient) really got under your skin. If you’re too busy to give your brain a tune-up, you should probably see a therapist. If you’re too strong to talk about your feelings, you should definitely see a therapist. On a very serious note, physician burnout and depression is a growing issue. While burnout and depression are not the same, many physicians with depression are also burnt out. Each year we lose 400 physicians to suicide. Take care of yourself and your colleagues.

8. Be a person

You can’t pour water from an empty cup, and medicine demands constant pouring. Meal prep, exercise, get a humane amount of sleep, and make time for your loved ones. Some weeks will be harder than others, especially right before exams, but during lulls, be intentional about taking care of yourself and the relationships you value. Burnout is real, and you need to be at your best-- for your own sake and that of your patients. Don’t stop being a person.

9. Do not overcommit

Med school is different from undergrad for many reasons-- I remember being surprised to learn that most medical schools don’t expect their students to have jobs. There’s a good reason for that! Med school is HARD, and it’s crucial to get a grip on your study habits early. Slowly start adding extracurricular activities like clubs and research once you feel settled and successful in your study schedule, and identify gaps in your week that you can replace with activities. When you do commit to an activity, be realistic about your availability. It’s better to undersell and overdeliver than to overcommit and be a flake. Don’t take on an activity just to be a CV booster. Committing to organizations or research topics you love will make it easier to go to that 7 pm meeting the week before a test. Always remember that this is grad school-- you’re a student first, research assistant or club president second.

10. Work life juggle, not balance-- The Four Burners

We all hear about the importance of work-life balance, but the burner analogy is what changed my life. Think about your life as having 4 areas-- work (school in our case), health, friends, family. If you run all four stove burners at full steam at the same time, you’ll run out of gas and not have any fire left at all. The four burners theory more realistically captures a healthy work life balance. Some weeks, you have to focus on school 100% and you won’t be able to see your family as often as you’d like. Sometimes, taking a doctor’s appointment means missing a great lecture, or passing up on an extra OR case. The idea is that you can have it all, just not at the same time. As long as you’re not completely turning off the fire under the other burners, they will be okay. Balance implies that everything is the same all the time. The burner analogy acknowledges that focusing on one thing at a time is the key to productivity.

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