The Truth About Medical School
We’ve all heard the stereotypes about studying medicine: medical school is hectic, students staying overnight with cadavers and instead of blood; coffee runs through our veins. From the perspective of someone who has been there and done that – here are the realities of medical school that I wish to share with you.
1) Brains will get you far, but the right attitude will take you further.
Everyone you meet in medschool is smart. Don’t be surprised when you feel like the most insecure person in the room, even if you were top of your class in high school. Most of the learning in medicine involves peer teaching with your colleagues. They are the ones you practice your examinations with, present cases to, and receive the occasional scolding from your lecturers with. As the saying goes, you’re only as strong as the weakest member of your team.
To me, graduating doesn’t guarantee you being a good doctor. The workplace environment will come with a different set of challenges. Can you put in honest hard work when you haven’t slept for more than 24 hours? Are you generous with your knowledge? How much would you sacrifice to be competent? Your attitude will be what makes or breaks you.
2) It is a thoroughly rewarding experience.
Being a medical student is a huge privilege. In your clinical training, you will be expected to clerk patients. This is the task of taking a complete history and doing a full examinations of the patients as they are being admitted to the hospital. As the ones who pry out details in our patient’s history, we get to spend more time with the patients in comparison to a doctor who has dozens of patients to attend to. It is a pleasure getting to know them as people, beyond their diagnosis and at times, letting them steer the conversation towards anything but medicine. Having said that, you have the opportunity to be a functioning member of the team and contribute to your patient’s care. For example, information regarding a patient’s home condition, caregivers and financial status are important considerations in drawing up a management plan.
Your patients are also your teachers. I owe part of the knowledge I’ve gained to the kind souls who have voluntarily passed down their wisdom to us eager medical students. Those experienced ones would provide you with more insight than an hour of self-studying could. Honour that trust, and do not take it for granted.
3) Nobody goes through medical school without breaking down.
This is not a topic people like to talk about, but I think it’s time to break that wall.
When another person’s life is on the line, of course there is a pressure to be perfect. The stress of expectations from various parties, coupled with the workload and personal problems, is it a wonder that medical students are five times more susceptible to depression?
The first principle of medical ethics is primum non nocere: first, do no harm. I’d like to extend that to not just the patient, but to ourselves as well.
This is where I tell you to loosen those expectations a bit. Remind yourself of why you’re doing this. We often measure success in huge milestones that we forget that the small steps leading towards our goals matter, too. Find the bits of information you can grasp and make it count. Slowly, but surely… you’ll get there.
4) Misery loves company.
This sounds pessimistic in relation to the point above but I believe it’s an effective coping mechanism. Sometimes, suffering together is better than suffering alone. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help when you need it, and offer it to others when you can. The camaraderie will be something that you’ll cherish forever. Whether it’s dealing with that one last patient, buying dinner for your exhausted roommate, or catching the latest movie together – having your loved ones to lean on makes it all much more bearable.
5) Invest in yourself.
While the amount of studying that is required in medical school is immense, your 20’s is the perfect time to develop your other skills and hobbies. It’s an era for self-discovery: things you never knew you were capable of and breaking points that teach you when to say no. The days are long but the years are short. You don’t want to end the five years caught up in obtaining just a medical degree.
Do what you love. Reconnect with the outdoors, volunteer for your favourite causes, go for that art class you’ve always wanted. You need to be in a healthy state of mind to take care of other people, and some time off will help prevent burnout. My colleagues are not just doctors – they are also a bunch of talented videographers, athletes, musicians and more.
6) Taking a longer time does not mean that you’ve failed.
At this point, you already know how tough medschool is. For us average students, getting a pass for an exam is already a miracle! Failures, both big and small are part of the crazy ride too. But what’s important is how we define it for ourselves.
Look at the bigger picture: For most of medicine, the journey is life-long and the learning doesn’t stop once you have a scroll/transcript in hand. Medical school is a checkpoint to prepare you to get to where you want to be. Don’t lose hope – you are worthy, and what you bring to the table is just as valuable as the rest of your colleagues.
7) Praise vs insults
Getting praised is a rarity. This is a pretty absurd thing to remember, but that’s how it was for me. I was not the top student, so praise really wasn’t something I expected. But when they did happen… I would recall each compliment vividly, and it motivated me to work harder. My lecturers might be tough, but they care and want the best for us.
Oh, but the scoldings. Some insults were clever, sarcastic, and at times, funny. Some were deserved, some not. There were “good” ones too: the ones that we had to look away from and try our hardest not to burst into laughter. My friends and I still talk about those today!
8) You can expect some drama.
…but never add fuel to the fire. What do you expect when you put 200 people together in a pressure cooker for 5 years? Things can get nasty but remember – the medical fraternity is a small, small world. Your batchmates will become your future colleagues. You might end up working with them, for them, and they might be the ones treating your family members.
A word of caution: choose your battles and your friends carefully. Leave no room for toxic people and thoughts. Also, cliques are so passé – a candle does not lose its flame by lighting another, and wouldn’t it be nice to all be awesome together?
9) Life doesn’t stop for you.
Medical school is a time warp if you allow it to be. You want people to around you to understand that you’re doing this for a “better future” but I felt like an entitled, selfish, child each time. I was so absorbed in it during my final year, that I didn’t pay enough attention to others.
Good in the sense that I’m left out of the gossip, bad that I didn’t care as much as I should. I did the very thing I wrote earlier to not do: I feel like I took my loved ones for granted. There was no way I could be enough. And still – they stopped for me, even if their own lives carried its own obstacles.
For the most part, I spent those years as an observer. Nothing major happened to me. My batchmates were getting married and having their own kid. One friend was taking care of her grandfather who had been in and out of the hospital. Another struggled to keep depression at bay. So many experienced loss.
Medschool is medschool, but how you do life all boils down to what you prioritize.
10) There is another side to negative marking.
It teaches some basic principles: if you’re sure of something, proceed and you will be rewarded. If you’re not, don’t even think about guessing your way through because every wrong answer is not without its repercussions. Like a young padawan, you will have someone more experienced to guide you.. until one day, you don’t. It’s scary. When it’s a critical patient in front of you rather than a bunch of questions on paper – what you decide to do or not do, matters.
It might seem counter-intuitive to admit your shortcomings but if you don’t know: ASK. If you didn’t get the signs, do it again. Learn from your mistakes, and from others’. Don’t trust the case notes so easily. Talk to the patient, don’t skimp on the examinations, and strive to do better each time.
All the best!
As I lay this post to rest, I received the news that my official job will possibly be calling me sooner than expected. I wrote this as a reminder to myself. Admittedly, I’m partly in denial (WHY DOES FUNEMPLOYMENT HAVE TO END), I’m nervous and I feel like my every move is an impending mistake. At the same time, I have faith that things will be alright in the end. After all, many others before me have survived walking this path. Like I said – another checkpoint.
If plankton is what we housemen are, well then… we better equip ourselves to be the best kind of plankton there is. The ecosystem can’t flourish without us.