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10 Things to Know about Medical School

As a medical student, you have days when you wonder why you got yourself into this field in the first place and others when you actually find med school fun. To help you get ready to take on the challenge of med school, here is a glimpse of what the experience is really like along with strategies for surviving, and even enjoying, the next four years.

Your medical school wants you to succeed

Many students who start out as premedical in college switch tracks when they come up against the reality of classes like organic chemistry and physics. Even those who survive the prerequisite science courses may not do well enough in them to be admitted to med school or score competitively on the MCAT.

The result of premeds having to jump through so many hoops to be admitted to medical school is that the weeding out gets done before med school, not during it. Schools screen applicants very carefully in order to select individuals who are likely to succeed in medical school and who they believe will make good doctors.

Medical school is difficult

The fact that med school is difficult isn’t an earth-shattering revelation, yet many students are still surprised by just how overwhelming the workload is. Your schedule during the first two years of medical school is almost entirely filled with intense courses like anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, biochemistry, and pharmacology.

When you do feel overwhelmed, keep in mind that you’ve undergone intense scrutiny before achieving a place in med school. If you’ve made it this far, you have good reason to believe you’ve got what it takes to get through.

Medical school is fun

Medical school and fun are words that may not seem to belong together. However, despite the notorious workload associated with being a med student, going through med school can actually be an enjoyable experience (except maybe at exam time and on overnight call).

During the clinical years, you get to work with patients, be part of the medical team, scrub in for surgeries, and see and do many of the things that attracted you to medicine in the first place. Overall, the tangible progress you make toward becoming a physician is exciting.

The social aspect of med school is another positive part of the experience. The foundations for many lifelong friendships, as well as a few marriages, are built during these years.

You start at the bottom of the hierarchy

Medicine is a tradition-bound profession. Here’s a rundown from the top of the hierarchy at a teaching institution:

  • The attending physician

  • The fellows

  • The residents

  • The medical students

Seniority within each category matters as well. For example, a fourth-year resident is senior to a third-year resident, and a second-year fellow is a step up from a first-year fellow. As a third-year med student, you start out at the bottom of the hierarchy and advance one step each year.

Eat and sleep when you can

When you’re on clinical rotations, even things that most people take for granted, like eating and sleeping, can present a challenge. If you have the chance to eat, take it. The same goes for sleeping, going to the bathroom, or any other necessity.

If the resident tells you to grab lunch or dinner, go do it even if you aren’t quite ready to eat and would rather wait an hour. In an hour, you may be in the midst of a new admission or scrubbed in with the team for an emergency surgery.

As for sleep, if you’re on call overnight and things are very busy, you may not get the opportunity to even lie down. When you have the chance to rest, take it.

Nurses can make your life easier — or harder

Besides being the right thing to do, being polite and respectful to every member of the hospital staff, not just physicians, makes your life on the medical wards easier.

You may notice an interesting pattern: The residents and med students who are respectful of nurses tend to have their sleep disrupted less frequently than the ones who are rude or dismissive to the nursing staff. The latter get paged for every little question or status update about their patients regardless of whether it’s really necessary.

You change your mind about your specialty many times

You may enter medical school determined to be a pediatrician and emerge from it as a future trauma surgeon. Even if you have a clear vision of what you want out of your career when you matriculate into med school, exposure to the various specialties may very well change your mind. Reading about a field, or even shadowing someone in it, isn’t the same as being immersed in a specialty the way you are during your clinical rotations.

Sometimes you wonder why you went to medical school

Doing some second-guessing is common among medical students, especially during the first two years when contact with patients is limited. If your school doesn’t offer much patient contact prior to the third year, find out about opportunities to volunteer through school-sponsored or outside health clinics.

Volunteering may help remind you why you wanted to do this job in the first place and keep you motivated until you get to your clinical rotations third year. Talk to your classmates as well. Sharing your feelings and finding out you’re not alone may help you cope with them.

You can be a medical student and still have a life

Being a medical student doesn’t mean that you have to forgo all leisure time, give up your hobbies completely, and put your relationships on hold for the next four years. You’ll be busy in medical school, but maintaining your life outside of school is still possible (and highly advisable).

Although it may not feel like it, taking an hour to go work out or spending an evening hanging out with friends won’t put your grades in mortal jeopardy. In fact, downtime helps to prevent burnout and may allow you to be more productive when you get back to the books.

Medical school goes by quickly

Before you know it, you’ll be marching across a stage to accept your medical degree. Medical school may seem to fly by because with all the information to learn, skills to master, and clinical rotations to adjust to, you’re so focused on getting through the next challenge that you’re barely aware of the time passing.

After you’re in residency, your med school days may already start to seem distant as you take on new responsibilities. In the midst of your intern year, you may even look back at med school with nostalgia and think about how easy you had it back then!

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