1. Remember the humanity of your patients and colleagues. Question the utility of assigning blame. Seek to understand other perspectives and lead with empathy. Hold space for those around you and take that extra moment to listen to their stories (I promise — people won’t forget the feeling of being listened to). Notice and be curious about the variety of emotions that people invoke in you. An open mind and compassionate heart will help anchor you.
2. Start journaling. Journal in whatever way that works for you to record and digest your experiences. Keep a small notebook in your white coat, a Word document on your laptop, or an app on your phone. Write down things that you want to learn, to research, and to remember. You will be thankful at the end of medical school that you have your thoughts to look back on. Down the line, your journal entries can absolutely help breathe life into your personal statement for residency.
3. Don’t get ahead of yourself … especially when starting out in medical school. It is easy to get caught up in quickly deciding your specialty (especially when friends and family are constantly asking!) or to jump right into specialty-specific research projects during the first semester of medical school. Listen to your intuition about potential interests and make note of them, but first, focus your energy on learning how to study, how to get organized, and how to build a strong framework for mental and physical health.
4. When the time does feel right to begin actively exploring medical specialties. Make sure that you are following your own heart and not being overly influenced by the desires of your parents or peers. This can be extremely difficult, but part of becoming a healthy adult is growing into your authentic self, even if that means disappointing your parents for not going into “X” speciality. It is OK to have multiple mentors in different specialties in order to learn what fits you best.
5. Keep yourself informed by using resources available to you as a student. Subscribe to medical newsletters, journals, podcasts, social media accounts, and blogs to help explore and discover interests. See if your school offers free tutoring, mentoring, counseling, yoga classes, or food (always a student favorite)! Connect with mentors and peers outside of your own institution by joining professional societies. Most importantly, don’t hesitate to reach out to attendings, professors, and older students. Take everyone’s advice with a grain of salt, and seek multiple perspectives to increase your clarity.
6. As a clinical student, you will face a variety of difficult situations, but challenge yourself to uncover lessons in the everyday flow of clinical life. Some days you will be working hard in the hospital and not have much time to “hit the books” and study for your shelf exam — but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t able to learn during these days.
See what teachings you can absorb from each patient, resident, and attending that you encounter throughout the day. As you observe your senior team members, ask yourself: as a future physician, what habits do I want to emulate, and what behaviors do I absolutely want to avoid imitating?
If you can learn from adverse events or problematic situations now, you will be able to take better care of patients, advocate for better policies, and create more effective clinical teams in the future.
7. Strengthen your personal network with diverse, healthy relationships. Invest in friendships with people who will show up for you and respect your boundaries. Even though school will keep you busy, be mindful about keeping in touch with family and friends who are important to you.
If you are in relationships that don’t serve you, don’t be afraid to examine those and stop investing in them if necessary. Honor your limited time and energy by spending it with people who respect and care for you.
8. Make space for what is important to you and find your “whys.” You won’t always feel excited, motivated, or inspired — but reminding yourself of your purpose can re-infuse your daily activities with meaning. Reflect on what drives you to be a great physician, a great family member, a great friend.
Remember that patient who thanked you for explaining something complicated to them, or how it felt working at that LGTBQ+ shelter, or that feeling of awe you experienced during your first transplant surgery. Look for and nurture your passions both in and out of medicine – whatever that may look like for you.
9. Be prepared for imposter syndrome to strike and know how to deal with it when it does. Medical school is fertile ground for self-doubt: a competitive environment filled with high-achievers all engaging in a challenging new field of study. Especially if you look around and not too many people in your school look or sound like you, stereotype threat can compound the effects of imposter syndrome.
Unconscious beliefs stemming from childhood, such as personal worthiness being tied to achievement, can adversely impact many of us as well.
By accepting how normal it is to feel like an “imposter” at times and recognizing that stepping outside of one’s comfort zone is essential for personal growth, we can keep these negative feelings from controlling us.
10. Be gentle with yourself. Perfectionists, listen up!
Set boundaries with your time: making room for both studying and self-care. Go on that weekend trip with your friends and be present on that trip. Take a day off of studying if you need to. Create study plans to keep yourself accountable, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t follow through on those plans perfectly.
Remember that doing everything flawlessly is not required for success. If my first point is to remember the humanity in others, my final point is to remember the humanity in yourself.
Claire Wiggins is a medical student.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com