A millennial’s guide to medical school

When I started medical school, I believed the challenges would be purely academic: a rigorous four-year chapter in my life, with a shiny MD on the last page. I had no idea it would alter the very core of how I approach the world.

I came to medical school immediately after undergrad — a path increasingly less common as admissions committees tout the values of “real life experience.” While I should have taken their advice, at the time I didn’t see how it made sense.  I wanted to become a physician! And there was a streamlined process for achieving it. Medical school, research, teaching, publishing, residency, fellowship, and bingo! My mindset at that time was, if I know what the next step is, and I am able to achieve it, why delay?

Well, truth is, the answer is that I couldn’t delay. I was shackled by a mindset that I developed in undergrad: an insatiable desire to check boxes.  Once I decided that I wanted to be a physician, my life revolved around doing everything possible that I felt I needed to get even an interview for medical school. Achieving academically, leading extracurriculars, researching, publishing, volunteering, traveling abroad, and basically everything that’s even possible for a 21 year old to achieve.

Of course, these “achievements” are not published by medical schools as a requirement for medical school admission. But that didn’t matter to me. I believed that if I achieved everything I could under the sun, I would have the best chance to be accepted at the best school possible. I’ll never know whether I was right, and that’s not the point of this article. The point is, once I got to medical school, I couldn’t shake my undergrad mindset. The shackles were as tight as ever.

As soon as I started medical school, I already envisioned the residency I wanted and the boxes I would need to check to get there. I boiled my life down to essentials: studying, exercising, eating. Maintaining friendships? Forget about it. Talking to family? A chore. And as my relationships with others deteriorated, so did my relationship with myself.

I wasn’t alone. I’ve since found that many of my classmates went through, or are going through, the exact same thing. Why? Because the trap is so easy to fall into — the shackles fit so well. All of us found success checking boxes to get into medical school, and figured it would work during medical school. While we’ll never know precisely how much this mindset helps, if it worked the first time around, why reinvent the wheel?

The answer is that, while an anxiety-riddled obsession on being the perfect residency candidate is a successful approach for some in medical school, medical school will have been, to you, just another box you’ve checked. It will not be what it has potential to be: a time for personal growth and reflection.

The day will come when there are no more boxes to be checked except for the color of your coffin. One day you will finish residency, or fellowship, become chair of your department, or a partner in your practice and there will be nothing left to check. You will, as I fear and have come to understand from others, reflect on the experiences and choices you made along the way with a single underlying sentiment: “I wish I would have spent more time with family and treasured the journey more.”

Which leaves me with the true point of this article:  Medical school is not a means to an end. It is not four years of sacrifice and hardship.  Its product should not be disillusioned and burned out young physicians.

What needs to change? It would be great if the culture of medicine changed. However, as we have seen, the culture of medicine changes slower than a snail’s marathon time. For example, even as a new generation of physicians enter the profession, most schools still utilize a structure of 2 preclinical and 2 clinical years that has been the same since 1910 (when the Titanic was still under construction).

So, where can rapid and effective change occur? Students’ mindset. Medical school students love using the fact that they are in medical school as an excuse to not do the things they used to enjoy.  I can’t even begin to count the number of times I used that same excuse during my first year of medical school.  I hate to say it, but Stop. Taking. School. So. Seriously. Enjoy the journey and the amazing experience that medical school can provide, outside of your career path. Realize that while school is definitely a challenging four years, it is not simply a chapter in your life.  It is not a means to an end. It is just one facet of your life. One that is important, carries great social responsibility, but should always be put into context of all of the other things that, together, make you happy and fulfilled.

I gave up my friends, family, and hobbies during my first year of medical school because I thought that it was required of me to succeed in school. It was a massive mistake.  I found that my 12th hour of studying was useless compared to the mental benefit and relaxation I got from seeing friends, reading, running, playing guitar, or watching Netflix. I realized that a weekend trip to the mountains or back home left me energized and focused, making the time that I did spend studying more effective.

Take time for things that have nothing to do with medical school at all, and have no bearing whatsoever on your residency.  This will rejuvenate and invigorate your unique self.  It will remind you that you are a human. Yes, it may seem that the responsibility that you will one day assume in the care of your patients requires infinite sacrifice now.  But of what use is a disillusioned and burned out physician who has lost a part of herself or halted her own life in the pursuit of the next checkmark. Take the time now, as a student, to foster the unique individual that you are.  Because if you do not prioritize friends, family, and hobbies now, just remember, life only gets busier.

Tyler E. Callese is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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