A medical student recognizes burnout early. He’s doing something about it.

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I was deeply disappointed to receive the email this week in which I was told that the decision to publish an article I wrote was an error. The editor of the journal, which is PubMed-indexed and respected on an international level, explained that the decision I received was intended for another author. In the days following this news, I have only been able to think about the loss of the ephemeral jewel that I had placed in my CV for a short time. It was going to be the accomplishment that made me stand out when I apply for residency in a year and a half. It was going to be the capstone to show that I’ve achieved something important during this last year that I took off of school to conduct medical research in Colombia.

The job that I have, as a researcher and medical student, is that job that I have long dreamed of. For many years, simply having a spot in a medical school was the thing I most wanted in my professional life so I could work with the homeless people that inspired me to become a doctor during the years I worked in a soup kitchen. The opportunity to sharpen my Spanish to reach the level necessary to work with Spanish-speaking patients been another dream of equal importance. Thanks to the support of many people, I was able to win grants to spend this entire year in Colombia to conduct medical research that combines my passion for Spanish with that of medicine. Given this privilege, I have not been able to understand why the mistaken decision to publish the article I wrote has eclipsed the good from this unique and enriching research year.

Burnout is characterized by a loss of enthusiasm for one’s work, and the sense that one’s work is no longer meaningful. An important factor that contributes to burnout is educational environment. Fortunately, I can count of the support of the warmest and welcoming administration that any student could imagine. But I also work in an environment in which it is easy to be seduced by the dream of going to a top-tier residency, at the cost of peace of mind and the ability to enjoy the present due to being absorbed by concern for the future. When this email arrived, so too did the realization that I am not experiencing the joy of being able to learn Spanish, or conduct research in Colombia, or have the privileged spot that I do in my medical school. I am thinking exclusively about my academic productivity and how it relates to my likelihood of gaining acceptance to a good residency.

I realize that I need to reconnect with the past and present, and disconnect from the future that doesn’t exist and hasn’t existed. In the past, my time cooking for the homeless in Boston filled me with passion and enthusiasm to work as a physician with economically underprivileged patients. In the present, I am living a unique opportunity to learn Spanish and conduct research in Colombia that will never be repeated in my life. It is not worth losing appreciation of all of this for the stress of an undefined future. I hope that if I start to recognize this tendency now, early in my career, I can learn to take steps to easily reverse it. I am starting with this letter so that I can take the time to reflect deeply on how fortunate I am to have work that I love doing, and so that nothing can take away the joy of having it.

Max Feinstein is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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