Advice for first-year medical students

A few days ago I received a message: “Any advice for incoming med students?”

As an old, wise, seasoned, now-second year medical student, I know everything. Just kidding — I fumbled my way through first year like everyone else, and just like you will too. No piece of advice allows you to opt out from the challenges of medical school year one.

My advice isn’t the “normal” recommendations incoming medical students receive. You know the stuff: Experiment with study habits until you find one that works for you; get involved with clubs; talk to your professors; get an exercise routine; make time for yourself; meal-prep your food; get enough sleep; etc. Different variations of these things work for different people, and you’ll figure out your version at your pace.

My advice is more how to perceive and analyze your experiences as you navigate a new world.

One: Trust your gut. Medical education is far, far from perfect; but it continues this way due to inertia. New students don’t know enough to speak up against it, and senior students who can see its problems in hindsight are busied with new problems in a new environment. If something feels off, unethical, inefficient, unfair, or incorrect— trust your gut and speak up. That’s how we can change a system.

Two: Establish a purpose and find ways to tap into it. There will come a time when you’re swimming in studying and none of it feels relevant and it’s been three days and you still can’t understand it, so you tell yourself that you don’t want to do this anymore. (This is when I fantasize about working as a farmhand—outdoors all day, getting sweaty and sunburnt, working manual labor—it sounds magical.) You need to tap back into a purpose. Human beings don’t work well if we don’t think what we’re doing is meaningful. I suggest writing down your purpose in a journal and revisiting it, or adding to it, when you reach these frustrating, I-wanna-quit states.

Three: Be adaptable about your identity and address yourself with curiosity rather than harshness. Fail a test for the first time? Fabulous — what a great learning experience. The only one to forget your white coat to a practical? Interesting, you must be stressed. Cut the one nerve you were trying to isolate on the cadaver? Ask another group to show you theirs. The Making-Of-A-Doctor is a messy, challenging, sometimes hilarious endeavor and the learning curve is enormous. Let yourself ride that curve. You’ll end up where you need to be.

Jamie Katuna is a medical student.  She can be reached at her self-titled site, Jamie Katuna, and on Facebook.

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