Becoming a doctor isn’t easy. If you’re planning to go into medical school, be prepared. These four years will be sleep-deprived, stressful, exhausting, and humbling – but ultimately rewarding. We went through medical school together at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Although there were times when it didn’t look like it would happen, we survived, matched in our top residency choices, and are now successful doctors with the practices we always dreamed of. Looking back, most physicians have certain words of advice they wished they heard prior to becoming a doctor. Here are our ten tips – learned the hard way – for pre-med students on how to succeed in medical school with the least amount of trauma.
On Preparing for Medical School…
Have Fun Before You Start
The day your medical school orientation begins, life as you know it is over. For the next four years you will be dedicated to learning everything it takes to become a doctor. This means that you will never again have a three month summer vacation. Any vacation time you have in medical school should be spent shadowing doctors in clinics, performing research, or studying for your boards. So the summer between undergrad and medical school is a key time for you to HAVE FUN. Enjoy yourself, do some travelling, and see some old friends and family. If you want to glance at an anatomy atlas or your old college biochemistry notes, feel free. Just don’t forego that trip you always wanted to take. Do not stay home and study. There will be plenty of time for that later.
When preparing for medical school life, it’s best to minimize any distractions that could take time away from what will be your most important task: studying. It’s like Tony wrote in his medical school memoir, In Stitches: “Overall, medical school means study. And then study some more. And when you finish all that studying, you will definitely feel the need to study.” That means you should consider cancelling your Netflix subscription, since your days of watching an entire season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in one sitting are over. Only perform essential functions on your computer — you will not have time to tweet or blog nearly like you did in college. Don’t take a video game system to medical school. You may have a few minutes for Cut the Rope on your smart phone, but that’s about it. Consider ending any bad romances, since it’s best to limit the drama in your life. Unhealthy relationships steal valuable time and focus. Finally, don’t spend a ton of dough on a brand new, big- screen 3-D television. You will either feel obligated to watch it, causing your test scores to drop, or you’ll neglect it and four years later find it was barely used and now obsolete.
Live Off Campus
One of the biggest mistakes we made when preparing for medical school was signing up to live in the graduate dorm. We were both single males who erroneously believed that living in the grad dorm would enhance our social lives and give us a good place to study. NOT TRUE. There were two main problems. First, the grad dorm was filled with international students. We had little in common with our neighbors and therefore didn’t make many friends. Second, living in dorms, whether graduate or not, came with distractions. The walls were thin, people were talking at all hours, and our rooms were the size of veal pens with comparable aesthetics. Tony spent most of his first days as a medical student listening to his neighbor flush the toilet in their shared bathroom. Even worse, he was forced to spend his nights hearing an over-enthusiastic couple in the room above enjoying each other. This is not the way to start life as a doctor-in-training. As a medical student, you are no longer an undergrad. Get an apartment.
Relax – You’ve Made It.
The weeding out process is over. Once you receive the golden ticket of admission to medical school, you are almost certainly going to be a doctor. Most medical schools really want you to succeed. This is not like undergrad, where the pre-med professor tells you, “Look to your left. Look to your right. Only one of you will become a doctor.” On the contrary, it’s more like, “Look to your left. Look to your right. All of you will become doctors… except that shifty-looking guy in the corner of the auditorium.” So relax: the next four years will be tough, but you will likely survive and get your M.D. or D.O. like the majority of other medical students.
On Being a Successful Medical Student…
It’s easy to let the stress of passing exams and attending classes in medical school completely take over your life. When Tony was in medical school he took up running. He hates, and has always hated, running. Tony took up running as a medical student because it was the most efficient way to burn a bunch of calories and get back to studying. Don’t neglect sleep, exercise, or eating a balanced diet. Most importantly, keep in contact with the ones you love – especially your parents, your spouse, and (if you have any) children. Studying is a very convenient excuse to avoid returning emails and calls, so resist the urge to use it. You will need these relationships to help support you during those trying times in both med school and residency. Plus, you will need people to practice your physical exams and blood draws on.
Every so often get away from campus and visit your parents or some old friends. Get perspective on life. It’s easy to become completely self-absorbed in the intense world of medical training and forget that there is a whole world outside of medicine to enjoy. Sometimes it’s therapeutic to chat with someone about something other than the next anatomy exam or the Kreb’s Cycle. Or to eat a meal without hearing tales of the grossest medical problems imaginable. Spend time talking with people who work in fields outside of medicine… as long as they’re not ambulance-chasing attorneys.
This is not the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas. You may want to consider getting rid of your chin or lip piercings, low cut tops, gauge earrings, funky hair, and Speedos. Patients expect their doctors to look mature and professional. Doctors expect the same out of their medical students. In the clinical years, many medical students have been graded down due solely to their inappropriate attire. Look the part and others will believe you in the role.
Wear Plastic Shoes
Take a tip from the nurses and buy a pair of plastic shoes, such as Crocs. Your shoes are going to come into contact with multi-colored bodily fluids, just like your blindingly white short lab coat. Crocs and other plastic/rubber slip-on shoes are comfortable, perfect for a night on-call, and easy to hose off after a direct hit from the afterbirth on your OB rotation.
We encourage all medical students to take some time to network during their few weeks off in medical school. Meet doctors in the specialty you’re considering by shadowing them in their offices and volunteering in clinics. At the beginning of your fourth year you will need at least one doctor in the specialty you choose to write you a letter of recommendation. The more you network the better chance you have to get a great reference. These references can point you toward the best residencies – sometimes chaired by your references’ good friends. In medicine, who you know and what they say about you counts a ton.
Don’t Take It Personally
Tony writes a lot about this in his book In Stitches. There is a definite hierarchy in the hospital. As a medical student you were probably at the top of your high school class, have four years of college under your belt, and are within a few years of getting an M.D. or D.O. So where do you lie on the hospital food chain? THE BOTTOM. While you will undoubtedly encounter physicians and nurses who treat you like dirt (Tony described a nurse who threatened to cut off his scrub pants in the middle of an operation, leaving him with only his Joe Boxers), do not take it personally. This, too, shall pass. Embrace the fact that you are a student, put your ego aside, and use your four years of medical school to learn as much as possible. You owe it to yourself, your teachers, and – especially – your future patients.
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