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Doctor Dad: A Husband and Father of Three in Med School

How do you find a balance in medical school?

“There is no balance,” she said.

This was not what I wanted to hear. We were talking about remaining competitive in medical school without giving up a social life. This administrator is an MD and has a PhD in education; she knows what she’s saying. She explained how her eight-year-old gets a few hours after work, but then she often sacrifices sleep to stay on top of her professional to-do list.

I completely understand the demands of children. All three of mine expect their own bit of my attention, as well as participation in family time. Needless to say, the administrator was flabbergasted when I told her about my teenager, school-ager and toddler. This is not typical and the demand is immense but, with the right attitude and some perseverance, it is more than manageable. Three basic tenets guide me to successfully passing my classes without ignoring my children and abandoning their care to my wife.

After years of perfection, the 4.3 in high school and the 3.9 in undergrad, most medical students have spent years blowing the curve and displaying perfection in their work. This is the life we lead to make it to medical school. The Type A, perfection-seeking behavior is what makes us suitable to guard the health and safety of our patients. However, the old joke is not quite a joke after all; what do you call a med student that finishes at the bottom of his class? Doctor.

Many medical schools have a pass/fail grading system, with cutoffs for a passing grade as low as 60%. The average passing cutoff is in the range of 70%, which is a C in most places. I tell myself every day that the best thing I can do for my family at this point is to pass medical school, but the husband and father in me demand I do more than study all day and night. So, my first tenet is to give up on perfection. I’m speaking of academic perfection, since this is an absolutely arbitrary concept. I don’t accept merely passing my classes as acceptable, but I’m not a gunner, and I don’t kill myself over getting a 77% on an exam.

Of course, I want to do more than simply pass my classes. I want to learn something that will one day save or improve the quality of life for one of my patients; this takes a new level of time management. While timing was never one of my strong suits (after all, who would choose to have three children, each five years apart), time management has been a major key to my success. Each week I have 168 hours with which to do all that I need to take care of my family and pass my classes. With about 50 of those taken up by sleep, 14 for eating, and about 30 dedicated to my family, I don’t have much time for studying; using that time to its utmost is necessity.

At home, with your computer, and your TV, and your Playstation, and your friends, and… you get the picture. Removing distractions is a difficult task, but removing yourself from those distractions is easy. Attending lectures, instead of viewing them online at home, is a prime way to aid focus. If you’re like me, and you don’t live near campus, going to the local library on the weekends is always an option. To distill this point, treat school like a job. Use the time you’re on campus (you will actually need to go to campus) more effectively. Between classes, you should review material for the next class, or prepare questions about the class that just ended. Use lunch to read material or complete lab work (unless it’s anatomy lab, as I don’t condone skipping meals). When you get home, put work aside for a few hours to refresh yourself, and enjoy the time with you have with your family, because you can’t get these days back, and they’ll pass you by in a blink.

Finally, don’t overdo it. Get enough sleep, and make sure you’re eating healthily. In the long run, nutrition and sleep will go a long way. I spend about four hours every weeknight with my family: one hour cooking with my wife, one hour eating and asking my kids about their days, and two hours playing games with my daughters. Lunch is always packed the night before, as I’m the only one who will eat leftovers, and breakfast is an egg on toast, two oranges and some coffee. The kids all go to bed between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., so I spend about two more hours reading the text or reviewing information for tomorrow’s lectures; I wake up promptly at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for the day and to take my son to daycare on the way in to school. Only on very rare occasions do I feel that I didn’t get enough sleep. I’m constantly hearing about fellow students staying up late to study, but then sleeping in and missing lecture. This kind of circadian disruption cannot last for long. Also, I hear about them eating out all the time because it’s quick, or eating Chef Boyardee because it’s cheap. Their breakfast usually consists of coffee and a candy bar. They aren’t displaying any outward unhealthiness due to poor diet, but it must be there. We learn about the importance of proper diet and sleep, and we joke about not getting proper nutrition and sleep. I guess this is irony, or hypocrisy.

The average medical student is 23.5 years old; they are young and resilient and can stand to stay up late, miss lectures, eat poorly and they don’t generally have dependents. However, I’m not so young anymore and family is the most important thing in the world to me. Perfection to me is a balanced home-work life. Medical school is not the typical 8 to 5 p.m. job, but neither is medicine in general. Yet it is still a job that we all hope to enjoy doing.

So I refuse to make it stressful and all-consuming. My time is valuable and so is my health. I’m a firm believer is practicing what I preach. I used to smoke (emphasis on “used to”). I can tell patients I know just how hard it is to quit, and how absolutely possible it is. I try to run, and walk if I can’t run, at least every other day. I eat three meals a day and I sleep at least six hours a night. There is a balance. I’m not topping the grade reports, and I won’t make it into Alpha Omega Alpha, but everyone will call me doctor just the same.

Daniel Gates Daniel Gates (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Indiana University School of Medicine

I am the proud father of 3 wonderful children. The oldest two are girls, Devyn and Myra, and my son, Corbin, is the youngest. My wife, Heather, and I are both medical professionals. She recently finished her master's degree and is a pediatric nurse practitioner. I graduated from Center Grove High School in 2002, and immediately joined the US Army. After serving 5 years as a medic (2 tours to Iraq), I came home to study chemistry at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana with the goal of attending medical school at Indiana University School of Medicine. I'm currently in my third year.

  • YM

    my wife wants to have kids. It’s january of my second year and i take the boards in June. Is there any reason for me to want to wait until after boards. are the first few months of pregnancy stressfull/ anxiety causing/ etc?

    would greatly value any thoughts or personal experience or just reflecting back. thanks

    • Dan Gates

      Before replying I, of course, discussed your question with my wife. This is certainly a tough question for any couple, more so for medical students. My wife explained that the first few months of pregnancy are bad because she’ll experience a lot of nausea and vomiting. The second trimester is apparently the best.

      There are a few things you need to keep in mind when making this decision. First, prepare for guilt. You will always feel guilty for either not studying enough or not spending enough time with your wife and new child. She should be prepared to essentially raise your child as a single mother to some degree. Either that, or willingly sacrifice your grades to some degree, and give her and your baby more of your time.

      However, to answer your question, we both felt you have no reason to wait. She’ll be pregnant, and she’ll want to talk to you about what she’s going through, but it should not be too distracting to your studies. I hope this helps.

      • YM

        thank you for the reply and the great advice/ insight! def. helped.

  • Rhys Christian

    Hi Dan. I am 25 years old with only two (2) years of college under my belt. I plan to finish undergrad by 28 and then attend medical school. You speak of having freetime to spent with your family. Where do you derive your income while in medical school? I expect to start a family in my early thirties and, while my wife might be working then, I expect that there will be a period where neither of us work while attending graduate programs and raising a baby. We have considered moving out of the United States for better maternal/paternal leave programs, but I am curious how you personally afford living expenses in your family whilst pursuing your medical degree.

    • Dan Gates

      Income is a big concern. Medical school is very demanding, and I suppose some might work while attending, but I couldn’t do it. I take extra money out in student loans. My wife, on the other hand, works every weekend, and then “goes to school” online every day during the week. It isn’t a glamorous lifestyle, but we are happy and our bills are paid. The advice of my school’s financial adviser was integral to managing this successfully. So, I pay off many of our bills for the duration of the semester (until the next allotment) as soon as the loan allotment is distributed. The mortgage, car and home insurance, the cell phones, internet service, and water and sewer to name a few. My wife covers the rest, as they aren’t necessarily fixed costs and are harder to pay in advance. Then, all the money I have left is discretionary. We save money where we can. We don’t have cable TV, we don’t eat out, and we don’t have car payments. Student loan debt is frightening, but our profession has a high benefit-to-cost ratio, and depending on your specialty, your loans could get subsidized. It’s not perfect and it’s not easy, but it works.

  • Estee

    Hi Dan, I am 30 years old with 3 kids all under 5. I want to study medicine but my husband wouldn’t support the idea. He sometimes ignore my comments and ideas. Do you think it’s wise to work towards my dream without his consent? He is currently studying and will be finishing in two years.
    Is it wiser to go for a 4years graduate entry med with a more costly tuition and high cost of living or a 6 years program that is approximately 50% less expensive? Both in another country.

    • Dan Gates

      Greetings, Estee. It is never a good idea, in my opinion, to do anything with discussing it with your spouse, and ensuring understanding. I’d say if medicine is your dream, you need to communicate how important it truly is to you. A marriage is a team, and all members need to know what is going on for the team to be successful.
      Having both parents in school definitely will stress you family, but it is possible. The last two years have been a lesson in creative scheduling to make sure that all of our kids, as well as my wife and I, made it to all appointments and activities. Heavy utilization of a shared iCalendar made this not only possible, but easier.
      As to which program to choose, I can’t honestly give good advice based solely on cost. Think about what you need, academically, to prepare for medical school, and what time frame fits your personal goals. Finance is certainly a factor when deciding to go back to school, but I don’t think it should be a deciding factor for which school to go to.
      Good luck talking with your husband. I have no doubt that you can show him just how important it is to you to go back to school.

      • Estee

        Thanks a million. That’s a great advice indeed. I will keep working on how to convince him.

  • Nic

    Dan, what a great read and you are definitely an inspiration to those out there thinking of going the non traditional route. I am 32 and have worked in sales for 10 years in corporate America. I feel I will never be fulfilled until I do something I really want to do. I never know when is too old. With pre req’s ( not taken in my first undergrad) med school and residency I am looking at 9-10 years. I’m married with no kids, my wife is very supportive, is this too late or should I go for it.

    • Dan Gates

      Sorry for the tardy reply. I hope you’ve been getting your pre req’s knocked out. While I started medical school a tad bit earlier than you (I was “only” 29), I would say it’s never to late to follow your dream. Sappy, I know, but no less true for it.

  • El

    I have been considering medical school. I am 36 so I was trilled to read your article. Looking ahead, if accepted, I can see there will be magic in scheduling with 2 children and a supportive husband.

    • Dan Gates

      It’s great that your husband is supportive. My wife has been my own personal cheerleader (oh lord, that new pop song is now stuck in my head!). My kids have also been a great support and resource. Of course I have an advantage when it comes to developmental milestones, as I’ve seen most of them 3 times now.

      Also, one day I came home after lecture and went up stairs to take a nap. My daughter, Myra, came to my room to ask me what I was doing. When I told her I was napping she informed me that I had homework to do, and shouldn’t I be downstairs working on it. Ha! First my parents, now my kids.

  • Matthew


    I would like to thank you for your honest and inspirational story.

    I am 25 years old, currently engaged in the medical school application process, and have a 17-month-old son, William. I am a research associate for a regenerative medicine products company currently and commute 3 hours daily. Balancing fatherhood, working, and MCAT preparation was difficult to say the least. It was also the most incredible journey of my life and I was able to enjoy time with my wife and son throughout. My wife has been so very supportive which has and I believe will be what makes this all possible.

    Occasionally, I do become overwhelmed and doubtful about my pursuits and ambitions towards a medical career but your article has helped me immensely. When I first came across it, I immediately bookmarked it and return in those moments. My most significant fear is that the time I need to study will take time away from my son. Your story allows me to see that my goals are in fact achievable while balancing life and medical school. So again, thank you.

    Now back to secondaries!

    • Dan Gates

      Balancing wasn’t easy, it still isn’t easy. There will always be a part of me that thinks I could have studied more, and scored higher. It all comes home every time I pick Corbin up from daycare, and he screams, “Papa!” when I come into the room. And absolutely, my wife is the glue that holds my life together. Good skill (we don’t need luck, do we?)!

  • Za

    I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated this article. After years in healthcare administration and now in chemicals, I have realized my dream to be in medicine.My husband is very supportive, but I am my worst enemy and constantly go through the thoughts of what I could miss out on with my 9, 7, and 1 year old boys does scare me. I liked thinking of the week in terms of hours instead days because it allows more flexibility (“I need to get this done between 6 and 7”, rather than “I need to do all these things by Saturday”), and I can do that one now actually.

    Great article!

    • Dan Gates

      Hours, instead of days. I might give that a try. Right now, I don’t feel that I’m missing out on too much. I’d say we have it much easier than our predecessors. I have Uworld , UpToDate, and a pdf reader on my phone, so I can study wherever I go, easily. Waiting in line, answer a few questions. Grocery shopping, read up on diarrhea. Half time, look up Osgood-Schlatter. I can’t be there for everything, but that would be true even if I wasn’t in medical school.

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  • Evan Ritchey


    Inspiring! That’s the only word I could come up with for this article. I’m 25 and just this semester changed my business bachelors to science so that I could attend medical shool. This made me lose a year of classes that won’t transfer but that’s hardly a fraction compared to the years that I’ll be able to be a doctor. The only intimidating thing for me is that I am not your typical pre med student. I had a 2.7 GPA in high school, took two years off and was a year from finishing my bachelors (a very simple and generic bachelors I might add) I felt I was already in my profession as I do marketing for hanger clinic and my job covers the state. I have a 4.0 now with math up to calculus, and business classes which is like comparing apples to oranges when it comes to science. Anyways, I just started Chem 130 and I can say that I understand only after hours of reading which intimidates me because this is just the first of many classes, let alone an entry level course. Would you say that someone who takes 3 hours to study and understand a chemistry lesson compared to the usual student who gets it in an hour would have a major disadvantage in medical school? Bear in mind I also work 8-5 and have a 2 year old and 9 month old. I plan to stop working the regular job and move into a medical office of some sort. I’m 3 years away from medical school. I know my work ethic is there but I figure your input would be nice. Any suggestions would be helpful!

    • Matthew


      Chemistry is a difficult study from entry level courses on up to P. Chem. Its principles and concepts are quite abstract at times, especially in “general” chemistry. I obtained a degree in chemistry and struggled like you throughout. The only time I was truly confident in this subject was in organic chemistry. Myself and many of my peers believed that introductory chem was much more difficult to understand than organic. That’s not to say that that orgo didn’t require extensive studying, but the concepts were more tangible and I personally had a mind or learning style that allowed me to access the material with more ease. Try not to be intimidated! I know how hard that can be, especially in these courses, where you are learning vocabulary, concepts, equations, and all connections in between but as you study the material will eventually become more accessible. I don’t feel you will be at a disadvantage by any means. Some students just have a mind geared towards general chemistry and may find difficulties with organic chemistry instead. What I found that helped me immensely through these courses was Khan Academy online. if you haven’t used this before I say check it out, it’s free and quite helpful for these concepts. It also has apps for iphone/ipad too!

      Stay confident! Being a nontraditional applicant to med school places you in a different applicant pool. Your life experiences, return to school and obtaining a 4.0 all while supporting a family will all speak volumes to an admissions board!

      I wish you the best of luck!!

  • Vivian Z

    I am a young mom of 3. I am strongly considering becoming a doctor, but everyone I talk to (specifically nurses) tell me I should not do it and I should become a nurse. I don’t know if you could answer this for me, but I am going to ask anyway. Can it be done? By the sounds of your article, it seems extremely possible. However, what should be my deciding factor? I don’t feel like just “wanting” to do it, is enough? Is it?

    • Dan Gates

      I guess I should ask you, how much do you want it? Just wanting it could be enough. Support is huge, though, so you’ll want family. My wife and I take on each day as a team. Getting the kids to where they need to be and to study as much as is required to pass our classes was difficult, but it was manageable. I can’t tell you what your “deciding factor” should be. My wife says you have to really want it. This can’t be a “eh, I guess I’ll give it a go.” Med school was my life dream, and I still have difficult patches where I question my resolve. And, I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned my wife enough. Without her support, we wouldn’t have made it.

  • Jessica Ess Marcus

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this article. I am a 33 year old wife and mother of 2 boys (18 months and 3.5 years). I applied to med school after undergrad and got waitlisted, never to get in. I gave up, convinced myself that I wasn’t smart enough and started pursuing other things. I got a masters in nutrition and am now a registered dietitian. I love what I do, but I feel unfulfilled with the knowledge I have, and I can’t stop shaking the urge to dive deeper into it. I don’t know if this means I just need more advanced training in nutrition or if I should try again for med school.

    I keep pushing the thoughts out of my head, thinking that I am being selfish and that it’s now time to focus on my kids and their education. I know no one can tell me whether this is a true calling or just a need to conquer something I was denied 12 years ago, so I am still soul searching. But the idea of giving it another go makes my blood pulse with excitement, while also bringing tears to my eyes for all the sacrifices my husband and two boys will have to make.

    I’m curious to hear how you’re doing now and if would have changed anything. It’s so helpful to hear you breakdown the actual daily schedule, because as someone who thrives on balance, it’s great to see that you can still make time for kids, wife, eating healthy, sleeping. Is there anyone you recommend I speak to to come up with a practical plan for what step to take next?

    Thanks again,

    • Dan Gates

      Jessica, as an update, I am now a fourth year, the “easy” year. I’ve had a few struggles along the way, as there are a few exams I wish I’d studied a bit more for, but I’ve passed all my courses and clerkships. One of my daughters developed type 1 diabetes towards the end of my first year, and my son was diagnosed with autism last year. Needless to say, I feel overwhelmed at times. My wife is always there to listen, and we work hard knowing that we are in this together. Truthfully, I think talking to your husband is a good place to start as far as coming up with a plan. You two know your resources and your schedules. The rest is just becoming comfortable with change and uncertainty. I will also say, I haven’t been exercising as much as I should (or at all, really). Sacrifices, right?

      • Jessica Ess Marcus

        Hi Dan, thank you so much for the update. It sounds like you’re going through a pretty rough patch — I’m so sorry to hear about your kids’ diagnoses. Life is pretty messy, huh? What will the next few years look like in terms of scheduling? Are residency programs more grueling? I wish you well in your 4th year. Deep breathing has helped me get through the hardest times in my life (and chocolate!).