42 months. 1260 days. That is how much education is squeezed into the 45 months following that exciting first day when we were full of eagerness and had our white coats donned on us for the first time. There are two winter breaks and two spring breaks that offer much needed respite and shelter from the continuous downpour of medical knowledge being entrusted to us over these 45 months. Two winter breaks, two spring breaks, a couple short weeks between the USMLE Step 1 exam and third year, and perhaps most important of all — the precious “last summer” between first and second year.
The eight-week summer is destined to pass by far too fast. It’s a time to allow us to decompress and reflect on 10 of the most hectic months of our lives. These are eight weeks that are of significant importance for our success in the upcoming years and our mental well being moving forward. We all put heavy pressure on ourselves to spend this summer advancing our medical careers through research, summer classes for additional combined degrees or other activities. We are med students after all. We are our own harshest critics and hold ourselves to almost unobtainable standards. That’s part of the reason we have all made it to where we are today. We always demand more of ourselves at the sacrifice of leisure and sleep. And for that reason, to everyone that has a competitive research scholarship for this summer or knows exactly the specialty they want to pursue and are spending the summer shadowing, I say congratulations. But from the bottom of my heart and with all sincerity I also have to say: good luck.
Good luck because the same reason we are our own harshest critics and hold ourselves to almost unobtainable standards as med students is the same reason why physicians have some of the highest levels of substance abuse compared to other professional careers. It is the same reason burn out is prevalent in medical school and residency. Burn out which does not only leave physicians unhappy but has been shown to decrease the quality of patient care provided. It is the reason why I am not going to pursue full time research or academics for a significant portion of my summer. Not because I’m lazy or undedicated or uninterested in my field but because I want my passion and drive to be there when I come back for second year. It’s because the road we are on is not a 400-meter sprint, it’s a marathon that’s going to continue far after we pass mile 26. And this summer break we are gifted is the longest we are ever going to enjoy before the race starts again in early August. As much as being in medical school is about being a good med student, it is more importantly about becoming a good doctor.
If we have this summer free why not take advantage of something we won’t be able to do tomorrow? Why not throw ourselves into the “real” world and get grounded back into life outside of medical school? Even with a busy summer, there is always room to take at least two weeks for yourself. Even without traveling to the opposite corner of the world, there is much to be offered in our back yards: connecting with old friends, spending time with family, actually reading a book for fun, binge watching Netflix, exercising like you never can during school, or lounging in the summer sun knowing you don’t have to worry about a thing.
College had many exam weeks when we were busy for days with no free time. But then midterms or finals would finish and we would be coasting until the next round of tests. Today that exam week feel is a perpetual state we are always in, and it gives us more than enough to study for every hour of every day. It’s a feeling that permeates into our weekends and robs us of the rest and relaxation the weekend offers to so many others. It makes it so that the only times we are truly relaxed are those few rare weekends in between tests.
The mindset that I’ve tried to adopt isn’t just about how one break is spent, it’s about giving yourself that time off that you need and making the most of any opportunity you have to re-adjust back into the normal non-med school world. Regardless of how dedicated or persistent you are, the work won’t ever end if you allow it to take control of your life, unless you create your own time off. Whether that time off is one weekend in the middle of the school year where you leave your books at school or if its an entire summer, when you look back on these years you want to know that you lived and experienced the world around you. It’s something that you, and ultimately your patients, will benefit from.