As a member of the Medical Scholars Program at UIUC for the last 4.5 years, I have been pursuing a doctorate in the hard sciences while simultaneously completing the first-year medical school curriculum. This may seem like a daunting task (and the majority of the time, it is!) and pursuing a career in medicine under any circumstances is very challenging.
In addition to the demands of medical coursework, there are always familial and personal relationships, hobbies, activities and commitments that require the time to pursue and maintain. So, I wanted to share some techniques that have helped me manage my time and energy, and invite you to share what has helped you.
Time Organization and Management
As medical students (and PhD students), much of our day-to-day schedule is unfortunately out of our control—between classes, meetings, seminars and scheduled shifts in the clinic. For some days or pockets of time in which I do have more flexibility, I have to decide how best to attack the list of experiments to do, the folder of course lectures I must review, the preparation for the upcoming exam, the pile of research articles I should read, and so forth.
Mentally reviewing all these must-do, should-do and would-be-nice-to-do tasks usually makes me anxious, and then thinking about everything I need to do in my personal life (grocery shopping, laundry, planning a get-together with friends) starts making me hyperventilate. So, I do my best to organize tasks by category (research, medical school, personal), by importance, and by deadlines.
Following guidelines set forth by David Allen (of “Getting Things Done” fame—or notoriety), I break down large, ambiguous, unwieldy projects like “study for the upcoming exam” into concrete smaller tasks, such as “do questions in the pretest book,” “do questions in BRS,” and “vent at inconsistencies in the lecture notes.”
I then plan which set of tasks to tackle during a given time, trying to overestimate versus underestimate the amount of time required for completion. I derive a sense of accomplishment from crossing off each completed task, and if I finish ahead of schedule, I reward myself with a break time.
Consistency Trumps “Firefighter” Mode
Being a graduate student and a medical student, it is very tempting to live in “firefighter” mode, focusing exclusively on graduate studies and bench work for several weeks whilst slacking off in medical courses, then going into panic mode the week of (or day before) medical school exams and going on a cramming binge.
While I can’t say I’ve never engaged in this behavior pattern, I find it best for research productivity and long-term learning to be consistent with both research and coursework. If I consistently invest eight to 10 hours each day focused on being an excellent research scientist (performing experiments, preparing research presentations, reading relevant papers, attending seminars), and two to four hours each day on being an excellent medical student (attending lecture, reviewing material, studying for exams), my life is much less stressful and much more productive and manageable.
And, most of the time, working consistently makes it possible to take days or evenings off guilt-free. The same applies to traditional medical students juggling other priorities in their lives—relationships, families, volunteering and staying healthy.
Reminding Ourselves of our Long-Term Goals
Sometimes when I’m mired in endless experiments or time-consuming coursework, it’s easy to lose sight of why I’m doing what I’m doing. I find it helpful to periodically (but consistently) write out my goals for the future. Where do I want to be in one year’s time? Three years’ time? Ten years’ time? Twenty-five years’ time? Am I on track to attain those goals? Are my day-to-day activities setting me up to achieve these goals, or do I need to change my behavior now to reach those goals in the long-term?
The act of reviewing my goals, and reminding myself that I am taking the prerequisite actions in the present time to set the foundation for my future goals, boosts my morale and motivation.
Pursuing a career in medicine, research or both fields is extremely challenging. Not everyone in our lives will understand what we’re doing or offer us support. But it is important to identify and surround ourselves with both people who understand what we’re going through: fellow medical, graduate, and combined degree students, as well as mentors and more senior trainees. And, of course, people who love and support us, our family and friends.
Being Kind and Understanding with Ourselves
We are all working very hard, investing incredible amounts of time, effort and money into pursuing careers in medicine and research. As someone who has battled perfectionist and self-critical tendencies all her life, I can easily get upset with myself when my Western blot bands don’t look like the ones in every Cell paper, or I don’t score as well on an exam as I had wanted.
It’s important that we acknowledge and thank ourselves for all the work and energy we invest into our educations. We can thank ourselves by investing in our physical, emotional and mental well-being: taking guilt-free time for sleeping, exercising, socializing and pursuing other fun and relaxing activities.
This column explores the MD/PhD career track from a current trainee’s perspective, including the benefits and challenges of pursuing two doctoral degrees simultaneously, time management and life balance, and post-graduation training and career opportunities.