Step 1 studying can be a lonely endeavor. This is true even if you have a study buddy — you may share a table at the local café, but you might as well be sitting in two different worlds. One of you reviews cardiac physiology while the other watches a renal pathology lecture. Your worlds may convene occasionally as one of you quizzes the other on neurocutaneous syndromes or shares an interesting tidbit from a question bank (“Did you know that Clostridium botulinum lives in Californian soil? I didn’t … oh NO!”).
So unless you carefully coordinate your studying with a friend, the bulk of your time is spent within an invisible sphere the radius of which is determined by the distance between you and your caffeinated beverage or the closest power outlet. Its boundaries are clear, but impenetrable, buzzing like an electric fence — just loudly enough for you to remember it’s there.
This magical hamster ball doesn’t have to be completely sinister. It can be a protective barrier from distraction and procrastination — a sign to any friends who approach you that, no, this is not a good time to rant about something offensive Iggy Azalea tweeted or about their apartment’s maintenance guy’s hallway shenanigans.
However, the best advice I can give anyone studying for Step 1 is to try your best to occasionally poke your head outside of the sphere: take some great big breaths of fresh air, listen to the rain pattering on the window, enjoy the warmth of sunlight on your face.
Even better, you can leave your sphere propped up in the corner of your apartment as you pick up your guitar and sing for a while. Or you can leave the sphere behind you when you go running outdoors and listen to your current pop guilty pleasure. Roll it into the yard and cover it with a blanket, then spend time with your significant other, friends, parents or children. Leave it in the car when you go to the mall, movie theater or restaurant.
The trick to abandoning your sphere is to not feel guilty about it. This was a struggle for me. With such a huge depth and breadth of information tested on Step 1, how could you possibly justify goofing around for a few hours? Plus, you’ll hear rumors that some other kid in your class studies for 16 hours a day and hasn’t left their desk to sleep or eat in two weeks (also, that they’re a cyborg).
But stepping out of the sphere to talk to loved ones (who weren’t studying for Step 1) reminded me that if I stepped away from my First Aid book for two hours then the sky would not split in two and belch a rain of apocalyptic magma. Life would move on, and the future was not determined solely by one three-digit number.
And after all, you can’t swim the length of a pool without taking any breaths. The same goes for living in the invisible sphere.
As medical students, we shadow physicians to learn about the nature of medicine from them and their patients. In this column, Diem traces her own shadow, preserving and illustrating her experiences—in class, in the hospital, and in between—as a humble medical student.