Nita Chen, fourth-year medical student at Albany Medical College, recently matched into neurology at UC Irvine. She’s here today to share some tips that got her through medical school.
Tell us about yourself.
Nita Chen: I am an introverted nerd who enjoys neuroscience, creative writing, the horror genre, pearl milk tea and organism cognition. When I’m not immersed in trying to soak up cool tidbits of neuroscience, I can be found in the niche of a crazy, old, cat lady. I enjoy writing prose and ranting on my boba and bubble milk tea blog about my miserable attempts at amateur cooking and baking. I also twiddle my thumbs on yarn with crocheting hooks, so you know you’re a friend of mine if you’ve received a bumpy, lumpy gift. Doodling is another one of my pastimes, and you can see me scratching up the page when my thoughts wander. Other than that, I’m your average California gal, having lived in the Bay Area for my high school career and then having moved down to UC San Diego for my undergraduate career. I was a bit of a marinating laboratory rat, and I got to sample a variety of benchwork, ranging from cellular biology techniques to macaque monkey experiments. I solidified my passion for the neurosciences then, and I also figured out that I had no interest in orthopedic surgery (don’t ask; I got involved in spinal research).
Looking back on your medical school experience, what would you say to the young and naïve “first-year you”?
NC: Biggest advice that will not be taken: don’t worry so much about your grades.
What tips do you have for USMLE?
Have a schedule. Before you start studying, have a schedule in mind with specific tasks each day. There should be blocks of time where you divide up certain question blocks and study time. Plan in diagnostic testing to simulate a real mock examination and see where you are.
Diagnostic tests. There is no right number of these to take. Because they simulate the real examination, and the current practice forms do not provide answers to questions you get wrong, these practice examinations are not useful in adding to your knowledge bank. It’s a good marker, but you’re losing half a day, at least, not studying. Therefore, it is important to balance the number of these you take as well as the timing within your study schedule.
Communication. Keep your deans and advisors cognizant of your progress, even if things are going swimmingly. Their awareness of your struggle through these tough times is a good source of support, and they will be there to help make accommodations should things start to crumple.
Break time. This is obvious, but it’s the most understated element of preparing for these arduous examinations. It’s so easy to feel behind and inadequate that you might want to just “power through” and soak up as much knowledge as you can. However, taking breathers are necessary. Burnouts are common casualties in this intensive period, so it’s best to have a designated “mindless” activity (whether it’s exercising or loafing around) to give your exhausted brain some reprieve.
Flexibility. Lastly, it’s important to have a schedule and stick to it for the most part, don’t be afraid to change it if necessary. It’s easy to get caught up in chasing down rabbit holes for obscure knowledge, so knowing when to call it quits (because we’re still studying for a test and not just for knowledge) is essential. Sometimes, being self-aware is sufficient to guide your studies; other times, you might need a study partner to look out for each other. Either way, choose what works best for you.
The best strategy is to be prepared but flexible when studying. Do what you got to do. Don’t peep at others’ progress.
What advice do you have for the students going through clinical rotations?
Activity. I think the best piece of advice is to always try to be an active member of the team. No matter what rotation you are on, seeking out opportunities will open so many more doors to learning than to passively wait to be instructed. It’s easy to just sit back and wait until high power (be that the attending or resident) bestows a task upon you. No one can do that all the time, but trying to be perceptive to the workings and dynamics of the entire team will not go unnoticed. Watching for the small things that you can pick up on, whether that’s updating patient lists or even jotting down laboratory values beforehand, can demonstrate to the team that you’re capable and you’re integrated. These things don’t go unnoticed, and often times you will be rewarded with more responsibilities.
H&P powerhouse. As medical students, we are gifted with the luxury of time. We are not burdened with the need of never-ending tasks and requests from all fronts. This means that we have the most facetime with patients and their loved ones. Oftentimes, medical students are the ones who can conduct the most thorough history and have the best understanding of the entire medical-socio-economic circumstance. You can be your patient’s advocate. You can be the one to really know what they’re concerned about and have that addressed. Being able to check back on the patient and update any plans or answer any questions means that the team provides greater care to the patient.
Be brave! This is a piece of advice I need to take for myself. In a learning team and as a medical student, I often feel anxious about my lack of knowledge and experience. When questions are asked, I often shy away from answering boldly; what follows is the doh! feeling when my silent answer is right. Be brave! Answer that question even if you’re unsure. If you’re right, that’s great! If you’re wrong, you learned something! It’ll be more memorable to you than a passing thought. It also demonstrates to the team that you’re thinking and learning. What I’ve learned is that most of the time, no one expects you to learn anything, so there are no expectations! That means you’ve got nothing to lose! It’s definitely something I still struggle with, but pushing myself to keep putting myself out there has really helped my learning process.
What recommendations do you have for medical students to maintain their sanity?
NC: Having a life outside of studying is vital to success in medical school. Especially during the first two years, it can feel like studying is all-consuming, but it’s important to maintain a routine and have self-care activities in place. Don’t budge on those self-care routines because they can be more important than you think! It’s easy from hindsight to spot the early signs of burnout, but it’s much more difficult to notice a deterioration when you’re in the midst of all the craziness. Keep a hobby, do something productive, and stay connected with people! Medical school is an oddly isolating experience despite the same class trudging through the same curriculum. You may be surprised that someone else in your class is struggling with similar things as you. It’s good to be knowledgeable of the support and counseling services the school can offer. Make sure you are cognizant of them, and support each other!
How did medical school differ from your expectations?
NC: In a strange way, medical school has been filled with a series of oxymorons. In some ways, medical school has been an incredibly supportive experience. I initially entered expecting “gunners” and aggressive students, but for the most part, almost everyone is incredibly friendly and helpful. Through the common suffering, we have grown and matured together as a class, and it’s definitely felt like family. So many good, touching memories of my classmates having my back when I needed them bring warmth to my heart.
However, in many ways, the medical school experience has been largely isolating. Although we share similar experiences and similar obstacles, most of us must struggle through these difficulties on our own. Much of this is because we must overcome these ourselves and at different times of our academic career. Of course, it’s helpful to discuss and commiserate with our fellow classmates going through similar trifles, but sometimes it can feel quite isolating. Strangely enough, the hardest parts of medical school often have nothing to do with the difficulty of the curriculum; in fact, it’s the life that flows on regardless of our schooling is what often wreaks the most troubling headaches.
What things did you do during your four years of medical school that you believe particularly impressed your residency program?
NC: Every field has different expectations and different interests in their candidates, so what I think was impressive for my case may not be relevant to other fields. Personally, I think my persistent interest in research was a topic of discussion during my interviews. Since college, I had participated in some sort of research, and my experiences are somewhat eclectic, so it’s been an excellent talking piece no matter where I went. I also believe that my research serves as an informative expression of my growth and developing interest in neurology.
Aside from my research, I think my extracurricular interests were of interest to the residency programs. I have always been very invested in mentorship and teaching, which showed through my choices of clubs and extracurricular activities I engaged in. I suppose what interests residencies the most is the unusual non-medical activities that one engages in because these are the signs that tell of your personality and your interests.
What attracted you to your chosen specialty?
NC: I was first inspired into the neurosciences during my fetal pig brain dissection during high school. I was fascinated by an article regarding multitasking and behavioral neuroscience came together with its molecular counterpart. In college, I majored in neuroscience and physiology as well as cognitive science. I absolutely loved it! I also participated in a lot of different types of research, which solidified and broadened my interests in the neurosciences.
Funnily enough, I initially started medical school with the intention of pursuing neurosurgery. My thought process was combining neuroscience and hands-on work inspired from my love for research naturally meant neurosurgery was a good plan. However, as I gained more knowledge about the fields and worked with neurosurgery during my third-year rotation, I realized my interests gravitated towards the neurologists. I loved the continuity of care and excellent rapport neurologists have. The ability to provide wholesome comprehensive care that really focused on patients’ quality of life was something I was incredibly inspired by. When I worked with the neurologists, I truly felt that patients weren’t treated as mere end goals to treating a collection of symptoms. The collegiate discussion of neurological pathophysiology was incredibly attractive as well! Besides, what’s not to love about a neurologist?
What is your biggest fear about beginning residency?
NC: Incompetence is something that most of us struggle with. As neophytes on this expansive career, we know very little about the realities of medicine and healthcare. Being incompetent is a normal process, but my greatest worry is that I will be unable to grow out of it and get left behind in the ever-growing world of medicine.
What advice would you give third-year students about to start the Match process?
NC: Make sure to do your homework and have a general plan of what your goals are. It’s important to discuss with your fellow classmates, experienced upperclassmen and the faculty, but it’s also important to remember that what you decide is highly personal to your circumstance. Everyone has different priorities. Make sure you figure out what’s best for your specific circumstance and don’t feel bad for it! It’s easy to feel inadequate or confused during this process, but be true to yourself. Write down goals and notes while you interview so you can revisit these thoughts at a later time. It’s okay to change your mind, and it’s okay to make changes, too!
And a fun bonus question! Please share an easy and quick recipe that got you through tough weeks in medical school.
1 pound mochiko (glutinous rice flour)
2 1/2 cups white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup butter, melted
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease a 9×13 inch baking dish.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, vanilla and milk. In a separate larger bowl, stir together the rice flour, sugar and baking powder. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and stir to blend. Mix in melted butter and coconut. Pour into the prepared pan.
Bake for 1 hour in the preheated oven. Cool completely, then cut into squares to serve.