You made it. You were finally there. After thousands of hours of studying, dozens of tests, numerous volunteer and leadership experiences (to say nothing of many other sacrifices along the way), you had reached the pinnacle of your education. You earned the title you had so desperately yearned for: medical student.
We all come from diverse backgrounds. Hailing from different geographies, with ideologies and opinions cultivated through varied life experiences; we have achieved a wide range of accomplishments and now strive towards an assortment of career goals. And yet, despite these differences, medical school is very much the same for all of us.
Excited. Anxious. Enthused. Terrified. Determined. Uneasy. Driven. These words probably describe just a sample of what you felt when it all began. Regardless, you wanted to be here because, as we all told our medical school interviewers, you thought you would enjoy helping people and becoming a physician.
But what does that actually mean? Did you fully understand the weight of those words? The kind of personal toll they could take? I will be the first to admit that I did not.
We began the much-anticipated trek with intense enthusiasm, only to quickly realize what the adventure truly entails. We started to see how much studying is, in fact, required. Then came the additional responsibilities — leadership roles, community engagements, non-medical papers, other non-academic requirements and more. Those were soon followed by a growing list of sacrifices, such as giving up time with loved ones, less time dedicated to your favorite hobbies and of course, the blessed unaccounted-for-hours of the day we call sleep. Nevertheless, your enthusiasm and relentless personality pushed you forward and you become entrenched in the foundation of your medical career.
And then came the reality check. When exactly it happens will be different for each person, but it is the point where we realize that medical school is an extremely arduous process. We start to understand how difficult it is. It is exhausting in an intellectual, emotional, social, and physical way. Did we anticipate that? Of course we did. Did we have an understanding of what that would feel like? I didn’t. We aren’t strangers to difficult tasks or extreme efforts. In fact, our experience with various challenges is what brought us here. However, this is a new level of tough, requiring unwavering dedication. The sacrifices are greater and the rewards are rarely immediate. More people are criticizing your efforts than ever and unfortunately, they aren’t always warm and fuzzy versions of constructive criticism.
The journey medical students go through is similar to that of a marathon runner. Initially, the adrenaline and anxiety are enough to push through any obstacle that the course presents. However, these emotional and physical phenomena can only carry the runner so far and soon they are found seemingly alone to battle the remaining miles of asphalt. As their enthusiasm fades they begin to ask themselves, “Why did I do this?” or “Will I ever finish?” In much the same way, medical student burnout is real, and can become overwhelming. Many decide the commitment isn’t worth it and leave to pursue other interests, while others carry on suffering and unhappy. These are real struggles. Medical school, like marathons, shouldn’t be about staggering across the finish line but finishing strong with a passion for what you have accomplished.
No time during medical school is more decisive than when we contemplate the answers to those questions about what brought us here and why we should continue on. We shouldn’t be content to just finish; to just stagger through. We should expect to thrive and enjoy the journey. What that means is unique to each student but the process of discovering this is much the same. It requires reflection and a realization about who we truly are. Who were you when you came to school and this journey began? How has the experience impacted you? I do not believe that seismic changes of character or personality need to occur. Rather, the experiences of medical school can work synergistically with our past to become a refining and complementary step in fulfilling our potential. Finding ourselves and rediscovering our values within this new environment allows us to thrive.
Succeeding in medical school is an attainable reality for each of us. To do so requires that we have the right vision: to connect with who we are and with what matters most to us. As we identify what that vision is, we need to find balance so that the experience doesn’t overwhelm us. That isn’t to say that the road will be easy, but it will most certainly always be possible. We can do this right. We can thrive in medical school.