How to Survive Medical School Without Becoming a Patient



The road to becoming a doctor is long and hard. Your four years in medical school will be some of the most difficult, sleep-deprived, stressful, exhausting, humbling, yet ultimately rewarding of your life. Not everyone can survive the grueling process of becoming a physician.
I completed medical school at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. I did pretty well, but at times worried that I was going to flunk out and become a lab rat for the rest of my life.
Looking back, most physicians have certain words of advice they wished they heard prior to or during medical school. Some of the advice may be practical, some tongue-in-cheek, and others profound. I’ve compiled eleven tips that can help you survive medical school without ending up as a patient.
Pre-Medical School
Have Fun Before You Start – The day your medical school orientation begins, life as you know it is over. For the next four years you will be dedicated to learning everything it takes to become a doctor. This means that you will never again have a real summer vacation. So the summer before medical school is a key time for you to HAVE FUN. Do some travelling, hang out at the beach, read trashy vampire novels, and see some old friends and family. Just don’t study. Plenty of time for that later.
Minimize Distractions – When preparing for medical school life, it’s best to minimize any distractions from your prime objective: studying. Overall, medical school means study. And then study some more. And when you finish all that studying, you will definitely feel the need to study. That means you should cancel your Netflix subscription, since your days of watching an entire season of Dexter in one sitting are over. You will not have time to play Angry Birds. Don’t spend a ton of dough on a brand new 3-D television. Either you’ll feel obligated to watch it instead of studying, causing your test scores to drop, or you will neglect it and waste your money.
Live Off Campus – One of the biggest mistakes I made was signing up to live in the graduate dorm. Living in a dorm room comes with distractions. The walls are thin, people are awake and talking at all hours, and my room was the size of a veal pen with comparable aesthetics. I spent my first evening as a med student wide awake listening to my neighbor flushing the toilet. All night. This is not the way to start life as a doctor-in-training. You are no longer a college student. Get an apartment.
Relax – You’ve made it. The weeding out process is over. Once you receive the golden ticket of admission to medical school, you are almost certainly going to be a doctor. This is not like undergrad, where the professor tells you, “Look to your left. Look to your right. Only one of you will become a doctor.” On the contrary, it’s more like, “Look to your left. Look to your right. All of you will become doctors… except that shifty-looking guy in the corner.” So relax. The next four years will be tough, but you will survive and get your M.D. or D.O. like the majority of other medical students.
During Medical School
Balance – Don’t neglect sleep, eating a balanced diet, and regular exercise. I took up running in medical school. Now, don’t get me wrong. I hate running. But as a medical student I began running because it was the most efficient and quickest way to burn a bunch of calories and get back to studying as soon as possible. Most importantly, keep in contact with the ones you love, especially your parents, your spouse, and (if you have any) children. You will need these relationships to help support you during the trying times of med school. Plus, you will need people to practice your physical exams and blood draws on.
Run Away – Every so often get away from campus and visit some old friends. Get perspective on life. Sometimes it’s therapeutic to chat with someone over dinner about something other than disgusting parasitic diseases or the Kreb’s Cycle. Spend time talking with people in other fields and remind yourself that there is life outside of medical school.
Look Professional – This is not the Hard Rock Café. You may want to consider getting rid of your chin or lip piercings, gauge earrings, funky hair, Justin Beiber concert T’s, and jeggings. Patients expect their doctors to look mature and professional. Doctors expect the same out of their medical students. Look the part, and others will believe you in the role.
Wear Plastic Shoes – Take a tip from the nurses and buy a pair of plastic shoes, such as Crocs. Your shoes are going to come into contact with a variety of colored bodily fluids, just like your blindingly white short lab coat. Crocs and other plastic/rubber slip-on shoes are comfortable, perfect for a night on call, and easy to hose off after a direct hit from afterbirth on your OB rotation.
Network – Take some time during your few weeks off in medical school to network. Meet doctors in your specialty of interest by shadowing them in their offices and volunteering in clinics. At the beginning of your fourth year you will need at least one doctor to write you a letter of recommendation. In medicine, who you know and what they say about you counts a ton.
Be Realistic – Hard work and desire aren’t always enough. If you fail a bunch of exams and have mediocre board scores you may need to reassess your specialty of choice. Sure, the last student in the graduating class is called “Doctor” – but they probably won’t be called “ophthalmologist,” “orthopedic surgeon,” or “dermatologist.”
Don’t Take It Personally – There is a definite hierarchy in the hospital. As a medical student you’ve got sixteen years of schooling under your belt and were probably at the top of your high school and college classes. So where do you lie on the hospital food chain? The BOTTOM. You will undoubtedly encounter physicians and nurses who treat you like dirt. In my book I described a nurse who threatened to cut off my scrub pants in the middle of an operation, leaving me with only my smiley face Joe Boxers. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Do not take it personally. Embrace the fact that you are a student and use your four years of medical school to learn as much as possible. You owe it to yourself, your teachers, and especially, your future patients.
Good luck!
Anthony Youn, MD, FACS is a board-certified plastic surgeon in Metro Detroit. He is an Assistant Professor of Surgery at the Oakland University / William Beaumont School of Medicine. He is the author of In Stitches, a critically-acclaimed, humorous memoir about medical school. For more information, visit http://www.institchesbook.com/.

2 thoughts on “How to Survive Medical School Without Becoming a Patient

  • May 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm
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    I appreciate the advice.

  • May 31, 2012 at 4:54 pm
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    My only gripe with this is looking professional. When you’re going to class, that should be your last priority. Don’t waste time trying to look the part of a doctor, because you’re not one. The only time to look professional in Medical School is when you’re in the clinic.
    The last thing I’d add to this is probably the most important; Don’t be afraid to ask for help! A lot of times you’ll think it’s weak/idiotic to ask a question/ask for help, but that’s not true. It definitely pays off to ask the most insane questions because you want to be safe than sorry. This also means when you feel stressed and depressed; they do have the ability to help and do want you to succeed. If you’re failing exams, don’t think “I just need to study harder”, because a lot of times it’s not that at all. Professors are willing to help you succeed and usually don’t have a problem sitting and talking to you about concepts you don’t understand. I can personally vouch for this during neuro – Before every exam, I’d have an email conversation spanning 50 emails back and forth to make 100% sure I understand the concept. Take pride out of the equation for a minute and don’t be afraid to look like an idiot. Better to be an idiot in school than an idiot taking boards/practicing as a physician.

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