What to Expect as a Med School Spouse: Years 1 and 2

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

By Amy Rakowczyk, SDN Staff Writer

Congratulations! You are now officially a Medical Spouse. This is a highly rewarding, and also a highly challenging role. You’ve undoubtedly heard that “medical school is hard” and that there is a lot of studying and exams ahead. Your spouse is about to embark upon a completely new path, and you as the spouse, are along for the ride. This article is here to help you understand what’s in store so you can prepare yourself for the next two years!

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What To Expect In Medical School: Year 1

The first week of medical school, many first year classes set up social events to help the students meet each other and develop connections. I HIGHLY encourage you and your spouse to attend these events. Once training begins, your spouse will have few opportunities to casually connect with classmates. These social events are the time when many new friendships, and therefore “groups,” form. Some of the events might not be your thing, such as meeting at a bar at 10:00 pm or meeting at a park with kids in tow, but try to make an effort to attend as many events as you can.

Also consider hosting a get-together at your place with some people you’ve connected with, or even people you haven’t met yet. Sometimes there are small events that people arrange in the weeks before medical school as everyone is moving into town. This gives you an early opportunity to meet people and see if you connect. The sooner you can establish friendships, the better!

I cannot stress enough how important a social support network is for both you and your spouse. Medical school is going to demand a lot from both of you. You will be challenged personally and as a couple. You need friends that “get it” and who are going through it with you or have been there. Check out “How To Start A Medwives Group” for inspiration on getting yourself out there!

Once medical school begins, there will be orientations and then the lectures will start. Every program is different, so the details will come as you learn how your school runs things, but the overall structure is similar. Most of Year 1 will be attending lectures. Some programs have students starting to do clinic visits as well. Lectures may be on campus, or online via live or recorded video. It’s study, study, study with exams to check factual knowledge. Students will start to learn about patient encounters and will start practicing in labs and with practice patients. They will also start learning about the various specialties and what they do.

Even if your spouse is dead-set on a particular specialty, it is a good idea for them to start exploring as many specialties as possible by setting up shadowing opportunities as early as first year. The reality of the day-to-day work in any particular specialty is often far different from the public perception. The only way to figure out what will be a good fit is to try it out. As someone wise once said, “Clarity comes from engagement, not from thought.”

Early shadowing is especially important for specialties your spouse may not get much exposure to before 4th year, such as emergency medicine, anesthesiology, urology, ophthalmology, radiation oncology, dermatology, and any of the subspecialties of internal medicine (gastroenterology, allergy/immunology, oncology, etc.). If your spouse can get a good idea of what is involved in a specialty and rule it in or out as a career possibility after a day or two shadowing, that can avoid the need for spending an entire elective rotation to explore that single specialty, as well as set them up to be able to select electives that will support their eventual residency applications for any of the more competitive residency programs.

What does this mean for you as a medical spouse? It’s extra time apart, above and beyond the grueling study hours. Shadowing opportunities usually have to be set up by the student, during less busy times of the year (such as the first week after an exam). This is hard, but the dividends in doing this kind of early career exploration can be huge. You don’t want to be in a situation where your medical student spouse is having a crisis during 4th year, trying to figure out which specialty to apply to for residency. That can lead to a lot of unnecessary stress.

What To Expect Year 1: You And Your Spouse

You’ll enter into the new lifestyle of watching your spouse study for hours on end and running from one meeting to another. They will be trying to make sense of all of the requirements, where they’re supposed to be and when, and what they’re responsible for knowing and doing. Programs keep student’s schedules pretty packed, so time management and organization will be a huge factor in your spouse meeting the new demands of school while also still having time for you, and family and friends.

You may start feeling lonely, left out, unimportant (or less important than medical school), and less connected with your spouse. This is totally normal!! Some ways you can help yourself adjust and work through rough patches is to:

  1. Start or find a support group of other medical spouses/partners
  2. Set your expectations
  3. Read this article: “Sustainability: How Your Partnership Can Survive and Flourish in Medical School”

What To Expect In Medical School: Year 2

By now, your medical student will have a handle on how to study for medical school (and if they haven’t, they absolutely need to talk to an academic counselor to get help!). They’ve found their groove, and this year is all about pouring in the hours to prepare for “Step.” Step refers to USMLE Step 1, the first licensing exam (of a 3-step series) which medical students take at the end of their second year. It’s a monster that can be all-consuming for your spouse. Step is so important because the score your spouse receives on this exam will have a huge impact on what specialties they can pursue and what residency programs they can reasonably expect to have a chance of getting into. The more competitive the specialty, the higher the student needs to score.

What To Expect Year 2: You And Your Spouse

Your spouse will pretty much be MIA during the final preparation period for Step 1. They will be around, so you will technically “see” them, but they will be mostly unavailable. Most students set up pretty strict schedules for the weeks leading up to Step 1 in order to ensure they get through all the study material. If they take a study break to come up for air, they are probably going to be tired and cranky. They might show little interest in you, what you have going on, and anything that’s not going to be on the exam. This is a rough time for many couples.

Advice: Seek out your medical school support group, rely on friends and family, focus on your own interests and activities such as work and hobbies, or take some trips. Keep connected with your spouse in a way that works for your relationship. Remember that this too shall pass and it’s only temporary. Your spouse will not be “checked-out” forever and you will deepen your connection again soon. During those hard times, save this article and refer back to it to renew your strength: “Not Ours Anymore: Sharing Our Doctor Spouses.

Consider planning a fun outing or vacation for after they complete Step or any other long study period. This is a great way to snap them out of the study mode they’ve been living in and to return to life, and to you.
As with all things in life, what you will experience will not be exactly the same as it is for everyone else. Some years are harder for couples than other years, it just depends on your unique situation and your relationship.

All your feelings and frustrations are normal! Try to be gentle with each other, and take care of yourself and your relationship the best you can. It’s not all doom and gloom, as there will be many wonderful moments where you’ll feel deeply connected with your spouse. This is just to prepare you for any rough patches you might experience. Remember that any hard seasons that come, will go. You can do this!