10 things I wish I’d known before starting med school

It’s still a bit weird for me to know that I’m now officially a second-year medical student, but here’s my best shot at some pearls of wisdom!

  1. You really have to love medicine. If I offered you $100 million to quit medicine forever, you should be able to say no without looking back. I realize that sounds absurd, but my point is: if any amount of money will sway you, chances are you’re doing this for the wrong reason. Keep things in perspective: you beat out thousands of other applicants to win your spot in your class. Why did you bother fighting for a spot that would keep you out of the money-making world for 7+ years if you’re either a) after money or b) not really passionate about it? Never forget why you applied.
  2. Most of the people who enter med school are a little behind on maturity. I’m definitely guilty of this, and chances are, you are too. Think about it–most med students are hardcore nerds/smart-alecks who spent time studying when they could’ve been hanging out with their friends and learning social norms. Generally speaking, we have a bit less overall “life experience”. I’m not joking when I say I have classmates who complained about seeing penises in anatomy because they’d never seen one before and wished they’d had a gentler introduction. Take-home message: be understanding of classmates–at some point you’re going to seem immature too, and you’ll have to rely on someone to be patient with you. A healthy tolerance for drama (particularly of the romantic variety) helps. ;-)
  3. You have to find new ways to study. The chances that the same study habits that carried you through college will work in med school are slim–there’s just too much material, and the first step is accepting that, honestly, there’s no way you’re going to know it all. That’s a sore spot for people who’ve been academically successful all their lives, but it’s the plain truth. So find what lets you memorize and understand the high-yield material. Above all, don’t be afraid to reach out for help!
  4. Try not to piss people off. I don’t care how tempting it is–take the high road. When you enter med school, you become a professional, and you are judged as such 24/7 regardless of the situation. You just can’t afford to upset someone with more authority than you this early in your career, and for that matter, annoying your future colleagues is an obvious bad call as well. If you disagree with something, bring it up through tactful channels. Request relatively private meetings (but don’t be afraid to ask if people can come with you!), be cordial in e-mails, and re-read everything from multiple angles to make sure it can’t be taken the wrong way by someone in a bad mood. Practice good communication skills, and it’ll get you far!
  5. It’s easy to forget the human aspect. Drowning in information all day, it was easy to lose sight from time to time of the fact that all this book-learning is being done for the sake of helping others. Don’t let being a social butterfly take away from your studies, but don’t be the lone wolf either! Take the extra effort to say hi to everyone, give them a hug/high-five, ask them about their day, etc. Med school’s a tough experience, and you want as much mutual support from friends as possible. Who better to understand what you’re going through than your classmates? :-D
  6. It’s hard to take care of yourself. Eat healthy. Exercise. SLEEP. Everyone tells you to do this, but shoots, it’s not easy. Hint: it helps a ton if you learn how to time-manage properly! It seems to me like medicine is ironically a field where its practitioners have to fight to find the time to practice what they preach, and as a student adjusting to a whole ‘nother city, culture, and schedule, to call it tough would be giving it rather short shrift. I guess when it comes down to it, just remember to have fun with the whole experience, or else it’ll drive you up the wall. Make time to hang out with friends, call up old pals to catch up, etc. Part of taking care of yourself is keeping your sense of humor, so remember to laugh and love life. Being a med student is a very blessed position, don’t ever forget it!
  7. Open-mindedness is key. I came into med school all gung-ho about going for ER residencies, and while I’m still really in love with the field, I’m starting to consider trauma surgery too, and for 10 minutes at a time when our ophtho prof shows us a sweet operation video, I consider ophthalmology. Seeing my neurology professors lecture is like experiencing poetry in motion, and after finishing that class I’m utterly in love with neuro too. You might know what you’re interested in, and that’s great, but just remember how broad medicine is. A wonderful professor gave me this piece of advice: “When you’re on surgery, be the best surgery student you can be. When you’re on peds, be the best pediatric student you can be. And so on and so forth. It doesn’t matter how little interest you walk into a rotation with, you owe it to the patients and the rest of the team to be at your best. Besides, how are you going to figure out how much you like or dislike something without giving it a legitimate try?”
  8. Hacks and resourcefulness will save time, effort, and money. Don’t wanna blow your dough on textbooks? Find out what your library carries. Interested in research? Introduce yourself to cool profs right after their lecture and then e-mail them while their memory of you is still fresh. Food budget getting tight? Search your e-mail for local events with free food. Stayed up late at school studying and don’t feel like going home? Remember where the comfy sofas and shower facilities are and keep a change of clothes at school (some deodorant helps too). Don’t want to spend $100+ repairing your cracked iPhone screen? Get the local tech nerd to do it for you with a $13 replacement off of eBay. You get the idea.
  9. People will automatically trust you, and treat you differently. Family will start bombarding you with medical questions, friends will text you with ailments even though they’re thousands of miles away and you can’t even do a basic physical, and strangers will approach you with a trust that you will probably find shocking. Get used to it. Everyone sees you as a professional, and really, the best you can do as a medical student is to tell them what you know and humbly admit just how much you don’t. Don’t abuse anyone’s trust. Don’t act like you know something when you don’t, it’ll just bite you in the butt later, and the stories that go around about arrogant med students trying to show up their peers are mindblowing. If one of your classmates does this, don’t bother trying to one-up them, it’s just not worth it–they’ll usually get their comeuppance when it comes to reviews anyways.
  10. MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL: teach. The word “doctor” does not mean “healer”, “provider of cures”, “surgeon”, or anything specific to the field of medicine. In Latin it means “teacher”, and its origin was the verb “docre”, which means “to teach”. The first line of the Hippocratic oath is not “Do no harm”, as popularly believed–the first line pledges honor to the person who taught the practitioner, and includes a vow to teach others. So educate yourself. Help educate your classmates. Educate your future patients. If someone asks you a question about medicine, don’t just slap it off as “something you’ll learn later”. Take the opportunity to find out, review, and follow up. Be patient. Be gentle. Remember that outside of a test scenario you’re getting asked by someone who doesn’t know the answer, and they’re genuinely curious.

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Feel free to comment and/or make suggestions!

Answer dedicated to Anna Parks, UCSF class of 2014. Best of luck, Anna, I’ll always be rooting for you. :-)