I have officially completed my first year of medicine and my first summer of medical school has begun. Reflecting on this year has given me a lot to think about based on the amount of maturing and learning that has happened. It is difficult to write down or list everything I have learned, especially anything pertaining to topics outside of the realm of medicine itself, so instead I will elucidate some of the themes and realizations that were relevant to me this year.
Learning Point 1 – Studying for Medicine is Close to a Full-Time Job
In my undergraduate education, I could often get away with procrastinating and cramming information into my head last minute before an evaluation. Even if I was studying in advance, it was not much of a “full time” sort of deal and it was fairly doable to juggle work, extra-curriculars, a social life and still do well in school. This was because we were fed an appropriate amount of information and detail for the most part in undergrad. We were only expected to know information that was directly taught in class for the most part. The volume of content allowed us to learn at a reasonable pace and a key aspect is the lack of accountability on the knowledge. If you were studying the sciences, chances are most of what you learn will not apply to your career immediately, especially if you are thinking of going into medicine. Most of the background knowledge is essential for good understanding, but the specifics and details are not necessary to function. As a result, there is little accountability on individuals to retain material for the long-term. Instead, the accountability and motivation is for the marks alone. In medicine the shift is that a majority of what you learn is useful in some aspect of your immediate career, and retention is vital. While it is impossible to remember everything you learn long-term, you do want to aim to retain the key clinically relevant information, especially if you are aiming for a general specialty like internal, family or emergency medicine.
To get to those more specific specialties where the breadth may not be as relevant, early in your career you will need to do rotations in more general work, and in order to learn the most from those experiences, and perform the best you can, having that foundational knowledge to lean on is essential. The reason you need to study regularly is not only because it is the best way to retain information for the long-term, but also because of the fact that studying medicine really is like trying to drink water out of a fire hydrant. The amount of information you are fed is enormous, and it can be difficult to keep up with it all. In order to prevent overflow and allow yourself to learn the material, regular studying is essential. Another important aspect to keep in mind is that while learning what is taught in class is vital, not all the information regarding a topic is taught in class. They aim to provide you with the “top hits”, but there is so much information, and they cannot cover all of it, so sometimes you are left with gaps of knowledge that you need to fill yourself. Medicine is very self-directed.
Now a beautiful aspect of studying medicine is the fact that you have the ability to control and manage your time for the most part. Many programs have mostly optional lectures that you can watch from home, or they provide self-study time in your schedule to allow you to manage your own schedule well. Another huge benefit is the pass/fail system that Canadian med schools have adopted. It removes the pressure of having to get that 90+% through memorizing details, and instead allows you to focus on reinforcing concepts and learn for whatever you think is key. If you prefer to learn topics that are not testable in order to be more knowledgeable on the topics in the future by having a wider breadth, then you are able to. If you prefer to spend time to broader your horizons and get more active in the community, do more shadowing, or take on more research positions, then you also have that ability. It really is up to you, but regardless of what you do, I have realized that keeping yourself busy is essential in order to succeed and make the most out of the experience.
Learning Point 2 – Connections are King
In medicine there are many qualities you need to succeed, of course having a solid theoretical and clinical background are vital but having a good set of contacts and connections is just as important. Mentorship is very important especially if you are like me and do not have any family in medicine. There are many aspects of medicine that are not formally taught which you would only know through practicing or having the information provided to you by those that are doing so. With that said, having a solid group of diverse mentors can do a lot for you now and in the future. This is something I wish I knew earlier but am glad I still figured out within my first year. Mentors for every step of the way can be very important such as having a clerk, resident and staff mentor as some of your mentors.
What mentors can provide is solid advice that can go a long way. They tend to be more honest in conversations they have with you that are “off the record” and they have succeeded in their career in something that you are interested in so there is credibility in the advice they can give you. You also never know, maybe one day you will need a job and you can call up some of the mentors you had, and they can help connect you with someone they know to get you employed. Having that social capital can do wonders for yourself now and pay dividends in the future.
Many of you might be wondering how you acquire mentors. The great thing about medicine is the friendliness and understanding of almost all physicians towards medical students and learners. They were all where you are now, and they are always willing to help. I was dumbfounded by the amount of time they would put in helping other students like myself out for no benefit to themselves, but just because they want to help. Find someone who is doing something cool, something you are interested in or someone you just like and would like to learn more from. Shoot them an email and ask to chat with them over coffee or lunch saying you are interested in what they do and offer some availabilities. Worst case, they do not respond. Best case, you got yourself a meeting and a potential new mentor. Come in with specific questions they can answer, and hopefully in the process you can learn something.
Learning Point 3 – Learn to say no and stop comparing yourself
This is one of the hardest things in my opinion to adopt, and something I am still working on. At UofT medical school I am surrounded by incredibly talented individuals that are all doing amazing things. This can be intimidating and have you constantly looking over your shoulder to your peers and comparing yourself. Wondering if you are doing enough extracurriculars, clubs, studying, schoolwork etc. and through it all you tend to always think others are doing more than you are. So, I will say to remember that getting into medical school itself is enough of an accomplishment. If you have more interests outside of medicine then pursue them, this will make you a more well-rounded person and it might even help make you a better physician, but do not bite off more than you can chew. If you start to take on too much, or you overfill your schedule you can end up slacking in what matters most – learning and performing medicine. Being a doctor is your career and you should spend your time learning how to be a good physician. This does not mean you should not take on anything else but instead, ensure that you can handle the balance between school and whatever else you are involved in. Do not jeopardize your sleep to take on a bunch of things that you are not even interested in and in which you are not learning medicine in the process. Pick a few things you have a genuine interest in, do those things not for your resume, but because you are passionate about them, and then from there say no to everything that does not meet that level of excitement.
There are countless learning points I could have mentioned and going into medical school has been one of the most rewarding opportunities in my life. Looking back, I have grown in countless ways, and while it has been a tough year in some ways, it has been immensely rewarding. For all those joining me in this upcoming year, or those considering it or working towards medicine, I have to reiterate how great a career it really is. While I still have a long journey ahead of me, and you will be hearing from me as I go through my various experiences, so far, I have no regrets. Reflect on your life up to now, and keep your head up going forward no matter what you are going into. Aim to grow as much as possible while still enjoying all the aspects of your life, since you only have one at the end of the day.
Thanks for reading.