Life as a Medical Student: 12 Things You Really Have to Know
Robert Cronshaw, a Medical student at Jesus College, Cambridge, shares twelve insights into life as a medical student at University.
Scanning electron micrograph of Streptococcus pyogenese bacteria (yellow) bound to a human neutrophil (blue)
Becoming a medical student can be a daunting prospect; university is a very different environment to school, with unique opportunities and challenges.
Being a medical student will involve working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life – but chances are, it’ll also involve having more fun than you’ve ever had before. There are plenty of off-putting myths about being a medical student, but in reality it’s enjoyable, interesting and highly rewarding, especially in light of what you’re working towards. In this article I will describe 12 things about being a medical student that I hope will reassure and excite you about the prospect of studying medicine.
1. You will be able to use what you learn for the rest of your life
This might seem like a fairly trivial point, but it should not be overlooked. The truth for many courses is that you are only really studying in order to pass your exams and once you have managed this the information which you have tried so hard to learn is largely useless to you. This is very much not the case in medicine, with areas of study including anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology and pathology all being directly applicable in diagnosing, understanding and treating a disease. Not only is this a great incentive to learn the core course material well, in order that you will be a competent doctor, it is also an incentive to go beyond the basic lecture material and satisfy your curiosity about what you have been taught. As a medic this extra detail could one day be put into practice in a clinical situation and could make a crucial difference to a patient. When you are studying medicine you are not just studying for the next exam but taking the first steps on a course of lifelong learning, building your basis of professional knowledge throughout your medical career.
2. Sometimes it’s hard work
Studying medicine comes with a certain expectation to work harder on average than most other students. There are generally more contact hours than other subjects (this year I have a 9-5 day every Friday) with practicals and lectures taking up a great deal of time. Of course it’s not just the contact hours when you are working: lecture notes need to be read over, essays have to be written, practicals should be prepared for and keeping on top of it all can be a challenge. This is especially the case as your work load will vary from week to week, sometimes being set a great deal of work and sometimes having a whole week with very little to do. Therefore it’s important to be flexible with how you work and appreciate that sometimes you will have to put in a long stint of work in order to have the time off when you need it. There’s also a reasonable amount of pressure on to pass exams. In most subjects other than medicine what you are really studying and aiming for is the best grade possible. Obviously this is true to an extent in medicine, but there is an additional challenge, which is the very high pass marks for the “2nd MB” exams, the ones you have to pass in order to become a doctor. By being passed in these you are essentially being certified as competent enough in a subject area to continue towards a professional medical career. Passing these exams can often require cramming a great deal of knowledge in a small space of time and this can be stressful, but the reward after exams is a long summer to enjoy. Medicine can be challenging, but…
3. It’s not all hard work!
Don’t panic, medicine can be challenging but you’ll still have plenty of time to enjoy being an undergraduate, an experience that many people say is the best time of their life. The level of work in the course is such that you will have time to make the most out of other activities at university, such as sports, music and the huge range of other societies that are on offer at university. All that you need to do in order to manage these other activities is be efficient with the time you spend working; don’t spend a whole afternoon watching YouTube videos if you know you have a music rehearsal that evening. University is about a lot more than simply gaining a degree, you will learn a lot about yourself and other people and hopefully build yourself into someone who is capable of being a good doctor.
4. Being a medical student isn’t all about studying medicine
All these activities that you can do in your spare time aren’t just about having fun, however. While the main reason you do them is to enjoy yourself and take your mind off work they are actually very important in your “personal development”. This is, as mentioned above, working on skills that are outside the scope of academic study but are still vital to being an effective doctor. For example, by taking part in music or theatre you will become accustomed to performing in front of a large crowd of people and as a consequence if you ever have to present at a conference or even to a team of your colleagues, you will be able to stand up with confidence and say what you need to. Equally, playing in a sports team will help you function with other people, some of whom you may have a personality clash with or strongly differ in opinions. You become used to a position of responsibility, with other people relying on you to perform your role, sometimes under pressure. Sports and societies also provide an opportunity to take a leadership and organisational role, which once again will become very important in a clinical context, whether it is organising ward staff or running a practice as a GP. Medicine is a career in which it is vital to emerge from university as a functional person who is capable of interacting well with others. This will not be achieved by sitting in your room every evening and studying the lecture notes: there is an important balance to be struck between working and having a life.
5. Studying anatomy involves more than looking at pictures
Anatomy can be rather full-on, especially at traditional institutions such as Cambridge, where throughout the course of your first year you dissect a “subject” who has decided to donate their body to training medical students. This means getting involved with a scalpel yourself and doing what can occasionally be a rather unpleasant task. Some people might be really excited by the idea of getting stuck in and having a really practical course in anatomy, but for those who don’t you shouldn’t panic. Most other universities use only pre-prepared dissections (prosections), which you will still have to learn the structures of and examine, but without necessarily getting your hands dirty.
6. You will make some of your closest friends studying medicine
Make sure you take the time to make the most of the people you’re at university with. They don’t necessarily have to be medics; many people become very close with people in their sports team or society, but medics do seem to end up hanging around together. Unfortunately this can sometimes lead to slightly geeky “medic chat” where before you know what’s happening you end up discussing what happened in the morning’s lectures, or how you found last week’s practical. This can be a good way to remind yourself what happened in the lecture earlier (no one can concentrate all the way through a full one hour lecture), but sometimes it’s just light-hearted discussion about which lecturer makes it very hard to stay awake!
7. Studying medicine brings you up to date with the latest medical research
For those of you who are really interested in the biological sciences, studying medicine is a great opportunity to be brought very close to the frontier of current scientific knowledge, beyond what you will find in textbooks. Your lecturers are all actively involved in their field of interest and as such it is part of their job to stay up to date with all the latest advances and studies that are going on in that area. Therefore they can teach things well before they are published in textbooks and make you aware of very up-to-date and relevant research papers. Be it the latest cell reproduction pathways associated with tumours or the most recently discovered ion channels in the heart, you will be brought up to the current level of understanding.
8. Medicine is a long course
Studying medicine is very much a marathon, not a sprint. It is a 5 or 6 year course, where in your final few years holidays become a lot shorter and you are studying almost all year round (instead of having three months off a year). The reason the course is so long is because of the volume of material that needs to be learned; both the basic scientific principles and the clinical skills needed to apply them must be taught. While this may seem like a fairly monumental task the truth is that while at university time seems to pass incredibly rapidly, probably because the average student is so busy they don’t have time to notice each term flying past. While this is nice as it feels as if you’re making rapid progress through your studies it also means it’s very easy to get behind on work and not catch up until the holidays come around. Fortunately the holidays come around so quickly due to the short length of the terms you can usually get away with this and the holidays are often a valuable opportunity to make sure you understand the past term’s work before the chaos of term time starts again. Some academic staff even go as far as to say…
9. You have a vacation, not a holiday
What they mean by this is that the Christmas and Easter breaks are simply the times when you vacate your accommodation and not a complete holiday from work. Of course, this does not necessarily have to be true. If you’ve managed your work very well during term time and stayed on top of everything there is no reason why you can’t enjoy a well earned rest for a few weeks. If, however, you prefer to do as many activities as you can while in residence the vacations can be an important opportunity to pay back the time you borrowed during the term. Most importantly, it’s about finding a balance. You don’t want to start the term feeling fatigued from working too hard over the holidays, but equally you don’t want to start the term not having a clue what’s going on.
10. Organisation is key
Studying at university is a real contrast to being a student at school and one of the real challenges is organising your work and activities. You can no longer rely on your parents to keep a calendar of everything that’s going on and instead you must sort things for yourself. Add to this the fact that a significant proportion of time at university will be spent feeling tired, due to excessive studying or partying, and there is a recipe for potential disaster. Tutorials may clash with rehearsals, practicals may coincide with sports matches or a MedSoc event might be happening when you’re meant to be seeing your family. The most important thing is to have some kind of system, whether it is a paper diary you keep with you or a calendar on your phone. Make sure you’re not the one who is always nearly missing things or running round at the last minute trying to work out where you’re supposed to be.
11. If you pass your exams you’ll become a doctor
Bar any kind of disaster, if you pass all your exams while studying medicine you will go on to become a doctor. This may well seem like stating the obvious, but it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about this. By passing you in an exam a university is certifying that you are competent enough in that subject area to continue on the path to becoming a doctor. What does this mean for you? First of all it means that it can be quite difficult to pass your exams. In other subjects you are certified as competent by scoring a decent grade (usually a 2:1), however in medicine if you pass you will be guaranteed to continue down the path of clinical school and continue on to a professional medical career. While there is the drawback of having an especially tough time passing exams this is also a very exciting prospect. If you manage to continue at a reasonable level, putting enough work in, you will qualify as a doctor. Compare this with a subject such as law, where if you pass your law degree with a 2:1 you are not guaranteed to become a lawyer; you are not even guaranteed a job. This is also the case with engineering, while you may become a certified engineer it does not mean you have any kind of reassurance that you will go on to have a job in engineering. If things get tough and you think you might struggle to pass just remember that by passing you are taking one step more towards being a doctor.
12. Most of your peers will be very intelligent
Medical students represent an extremely limited selection of people your age and they will tend to be both very capable and hard working. This can sometimes result in you feeling rather demoralised when comparing yourself to other medics, especially as you will tend to notice the ones working harder than you more than the rest. Remember, the people you are comparing yourself to represent the very top fraction of students in the country and as such you should not be disheartened if some of them are better than you. In fact there will be plenty of other medical students at the same level as you who are making the most out of university to develop themselves as a person, not just as a student.
Being a medical student puts you in a very privileged position, among the very top students across the country. It generally seems to be the case that medics follow the mantra “work hard, play hard”. Most importantly, remember that being a student is not only a means to an end, but an end in itself. Make sure you make the most of being an undergraduate!