Medical school is hard enough when you’re single, but plenty of people enter medical school with a significant other, be it a dating or married relationship, one with kids, or somewhere in between. This should never discourage you from matriculating into medical school—in fact, I’ll argue that it will actually be easier with these relationships compared to what it would be like without them.
I was married before medical school and had two kids during my four years. Read on to find out how to effectively thrive in medical school even with the significant time constraints that come with serious relationships.
Relationships in Medical School: General Principles
Communication Is Key
This should not come as a surprise, but communication in medical school is the key to success.
There are two main aspects to this:
- Keep a calendar that your loved one has access to.
- Debrief before each block to communicate expectations.
Having a shared calendar is incredibly important. It shows that you are being open with your commitments, and it lets your loved one know where you will be if they cannot reach you for some reason.
Debriefing before different blocks or rotations allows you to communicate your expected level of difficulty and time devoted to the upcoming rotation. It is no secret that some blocks/rotations are easier than others, so communicating this can help you and your loved one plan around the more time-consuming periods.
For example, my wife and I like to keep written calendars (old school, I know). We sit down on Sunday evenings to talk about the events of the upcoming week. This was time-consuming at first, but now it’s a time we look forward to, and it can often be done quickly.
You Don’t Need to Be Top of Your Class
You don’t need to be the top of your class to be successful. You have come from an undergraduate career in which you were likely at the top of your class. You have jumped through all of the numerous hurdles, including the MCAT and the medical school application process, to get to this point. But you know who else has done the same thing? All of your classmates!
The top 10% of students from schools around the nation enter medical school, and now you naturally strive to be in the top 10% of that elite group of students.
It’s time for a reality check. You do not need to be at the top of your class to be a successful student or a caring, competent doctor. The bottom line of having a serious relationship and/or having kids in school is that you have more time commitments than your peers. So what free time does that leave for extra studying? Spoiler: there is no free time.
It took me a while to realize that I needed to sacrifice my idea of being a top student to fulfill my obligations as a father and husband. In defining wellness for myself, I realized that my family is the source of “filling my cup,” so-to-speak. By devoting myself to them first, I had a “full cup” to pour out into my work in medicine.
Don’t get me wrong; medicine is my passion. But my role as a father and husband is what keeps me going each day. Let’s break this down into a series of formulas:
(Total time) – (required med school activities) = time left
(Time left) – (family time) = free time
Free time = (study time) + (actual free time)
Rather than being framed as:
(Total time) – (required and non-required med school activities) = time left
(Time left) – (study time) = free time
Free time = (family time) + (actual free time)
Prioritizing family time over study time naturally means you’ll have less time to devote to hitting the books, and even less free time. But by doing so, you will show your true priorities to your family, and this will be reciprocated. For example, when you say you have to study for eight hours, they’ll know you’re not exaggerating—it really is a requirement.
People Are More Understanding Than You Think
Whether it’s during preclinical years or on rotations, if your loved one needs something, speak up. Life happens, and your residents, faculty, and attendings understand this.
There are spotty reports of backlash from this, but in my experience (and many of my colleagues), these types of interactions have been very cordial. People understand that medicine is not everything in life, even if that is what it seems like during med school. Speak up, keep people apprised of the situation as soon as you know details, and ask for exactly what you need.
The hallmark of preclinical years is hours upon hours of study time. The problem this poses when you have a significant other and/or child is that it is difficult to convey just how much time is needed to study the material because the student often does not know themselves.
Again, studying for different blocks varies based on your mastery of the material, so your amount of free time will depend on how you feel the block is going. Have an ongoing conversation with your partner about the needs of the block you are on, and be honest about what time you need or don’t need.
Scheduling tip: I attended lectures religiously. I never bonded with watching the lectures at 2x speed in the library—I was an old fashioned pen-on-paper lecture-goer. This in itself helped me prepare, as I was giving more time to the material upfront. When I went back to study, the material did not feel as foreign.
For example, my schedule was roughly 8am-12pm lecture, home for lunch with my partner and baby, study from 2-4pm, and then I didn’t study again until after the baby was in bed, which was around 7pm. This way, I was able to spend two meals together with my family while still getting to review the day’s material.
Third year is a wake-up call. It demands your time in a different way since you are required to be out of your house. But similar to the preclinical years, your different rotations will require different amounts of time from you.
Surgery and any inpatient month are notorious for long hours while outpatient months and electives typically have an easier schedule. Make sure your significant other is aware of which rotation you are on and what the schedule will be like so that you can both plan accordingly.
Ideally, any special date or event should be planned for an outpatient month; otherwise, get approval in advance from your clerkship director for any planned absence.
Check out our comprehensive clerkship review series to get a better idea of what to expect from each clerkship.
My typical inpatient day looked like this: 6am-6pm, I was at the hospital. Some days, I wouldn’t get out until 8 or 9pm; other times, I was done by 3pm. Regardless, any time I wasn’t in the hospital, I devoted to my family. I rarely studied after being in the hospital all day because I knew it would be detrimental to my mental health and to my relationship with my family. I saved my studying for any downtime on the wards and for the outpatient month of the rotation.
Special Time Periods
Step 1 Studying (MS2)
When studying for Step 1, months of grueling hours in the library (or wherever you study best) make it really hard on your partner in addition to being incredibly stressful for you. Know that it will be difficult going into it, but also know that it is temporary.
Make and keep a schedule during this time and be confident that it is enough to do well on the test. I also recommend taking it as early as you can (while still having enough time to study) so that after you take your test, you have vacation time before third year starts.
7am-4pm = study
4pm-7pm = wellness (break, time with kids, workout)
7pm-9pm = study
9pm-bedtime = partner time.
Step 2 Studying (MS3)
This one is reminiscent of Step 1 studying but in a much smaller time frame. Adopt whatever worked well for you for Step 1 studying. In addition, if you get any say in your schedule for MS3, I recommend taking your Medicine block last so that it is closest to when you take Step 2, as these UWorld questions and general principles will be most similar to the material on Step 2.
Away Rotations (MS4)
Since having a significant other and/or kids puts you at a financial disadvantage compared to your peers, away rotations will stretch you as well. However, choosing somewhere where you have family/friends that might be able to house you AND your family makes it less daunting.
It will be a long month away if you aren’t able to take them with you, but if you must leave them, ensure they have a support system to help them when you are gone.
Interview Season (MS4)
Interview season varies widely depending on what your family dynamic is. If you are married, using a companion pass could allow you to take your partner with you on some interviews. If you have kids, this is less feasible.
But as stated above, any time you are away, try to make sure that your partner feels supported in your absence. Whenever applicable, take your partner and kids to pre-interview dinners because where you will go to residency is a joint decision. Ultimately, how you feel you will fit in the community of a particular program will matter more than the nuanced differences in training.
Read our guide to optimizing residency interviews for scheduling details, interview strategies, and frequently asked questions.
A Note From My Partner
When I began writing this article, I asked my partner to weigh in on what the experience has been like for them.
“The overarching theme throughout medical school for us has been prioritizing communication. In addition to sitting down together for scheduling and being clear about expectations for the current block, you need to schedule “together-time,” prioritize it, and stick to it.
Also be aware (and acknowledge out loud) that it will be difficult for your partner. It becomes a necessity to allow them a safe space to talk to you about their difficulties without feeling attacked. It is okay for your partner to struggle through this process just as much as you, and to communicate said struggles.”
Final Thoughts on Relationships and Family
A frequent reaction I get when someone finds out that I am married with two kids in medical school is, “Oh my gosh—I don’t know how you do it!” But honestly, I don’t know how I would do medical school without them.
They give me a reason to work efficiently so I can come home to spend time with them. They inspire me to be the best doctor I can be while I’m gone because I know that I am sacrificing time with them in order to be on the wards (or in the classroom).
Even though significant others and children can demand much of your time and energy, they will help you through school by providing the support you need. Keep them at the forefront of your attention, knowing that life outside of medicine is not only encouraged, but it’s also necessary.
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