Can I Have a Partner and/or Kids in Medical School (And Still Thrive)?

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Medical school is hard enough when you are single. But plenty of people enter into 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 do have firsthand experience – I was married before medical school and had two kids during my 4 years! Read on to find out how to effectively thrive in medical school even with significant time constraints that are present with these loved ones.

 

General Principles

“You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing. Anonymous

  • Communication is key

    1. This should not come as a surprise, but communication in medical school is the key to success. There are two main aspects to this: 1) keep a calendar that your loved one has access to and 2) debrief before each block to communicate expectations. The 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.
    2. 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 can often be done quickly.
  • You don’t need to be the top of your class to be successful

    1. You have come from an undergraduate career in which you were likely at the top of your class. You have jumped all of the numerous hurdles, including the MCAT and the med 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% from schools around the nation send students to enter into medical schools – and now you naturally strive to be in the top 10% of that elite group of students.
    2. 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. This is especially true for parents – kids not only demand your time because they need to be cared for, but you desire to give them your free time since the “required” side of medical school is so time-consuming. So what free time does that leave to study a little extra? 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. This could easily be broken 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)

 

By prioritizing family time over study time, you will naturally have less time to devote to hitting the books and even less time to devote to free time for yourself. But by doing so, you will show your true priorities to your family, which promotes reciprocation when you have your required medical school events – meaning, they will understand when you say you have to study for 8 hours that it’s not an exaggeration, but rather, a requirement.

  • People are more understanding than you think

    1. 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 to the situation as soon as you know details, and ask for exactly what you need.

One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” Sigmund Freud 

 

Preclinical Years

The hallmark of the preclinical years is hours upon hours of study time. Even though recent trends suggest that less time is spent in lecture halls in favor of reviewing the lectures or material on their own, preclinical med students still have to devote an immense amount of time to adequately understand the material. The problem this poses when you have a significant other (SO), 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 vary based on how you feel the block is going. Have an ongoing conversation with your SO about the needs of the block you are on and be honest with what time you need or don’t need. Don’t be afraid to be confident with your study skills!

Scheduling tip: I attended lectures religiously. I never bonded with watching the lectures at 2x speed in the library or something…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. My schedule, for example, was roughly 8a-12p lecture, home for lunch with SO and baby, study from 2-4p, and then don’t study again until after the baby was in bed (around 7p). This way I was able to spend two meals together with my family, while still getting to review the day’s material.

 

Clinical Years

The 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, compared to the flexibility of the preclinical years. 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 SO is aware of which rotation you are on and what the schedule will be like so you both can plan accordingly. Any special date or event should try to be planned for an outpatient month or get approval in advance from your clerkship director for any planned absence. Check out our third-year clerkship review series to get a better idea of what to expect out of each clerkship.

Scheduling tip: My typical inpatient day looked like this: 6a-6p I was at the hospital. Some days I wouldn’t get out until 8 or 9p, and some days I was done by 3p. Regardless, any time I wasn’t in the hospital I devoted to my SO. 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)

    1. This one is the hardest of them all. Months of grueling hours devoted 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 would also recommend taking it as early as you can (while still having enough time to study) so that after you take your test you will have vacation time before third year starts.
    2. Example schedule: 7a-4p = study, 4p-7p = wellness (break, time with kids, workout), 7p-9p = study, 9p-bedtime = SO time.
  • Step 2 Studying (MS3)

    1. This one is reminiscent of Step 1 studying but in a much smaller timeframe. The old mantra is, “4 months for step 1, 4 weeks for step 2, and 4 days for step 3.” Adopt whatever worked well for you for step 1 studying. In addition, if you get any say in your schedule for MS3 year, 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)

    1. Since having a SO 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 SO/kids 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)

    1. This 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 culture of a particular program will matter more than the nuanced differences in training, in my opinion.
    2. *Note*: Check out our recent guide to optimizing the interview trail for details on cost surrounding away rotations and interview season.

 

A Note from My Partner

“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 literally schedule “together-time” and prioritize sticking to it. I would 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 the difficulties without feeling attacked. It is ok for your partner to struggle through this process just as much as you, and to communicate said struggles.”

 

Final Thoughts

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 SOs and children can demand much of your time and energy, they will help you through school by providing the support you need to get through school. 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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