How to Survive (& Thrive) in Medical School

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Medical school is no joke. In fact, becoming a doctor requires completion of one of the world’s most rigorous and testing paths of any profession. A substantial percentage of medical students burn out, give up, or are plain miserable. Other students, like me, are the weirdos that actually enjoy the process. Here’s how I did it and how you too can not only survive, but thrive in medical school.

Don’t believe what others say. Medical school doesn’t have to be a torturous and depressing time in your life. I actually enjoyed medical school more than I enjoyed college. By closely following every tip here, I’m confident you can grow to love the process as well. You’ll see that each habit builds off of one another.

 

1 | Adaptability is Essential

The foundational principle you must understand is that medical school is a different beast entirely. While you may have been a stellar student in college, the habits and strategies that worked then just won’t work in medical school. Too often, students are inseparable from their old ways, and they expect these old systems to continue working in medical school, despite evidence to the contrary. Brute forcing your way by trying harder won’t cut it and won’t be sustainable.

This is the point where you say “I already know how to study, I already know how to manage my time.” If you truly want to excel and surpass your current performance, you’ll need to let go of this tendency and instead embrace a new mindset. You’ll need to experiment, track, and ultimately challenge your current assumptions and ways of living.

This happened to me as well. After a wildly successful college pre-med career, I thought I had everything figured out. But medical school was a rude awakening that my systems were far from perfect.

 

2 | Hone Study Strategies

The information you have to learn in medical school is not any more conceptually challenging than what you learned in college. In fact, your college major may be significantly more difficult in certain respects, particularly if you did something like neuroscience or bioengineering. That being said, while medical school isn’t super conceptually challenging, the rate of learning new information is monstrous and continues to grow each year as the scientific literature expands. As they say, learning in medical school is like drinking from a fire hydrant.

For this reason, active learning and efficient study methods are mandatory. To thrive and enjoy medical school, study strategy optimization is not something you can overlook. No more passive reading of notes or Power Point slides. Active learning, by definition, is more uncomfortable than passive learning, but it pays dividends.

Becoming more efficient gets you better grades, which is already reason enough to invest the time and effort. However, realize these benefits compound, as you’ll have more time for sleep, more time for fun, and more time to take care of yourself. As a result, you’ll be in a better mind space, be more effective when you study, and enter a positive feedback cycle. It’s possibly the most fundamental and crucial skill you should prioritize.

 

3 | Organize Better Than Marie Kondo

Going hand in hand with optimal study strategies, efficiency is paramount, but efficiency doesn’t come from brute force. Rather, organized and streamlined systems will facilitate the process. Organization strategies can be applied to multiple facets of your life.

Study Space

A clean study space is more than just something pretty to look at. Neatly organized and purposefully implemented work spaces that are maintained clutter-free facilitate efficient work. While it may seem tedious and superfluous, making your bed every morning and clearing papers off your desk will help you focus and tend to your work with greater purpose. I made a video of how I’ve designed my own work space.

Daily Schedule

In your daily schedule, lay out how you will spend your time. When is class, when will you eat, when will you study, and when will you exercise?

I opted for Google Calendar, as it is free, syncs seamlessly across my devices, and integrates nicely with Gmail. The exact calendar tool you use, whether in the cloud or on paper, is less important. The key is being consistent with whatever you choose. I go over how to schedule effectively in another post.

Task Manager

My favorite task manager is Things3. I use it across my iPad, iPhone, and MacBook, but there are other great alternatives like Todoist that work on PC and Android as well.

There are additional areas requiring purposeful organization and systems, including email, habit tracking, groceries, and more, but that’s a topic for another post.

 

4 | Leave the Ego Behind

While medicine draws many incredible people to the profession, it also often attracts a large ego. But allowing your ego to call the shots won’t help you in medical school. It’s up to you whether you want to learn this the easy way or the hard way.

If you’re used to being at the top of your class, it won’t always be that way in medical school. Despite a top MCAT score, a near perfect GPA, and being awarded the single highest merit scholarship at my medical school, I didn’t feel particularly smart in my class. In fact, I was humbled by my colleagues. Everyone has different strengths, and while I may crush cardiology, my friend may crush renal, and a different friend may crush OSCE’s.

Once you get to your clinical rotations, you may not be treated very kindly. Unfortunately, the culture of medicine is extremely hierarchal, with some specialties being worse offenders than others. If you go into a surgical specialty, for example, it won’t be uncommon for you to be berated, humiliated, or yelled at. Now there is a fine line between tough love and abuse, and you should absolutely report any transgressions. At the same time, if every stern look gets under your skin, you’re not going to have a good time. The key is to remember that patient care is the number one priority, and if someone comes across as abrasive, it’s rarely ever personal.

 

5 | Social Support Network

The ego sneaks up in another way – unwillingness to ask for help. Remember, asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it is an indicator of strength.

Medicine is a profession centered around serving others – your patients. Doctors are in many ways idolized and put on a pedestal, but we are humans too. And as people, we need support, just like anyone else.

You’re likely to face at least one challenging time during your medical school training, and having a network of friends and loved ones you can rely on for support is key. As I’ve spoken about recently with the #SaveOurDoctors movement and burnout video, strong social connections is one of the most powerful ways to ward off burnout. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others for help.

It’s not all about playing defense either. When things get tough, sure, fall back on your social supports. But creating that social support system was arguably one of the best parts of medical school. I grew close to many of my amazing classmates. Medical school often attracts highly talented, compassionate, and impressive individuals who are just plain awesome.

There’s no practical benefit in trying to go at it alone. Again, this profession is based on the principle of connecting and helping others. Share your notes, look out for each other, and help classmates who are struggling. You can even practice the Feynman technique while you’re at it.

 

6 | Prioritize Healthy Habits

If you’re a type A highly driven individual, you likely push yourself to the limit at the cost of taking care of yourself. I get it, I’ve been there. Who cares about sleep? You’ve got to crank on this presentation and then pound out your Anki cards.

What I’ve learned the hard way is that, paradoxically, making time to take care of yourself actually results in improved productivity and effectiveness. By prioritizing socializing on the weekends, rather than just playing catch up on work, I felt more refreshed during the week. I was able to focus more intently for longer periods of time, and ultimately increase my output. It’s much easier to endure a 19 hour shift on your plastic surgery away rotation (and not even need caffeine) when you’re taking care of yourself.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t study on the weekends, but it’s crucial to practice some self care at a regular interval. When I was in medical school, I hit the gym and lifted 3-4 times per week, prioritized healthy plant-based whole food eating, meditated a couple times per week, and set aside time each week to hang out with my girlfriend of the time and best friends.

Remember, these habits all build off of one another. If you practice more efficient study strategies, then you’ll have more time to relax and self-care. If you practice self-care, you feel more refreshed and become more efficient when you study. You want to get into this positive feedback loop. Slipping into the opposite, a negative feedback loop, is how medical school becomes miserable.

My goal with Med School Insiders is to create a generation of happier, healthier, and more effective future physicians. I’ve made mistakes as a pre-med, as a medical student, and as a plastic surgery resident, and I want you all to learn from my mistakes and surpass my own results. If you want to see how I practice these principles in my own daily life, be sure to follow me on Instagram @kevinjubbalmd and the official Med School Insiders instagram @medschoolinsiders. I also send out a weekly email newsletter outlining lessons learned, helpful tips, tools, and study music to help you crush the week.

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