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Medical Student Perspectives: Is There Such a Thing as Balance During Medical School?

When I started to write this column, I found myself wondering if I would be able to, because I was on a short deadline, had a long week of commutes to work, and was entering the final stages of training for a half-marathon. Is it impossible to balance? Was I trying to do too much? And if I was, what was going to give?

It is tempting to say that we should just write off having any sort of personal life or goals outside of medical school – after all, we are putting untold hours of effort and thousands of dollars towards a lifelong dream, so we might as well give it our all, right? It sounds reasonable, until you try to do it. Then, all too quickly, you end up a burned-out medical student who does not recognize that cadaver stories are really only amusing to other doctors-in-training.

It is possible to be an excellent medical student and still find time for your friends, family, and outside interests. It just requires the effort and the willpower to make it happen.

Sure, we all want to be great doctors who are adored by our patients and fellow physicians alike, but what else do you want from your life, now and in the future? Other than “done with residency,” where do you see yourself in 10 years? What should you be doing now to get there?

What will you go insane without? If you need to exercise regularly to feel like a human being, then make sure it happens. Buy wrist reflectors so you can run at dusk after you have left the library, if need be. On the flip side, which of your activities are not helping you reach your goal? Personally, I probably do not need a detailed knowledge of the NCIS storylines to care for my patients or stay close to my family, so when push comes to shove, I have to say goodbye USA Network mini-marathons.

Not all rotations are created equal. Some will push you to the 80-hour limit and then ask you to do reading and shelf-prep at home. Others will have you wondering if you are crazy and wishing you were working more, because you feel so lame just hanging out. When you find yourself with free time, be sure to take advantage of it.

Spending time with your friends, both in medical school and not, and your family, is essential to keeping yourself balanced. It can help to be reminded that even though you have a biochemistry final on Friday, your mom’s new dog just learned to “stay” on command. And while it can be tempting to think that no one can possibly understand what you are going through, your family and friends want to help. If you cannot get away to see them, remember that they are only a phone call away, even if you have to call them during their dinner so you can get to bed early enough to make it to the hospital by 4:30 a.m.

Just Ask – Attendings are People, Too
Now this is one to be used sparingly, but if an important event is coming up and you are scheduled to work, do not be afraid to ask if you can rearrange things. Most attendings I have encountered are surprisingly flexible when it comes to “Big Life Events,” as long as you do not suggest that you think rearranging the schedule or making up the time is something to be taken lightly. I have found that an offer to make up the clinical hours on my own free time, or to trade shifts with other students, is usually acceptable.

Doctor, Heal Thyself
If you ever doubt whether calling a friend to catch up is the best use of your time, remember that staying involved in things outside of medical school will only make you a better doctor. Not only will you be better able to focus on your studies once you know your friend’s outlook on your football team’s upcoming season, but you will be better able to relate to your patients if you resemble a human being and not a textbook.

Long story short: remember that being a medical student does not have to equal being miserable or one-dimensional. With a little effort, you can have it all, just not all the time. There will be times during medical school when you cannot go home, or to a friend’s party, or even for a run, and those times will be hard. But by making sure that you make the most of the time you have, and spending that time wisely, you will be able to fit in most of what you want to do. See? I even finished this column. Good luck!

Dana Mueller
Council of Student Members Representative, Central Atlantic Region
University of Virginia School of Medicine, 2011
E-mail: dcm4z@virginia.edu

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Back to August 2009 Issue of IMpact

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