Everyone knows that medical school is hard – but do you have what it takes to make it through? Medical school is a major commitment in terms of time, energy and of course money – most students in the US leave with six figures of debt! So before you make this commitment (or follow through, if you’re a student now and you’re starting to have second thoughts) it makes sense to stop for a moment, take a step back, and ask yourself: Will I survive medical school?
Depression Among Medical Students is No Laughing Matter
As many as one in three medical students will experience severe levels of depression at some point in their studies. This is no joke. There are many reasons why medical students are so depressed. One is that the highly competitive environment has been described by some students as resembling a military style boot-camp. You have the fight for your place, fight for your grades, fight for your residency, fight for your specialization. Every stage, a battle. In a zero sum game, when one student wins another one by definition has to lose – there’s only so much room at the top. Rather than the supportive group of idealistic peers working together to heal others, cure cancer and save the world – as you might hope for – medical school can sometimes feel more like a Wall Street Bank – everyone is battling to stay at the top, out-studying, out-grinding each other, no matter the cost to their mental health.
This high pressure situation is obviously not good for anyone’s mental health – but medical students are actually predisposed to suffer more in this environment than students in other competitive fields. One reason for this is that medical students are often sensitive, altruistic people who enter medical school with a selfless and idealistic desire to do good. When the reality of pressure-cooker environment of medical school hits, this can lead to disillusionment and depression.
Another reason for the greater effects of depression on medical students than on others is that those students who go on to study medicine tend to be the best and the brightest. While at high school, they probably breezed through exams, and easily attained the best grades. Perhaps they won scholarships. Everything was easy and people in their school and community looked up to them. But then suddenly everything changes. Medical school brings together all the best and brightest from across the country, even across the world. Suddenly, even if you were the best in your high school without having to make an effort, you may not even be in the top half of your new class. You experience pressure unlike you ever have before, and your confidence can get severely shaken.
Know What You Are Getting Into
This may all sound pretty grim. And in a way, it’s meant to. If you know what you are getting into, then you will be psychologically prepared to cope with the often unpleasant realities of medical school. It’s a lack of realistic expectations that lead a lot of medical students to experience depression, and fail or drop out. As the Boy Scouts put it, always be prepared.
That said, not every aspect of medical school resembles a military horror show, and there are advantages to some of the challenges that we discussed above. For example, being surrounded by the best and brightest from all over the country does mean that you need to fight to keep your head above water, but it also means that you will be inspired, challenged and motivated by the camaraderie of brilliant fellow students. They may share common interests with you. They may understand you on a level that your peers back home never did. They may inspire you to try harder, reach further, and achieve more. You may form friendships strong enough to allow you to overcome the competitive bootleg atmosphere, form a click, and support each other to succeed. After all, everyone else is going to be in the same boat as you, and even if you feel like you’re alone, you’re really not, are you?
So, having the right attitude will help you survive and thrive in medical school. Being prepared for what you are going to experience and making the most out of the challenges is essential. It’s a cliche, but attitude really is everything.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
One of the reasons why depression is not only so prevalent but also so damaging for medical students is that, perhaps ironically, this group has shown to be among the least willing to make the most of university support services and to ask for help. A lot of medical students apparently fear that reaching out for psychological help and support via the services offered through their university will end up stigmatizing their reputation and damaging their careers. This attitude is symptomatic of the cutthroat atmosphere that has come to pervade medical schools in this day and age. It is deeply damaging, counter productive, and inaccurate.
You would think that young people who want to become doctors so that they can offer help and support to others would have no problem putting their hand up and asking for this help and support for themselves when they need it most. But this is unfortunately not the case. In the same way a change in attitude can help you thrive in the same conditions that may crush others, a change in attitude about asking for help may be essential for your survival. And you don’t need to wait until you are severely depressed! You can reach out to friends. To older students who can serve as mentors. To family. The world desperately needs more doctors and by helping you, people are helping to support the doctors of tomorrow. This is a worthy mission. And regardless of that, your health, mental and physical, is worth it in its own right.
Your university will have support services. Google the name of your college plus “student support” or “student services” to find out what options are available for you.
Put The Joy Back Into Your Education
Too many medical students utterly forget to enjoy themselves while at university. They become sucked into the grind. But studies show that happy students get better grades, and patients prefer happy doctors. Happiness is fundamentally beneficial to every aspect of your physical and mental health and performance. Sacrificing your happiness for the sake of your studies is therefore counterproductive. Yes, you will have to work hard and occasionally you’ll have to burn the midnight oil, but not at the expense of your overall well being.
Why survive medical school, when you can enjoy it?!?
At QUPI, we’re all about quizzes, so to practice getting your attitude about medical right, let me introduce you to the Will I Survive Medical School Quiz
The “Will I Survive Medical School” QUIZ
We hope you studied hard for this one! Ok, are you ready? Question One:
It’s 7PM on a Friday. You’re sitting in the library, surrounded by teetering stacks of textbooks. All you can hear is the coughing and shuffling of other students, the clacking of laptop keys, the occasional muttered conversation. Your phone vibrates in your pocket. “Party at Shaun’s – wanna come?”
What do you do?
A) Ignore the text
B) Go party!
C) Politely decline
Your shoulders are aching under the weight of all of the textbooks in your bag. It’s 10pm on a weeknight, and you’re heading home from the library. As you walk, you mentally go over what you have learned today. And then you panic – there’s that microbiology chapter that you didn’t quite understand. You know it! Panic floods your body, but you breath carefully and make it home without bursting into a run. When you arrive home, what do you do?
A) Take out your textbooks, and keep studying until 3am
B) Relax, go to bed, and study tomorrow with a clear head
Six AM on a Tuesday. Your alarm goes off. You stayed up the night before studying. Your throat is burning. You feel feverish and your joints ache. You are desperate to roll over and go back to sleep, but you have a lecture that morning that you really shouldn’t miss. Do you:
A) Take some flu pills, drink some black coffee and drag yourself off to class
B) Text a friend that you can’t make it, and borrow their notes later
C) Tune in to your lecture online from the comfort of your own bed
How Did You Score?
Ok, you will have noted that there are no “prescribed” answers here, but in many of the above cases it is clear that you are being forced to make clear decisions between your health, happiness and well being, and your studies. While are willingness to work hard is essential if you want to pass and survive medical school, so is a willingness to prioritize your own holistic well being.
TL;DR: How to Survive Medical School in Five Steps
Let’s bring it all together with this quiz step by step guide to surviving – and thriving – in medical school.
- Know what you are getting into. Medical school is hard. Its competitive. Even if you breezed through high school, you may struggle here. Be prepared.
- Have the right attitude. One student’s insurmountable obstacle is another student’s inspiring challenge. Find the opportunities in the difficulties that will inevitably be presented to you.
- Ask for Help. There is no shame in reaching out and asking for help. In fact, it is a wise and brave thing to do. Take advantage of the student services offered by your educational institution, which will be easy to find on Google.
- Put The Joy Back In. Happy students get better grades. Prioritize your own health and well being, which includes your own emotional and psychological happiness. Socialize and look after yourself. It will pay off. And besides, college is supposed to be fun!
- Remember Why You Are Here. Remember what motivated you to want to become a doctor in the first place. Hold fast to this dream, and remember the reason – your “why” – this will be your source of strength when times are tough.