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Expectation VS The Reality: As a medical student - Sinai Pepple

Updated: Aug 7, 2022


Hi Everyone. This blog post will focus on the expectations and realities as a medical student. I will list 5 expectations I have had as a medical student. This will be followed by the actual realities I have personally come to realise. I believe this topic is extremely relevant and important to reflect upon as medical students and future healthcare professionals. We can get so caught up with the nature of the medical student/doctor lifestyle (busyness and constant workload). This can inevitably put unsustainable, unrealistic and over- time damaging expectations onto ourselves. It is important that we are self-aware of the expectations we may have put on ourselves as medical students (especially so early on in our career) and actively challenge them. Hopefully, this blog post will increase your awareness and inspire you to challenge those expectations with the real realities you may experience as a medical student. Enjoy.

Expectation 1 : “You have no free time as a medical student aka no social life”

Reality: Not true at all. It is true that you do not have the same time, and some would say have the “luxury time” as other university students. However, with anything you enjoy like a hobby/ socials- the bitter reality is that you make time for the things you enjoy and care about. This was a hard truth for me to swallow when I realised this. Luckily, medical schools are increasingly raising the awareness of having a life outside of our studies. The catch phrase is “work-life balance”. It is being recognised that good competent doctor have a work-life balance. It helps that medical schools are being more vocal about this because as students, we can easily fall into the trap of surrounding ourselves with the constant workload waiting for us to be completed. It is important that we actively recognise when we are spending too much time inside medical school as opposed to the time spent outside of medical school. A few feelings I have noticed about myself when I have lost my work-life balance is the feeling of being overwhelmed and easily agitated. Try and take some time to notice how you feel when you have not rested.

An easy tip to manage your time for the activities, hobbies and socials is to put it in the calendar ! A bit old fashioned but it really does work. When you put that particular activity in the calendar, you are making a statement. That period of time is officially booked. The benefits of this is that you can work around that time you have put in your calendar without having the feeling of guilt or potentially feeling burnout since you have something to look forward to. For example, my Friday evenings are allocated to swimming. I have to make sure majority of my school work is completed before then so I can enjoy swimming.

My understanding of medical school is that as you progress, commitments do grow, with perhaps less flexibility to do those activities. Irrespective of this, you should always make priorities for the activities and hobbies that bring you joy and happiness.

Expectation 2 : “You need to remember and know everything you learn then and there”

Reality: This is not humanly possible. As a first-year medical student, you may feel this pressure to learn and retain everything you learn. I definitely gave into this expectation in my first semester of year 1. This created unrealistic and unsustainable study habits and pressures (mindless to say, so early on in medical school !) I do want to clarify that it is normal and understandably inevitable to feel like this. However, it is important to realise that you are exactly this- a medical student (emphasis on student). Even beyond being a student, it is okay to not know everything. I am not saying to not be curious and learn and remember things, but I am saying to not be so hard on yourself to remember the intrinsic details of that tedious lecture in Embryology.

A tip that I came to realize is – Know where to seek information – your medical school lecture slides, BMJ practice, geeky medics, Osmosis, NICE guidelines to name a few!

Expectation 3: “You will have to make sacrifices, give up the things you love as a medical student aka dedicate your life to medicine”/ eat, breathe and sleep medicine (I know, a bit of a dramatic expectation)

Reality: Similar to the realities of Expectation 1, we make time for the things we enjoy. Yes, there will be times when we will have to “sacrifice” our time. An example of this is during exam season, making sure you meet the deadline for that assignment, juggling different modules all at once, and perhaps having a night in on a Friday night to complete some assignments. That is understandable. Most often or not, “sacrifices” in this case last for a short season. The idea that you have to give up things you love as a medical school is unhealthy and in my opinion toxic. As human beings, we have multiple identities. You could be a daughter, a son, a pianist, a rugby player, a swimmer. You could be a medical student alongside one or more of those identities. To sacrifice or to “dedicate your life to medicine entirely means to deny your other identities. You can be an excellently competent medical student and future healthcare professional whilst not making arguably life-changing sacrifices.

Expectation 4: You need to have your life sorted out perfect study routine, top grades, great friendship group

Reality: You do not need to have everything sorted out. As most of these expectations, they were arguably self-inflicted and as a result, I felt the pressure to achieve those expectations. This was due to the perception I had of other medical students. Speaking to other medical students, you will find that no one has everything sorted out. Everyone is still figuring things out. People are constantly learning and adapting to the challenges of a medical student. I would encourage you to speak to others on your course to avoid creating a close-minded view of being a medical student.

I wanted to focus on this expectation specifically - To be “THAT medical student” and to have “THE university experience”. I would like to clearly say that those perceptions and expectations are a construct. There is no such thing as a “typical medical student” and a standard guideline to be like that. What I have realised is that we are all “That medical student” in a weird and unique way specific to ourselves and only ourselves. We cannot always be the best versions of ourselves. Trying to be the best version of ourselves every day can be exhausting. The dangers of this are that it can suppress and potentially invalidate our normal negative emotions like disappointment, sadness, etc. This concept is called toxic positivity and is worth researching.

Expectation 5: “Medical school is hard”

Reality: Yes, Medical school is hard BUT you are so capable of it. Once you do enter medical school, my understanding is that it is very difficult to be kicked out or dismissed. Yes, there is no denying that there will be an influx of things to learn (anatomy, physiology, pathology, clinical sessions, etc), assignments to be completed, reports to be written. However, good time management skills ( which comes with time- no pun intended) and understanding how your medical school organises the curriculum will ensure that you are managing the workload healthily and sustainably.

I can only speak for my first year of medical school which is could be seen as the easiest year of medical school. However, I would like to mention that each year of medical school has its challenges. This could be related to medical school or inevitable personal circumstances that can relay themselves. For me, year one came with the challenge of overcoming imposter syndrome (a common feeling amongst medical students) and settling into a new city and university. With these challenges, the key is recognition, adaption, and adoption. We need to be able to recognise our challenges. We then need to adapt to those challenges. Finally, we need to adopt new habits that will help us overcome those challenges.

Needless to say, we can all appreciate that solving and overcoming challenges and circumstances may not be as cut-clear as the “recognition, adaption and adoption technique”. I just want to emphasize the importance of reaching out to your medical school if you feel like you are struggling and need support. There is a surplus of support available from medical school, friends, and family. You will be surprised. Never feel ashamed to ask for help.


I hope you have found this blog post useful.

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