Starting Medical School: Rules of the Road

If you are reading this because you are preparing to start medical school – welcome!  You are now part of one of the most noble professions in the world.  You are no longer just a student, you are part of a profession… as of now.

Medical school is a wonderful, but at times difficult experience.  As you start this fantastic journey, there are a few “rules” I think might help:

1. You can drink from a fire hydrant, but you’ll need to learn how.

The amount of information you are going to be exposed to in medical school is logarithmically more than you had to learn in college.  It really is like being asked to drink from a fire hydrant.   You are going to have to study more, study better and actually use the time in class to learn.  (more posts to follow with concrete tips on how to do this.)  But – here’s the good news.  You’ll be able to do it.   Everyone who has gone through this has thought at various times that a) everyone here is smarter than I am, b) the admissions committee must have made a mistake and I’m not really supposed to be here and c)  there is absolutely no way to read all of this material.  And… we all discover that a) we are just as smart as everyone else (sometimes in different ways, but all effective) b) nobody made a mistake – we really are supposed to be here and c) you have to change the way you study, but you really can learn this much material.

2. Make your bed.

You wanted to become a doctor for a myriad of reasons, but one of them was surely because service to others is important for you.   Therefore, you are already primed to sacrifice a lot of your needs for other people.  Sacrifice is part of the culture of medicine.  But, it’s like a Starling curve… a little sacrifice makes you better, but too much makes you ineffective.  Doctors are notorious for this; we forget that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we really can’t take care of others.   “Make your bed” is a simple rule (and action) which helps you remember that you need to take care of your environment, your fitness, your nutrition and your spiritual wellbeing as you are learning how to become a physician.

3. Act like a doctor.

We (all practicing physicians) see you as a doctor already.  I know this is a really hard concept for first year medical students, but it’s absolutely true.  You have started your apprenticeship and, unless you are one of the very, very few who change their mind, you will have an MD after your name in 4 years.  With all of the joys and privileges that come with this role, there are a few responsibilities to start thinking about as well.  Start thinking about your decisions, words and actions in this context.  You’ll learn a lot of specific details about professional behavior as your apprenticeship goes on, like protecting patient confidentiality, peer review, etc.,  but the core values of professionalism start when you enter the profession, which is now.

4. Kindness matters.

It is remarkable how our paths in medicine cross over and over again.  The person sitting next to you on the first day of medical school may be someone who will be an intern with you in 4 years or who will refer you patients 10 years from now.  You and your classmates will be going through classes together (like you did in college), but this is different.  You are starting your professional life together as well.  The camaraderie that results is a gift and is also very important personally and professionally.  Don’t blow off the class events.  Don’t stay home to study instead of going to class.  Go out of your way to meet everyone in your class and really get to know them.  Cultivate and nurture these important friendships.

5. Enjoy the journey

The first year or two of medical school may, at times, seem like an obstacle course you have to “get through” to get to the “real stuff”.  The basic science curriculum is not a rite of passage!   It turns out that even the “trivia” (or at least that’s what it will seem like) is important.  You are learning a new vocabulary… a new language.  If you don’t learn the breadth and depth of this new language, when it comes time to apply it to patient care you won’t be “fluent”.

You are about to embark on a life changing (and fulfilling) journey.  This journey is a privilege and it is very, very special.  Take a few minutes everyday to write down the events of the day.  The first time you hear a murmur in a heart will be just that – the first time.  Take a minute to record what that was like.  You are going to have a lot to process as you start studying anatomy – more than just the names of the structure.  “Talking” about it in a journal is a great way to make the transition we all make in the anatomy lab.   There are also going to be some hilarious stories and events that you’ll forget if you don’t write them down.  When you look at them later, you’ll be glad you recorded them.  Recording these moments doesn’t have to be by writing.  If you are an artist, you may want to use drawings.  Photos of your classmates (and some of those humorous moments) will become a treasure in the future as well.  (but remember the professionalism rule!)

2 thoughts on “Starting Medical School: Rules of the Road

  1. Fantastic post, Dr. Brandt! Thank you so much for sharing your unique perspective through this blog. It’s a great reference for me to direct prospective and incoming medical students to… not to mention a friendly reminder of what I’m doing right/wrong. 🙂

  2. I was afraid our class would go through awesome-advice-withdrawal until your ped surg elective, but it looks like we’ve found a way to hang in there!

    On a similar vein, check out this vascular surgeon’s blog (pun intended ha)- she offers some great practical advice:

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