10 Things that Make the First Year of Medical School Hard

Originally posted December 2014

Warning friends, this is not my normal kind of post. In many ways its how I’ve decided to vent my frustrations on what is my largest struggle since starting medical school, so if you aren’t feeling up to reading something that isn’t within my usual optimistic range, please feel free to skip over it.

But if you do chose to read it, know that these are all real things that are happening to me which make medical tough and they are not fun. For those who are in it, it might be different but I think we can all agree this is no cake walk, but we wouldn’t give it up for anything.  

There’s a thing I think most people have heard and it’s that medical school isn’t actually hard in terms of material, its hard because it runs you into the ground with volume and speed. Its like knowing how to swim. You actually swim pretty well. And then you get swept up in a monsoon and you have to survive. Actually scratch that. You’re expected to survive and swim in that monsoon like a champ.

But that doesn’t mean that’s the only struggle. There are so many factors that make you frustrated, get you down, pull at your heart and tear at your self-confidence.

There are also so many great things about medical school. I really do love it. But it’s a balancing act where we often fall to the less desired side of scale more often then we’d like to admit. So today I vent.

1. Feeling exhausted all the time

And every variant of that. Fatigued and sleepy. Tired and sore. If you can think of any time you’ve felt this way, med school just amps it up. You want to sleep or stop studying but you can’t risk enough of a break to truly fix the issue which becomes a constant stream of just slightly burned out all the time. It takes a lot of time to figure out a schedule that works for you so until then you have to fight through it.

And that all in itself is exhausting.

2. Forgetting school isn’t number one

Medical school, to put it simply, takes over your life. It becomes the only thing you have the ability to care about if you let it. Its so easy to forget that you have others who are more important than a grade on a paper. Even your own well-being stops being a priority. We’re going to be doctor as long as we get through, but we still manage to forget that. You end up in class even though you spent the morning throwing up. You accidentally stay 13 hours at school. You have’t gone outside in 4 days.

Med school is extremely important. But is it so all consuming that I can’t even remember to eat? That’s nonsensical.

3. No time to pick up the pieces 

Did badly on a test? Slept so little you’re running on your last cylinder? Break up with your SO? Well tough luck kid. That’s how it is. Maybe it’s just getting us ready for a world where we don’t have the time to stop because every second counts. But that doesn’t mean it’s all fine and dandy. It definitely feels like you’ve pushed everything to the way side because you had to. Eventually, you get better at not letting the pile of repression grow into a monster. But as a first year you kind of have to relearn how to deal with adult issues.

4. Disappointing others 

Broken dinner dates. Snark and lack of patience of a non-med friend’s struggles. Having to canceling seeing your mom. Leaving your pet home for 12 hours and listen to it cry when you get home. For must of us, its not grades that establish how the important people (or animals) in our lives feel about us. It’s who we are and our actions. And med school changes you pretty quickly and you don’t even see it happening. It hurts a lot to know you’ve hurt someone else, though it make take us some time to see it. You live and learn and balance your education and your med life but it doesn’t make it easier known you sometimes have to let your loved ones down.

5. Being expected to know nothing and everything

If I had a quarter every time any kind of instruction said some variant of “you should know this” I would not have to ever worry about food money. Equally so, I’m constantly being told “first years aren’t expected to know anything”, so much so I expect I’ll probably hurt someone with my infinite and vast lack of knowledge. Though it doesn’t make a lot of sense, that’s kind of the way medical education works. But its hard not to feel frustrated when you’re getting reprimanded for not knowing something you just learned that day. Give me a break!

6. Nothing is set in stone 

You can try to make a solid plan. You really can try. But medical school has a way of turning everything one it’s head. Even itself. Things you thought you wanted at the start of the year are totally different now and it only gets more confusing as you expand your education. That also means that no event is unbreakable. Everything is tentative.

7. Failing where other people succeed 

As medical student we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, but for some reason we are kept competitive with others (as long as the word standardized exists at least). So when your class breaks the record for the average on a test by 8 percent and you just barely pass by the skin of your teeth its a tough pill to swallow, just as a dumb first year example. You learn failure is a part of a process as is feeling inadequate. But that doesn’t mean it gets easier. It feel terrible to fail. And the failures will only get bigger. But hopefully the successes are even larger.

8. Losing connection with those outside of the system 

“Only those who go through it, understand it.” Such a truth has never been more relevant than coming from a completely non-medical background. It’s not so much that you lose your innate connection with those people, but your understanding of certain things change. Sometimes you feel like you’ve lost your pillar because they can’t understand what you’re going through and can’t support you in the same ways. And other times you know you can’t fully sympathize with some of their problems. Both parties have to work a little harder, and when one doesn’t…well that’s a different grievance all together.

9. Forgetting why you’re here

8 hours in lecture. Being palpated so hard you get a bruise on your stomach. Studying for hours on end that doesn’t always pay off. Without any real patient interactions or being able to see medicine in action, its easy to forget what the end goal is when all you do see is endless powerpoints, practice questions and exams. Just gotta keep the finish line in sight. Even if you have to get on top of a mountain 3.5 miles (or years) away to see it.

10. Watching people bail

Nope, you read that right. Not fail, bail. This post was kind of inspired off of this point because I had a friend who had worked so hard to get into med school. She gave up her first career, which she was very good at and made good money to follow her dream to become a physician. She was a wonderful, sweet person. But for somewhat unknown reasons she left school completely, possibly never to try for medicine ever again. If there are people who work so hard and then just fall…it’s easy to let your mind wander and think could that be me? I want this so much. Could there be a day that it becomes so hard, so frustrating and so endless that I’ll lose what made me want to be a doctor in the first place? Could these first two years be such a massive hurdle that I can’t make it? These are scary and completely realistic thoughts. So I can only hope that I can be strong and remain strong and know, not think, that medicine is truly for me.

I love medicine and I love being in medical school and learning so much. So as the year draws to a close I want to let go of the things that have been weighing one me, a lot of which this post covers. I hope that to everyone who got through this long post knows that while these are very real and have posed serious challenges, I wouldn’t change my experience for anything. If you’re here for the right reasons, you and I can make it and be great.

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