I’ve wanted to study medicine since being a teenager, but it’s only on reflection that I realise how little I actually knew about what exactly that would mean. I embarked on a path towards a career as a genetic engineer during my first degree, but realised when faced with the decision of pursuing a PhD or going to medical school that I was perhaps slightly too talkative to endure four years behind a bench and instead needed something more person-oriented. That decision is now about to turn four years old as I find myself rapidly approaching final exams and (all things going to plan) beginning my first job as the most junior of doctors.
I’m often asked what advice I would give to my younger self, eagerly awaiting the first day of medical school and the answers are thankfully relatively simple, at least from my perspective. This is because the experience of medical education is an incredibly rich tapestry, with hundreds of opportunities for success and self-realisation, sufficient in number that none of us can hope to pursue all of them as we all forge our own paths.
You don’t have to have it all figured out right now
Perhaps the best place to start is that you absolutely do not have to know what type of doctor you want to be when you grow up – I’ve genuinely met consultants who still don’t know the answer to that one. You’re likely to be surrounded both by people who have known they wanted to be a paediatric heart surgeon from the age of four and by people who love everything there is in medicine and are flummoxed by the thought of having to choose.
Don't worry about what other people are doing.
Final year medical student Ollie Burton says new medical students shouldn’t compare themselves to others. Find out his other top tips for freshers just starting medical school.
One of the advantages to medical school is that you’ll rotate across all sorts of specialties and settings, be that emergency trauma surgery or a rural GP practice, and these opportunities continue well into your postgraduate training. In short, you’ll figure it out along the way.
Think bigger than social media
Secondly, I would encourage you to remember that the medical students you see online on the various social media platforms (of which I myself am one) are not by any stretch of the imagination representative of the more general student population. Productivity gurus, wellbeing coaches and educationalists are all fantastic but you must not feel like a failure if you do not measure up to this carefully crafted ideal – medical school is enough of a challenge by itself!
If you come across opportunities for learning or getting involved in research, then I would wholeheartedly encourage you to grip them and not let go. I have often found that my favourite projects come about from nothing more than a throwaway conversation at a conference or by being introduced to someone new.
We all have the greatest of sympathies with new starters at medical school this year – this probably isn’t how you imagined your fresher’s experience would be.
Our medical seniors are very good at recognising genuine enthusiasm and interest, and you should not underestimate the value in learning new skills and working with new peers, as you never know what fantastic things will come from them, be it a publication, a prize, or even a colleague to work with in the future. In my own case, expressing an interest in graphic design led not only to being able to use my skills to help patients, but also a journal article and an editorial position in a major journal in my specialty of interest.
Letting go will help you prioritise your learning
Lastly, just be ready for the idea that you may need to change things about yourself in order to thrive at medical school. To summarise, it is absolutely okay to not hit the ground running, these things take time and you’ll need to develop new ways of learning. The difficulty in medical school comes from the sheer volume of information you need to remember, and you will often find that you physically do not have time to cover everything. Do your best to prioritise high-yield learning tasks and make sure you know the basics well instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.
These are skills which will continue to be important once you qualify. And perhaps most importantly, when you find yourself struggling, do your best to continue to engage and ask for help early – medicine has a rather uniquely supportive sense of community and chances are extremely high that someone close will be able to help you.
Despite COVID-19 – this is your time
Needless to say, we all have the greatest of sympathies with new starters at medical school this year – this probably isn’t how you imagined your fresher’s experience would be. For what it’s worth, you’ll make friends on your course and beyond just through osmosis, and most likely learn a lot about yourself. It’s a time of huge changes and you’re probably capable of a lot more than you’d even considered possible before. Remember to keep in touch with friends and family too, as it’s easy to lose track of each other and the support can be really helpful.
With all that said, if I could go back I’d tell Ollie to keep his chin up (rather more smoothly shaven though it was), make the most of every day at medical school and to take time for himself when he needs it. Medical school is simultaneously a long and arduous process and over in the blink of an eye, so be sure to focus on present successes rather than future doubts and uncertainties. Everything will work out one way or another.