Staying Motivated in Medical School

Dec 22, 2015

During the first week of my second year of medical school, my school’s Academic Dean gave us a brief presentation in which she said, “You should be studying 12 hours a day. If that’s not enough, bump it up to 14 or 16.” Certainly this was the first time in my life when someone was telling me that yes, what you’re doing is unreasonable, but it is expected of you. And yes, if that’s not working, you can do more.

It is no surprise that the most remarkable yet most challenging part of medical school is staying motivated in spite of these 12-16 hours of daily studying. If you think about it, what is really keeping us going? We’re told repeatedly that our pre-clinical grades don’t matter. We aren’t assigned homework. In fact, we aren’t even scolded when we do poorly. All of our motivation is intrinsic – it’s that feeling when you’ve hit a wall after 10 hours of studying and you say, “No, I have to finish this!” That feeling when you wake up for an 8am lecture, resist the temptation to go back to sleep, and say, “I have to do this.” That feeling when you’re staring at a long list of pharmacologic agents and tell yourself, “This will make me a better doctor.”

So here are some tips for your pre-clinical years that will help you stay motivated. While it’s not necessary to do all of them, try out one when you feel like you need that extra boost to get you through a tough module.

  1. Shadow! – I promise you will never forget what you learn while shadowing. This is undoubtedly the most engaging way to learn. Email doctors at nearby hospitals, ask e-board members in your school’s specialty clubs, or ask professors to put you in contact with someone in a field you haven’t explored. If you’re like me and have anxiety over which specialty you will choose, this will also give you some added exposure.

  2. Watch an autopsy. – This was the coolest experience I’ve had so far, and possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Get in touch with your local coroner and ask if you can observe an autopsy. While not for the weak of stomach, it’s humbling in a way, and reminds us of the magnitude of what we are learning.

  3. Attend a conference or a workshop. – Learning a cool skill like suturing or intubation gives you an actual physical skill you can be proud of when you’re feeling drowned by information in classes. Going to a conference allows you to network and see what’s waiting for you on the cutting-edge of medicine.

  4. Surround yourself with positive people. – We all know the people in our class who always seem to be whining. Stay away from them! Identify the people who are fascinated by what you’re learning, who still love discovering something new, who care about understanding medicine and don’t get bogged down by grades. More importantly, try to emanate their positivity.

  5. Eat healthy, stay fit. – Sorry, this is the one we hate hearing, but it is so crucial. All I can say is you will NEVER regret working out or eating a salad, and it’s a good excuse to pat yourself on the back when your daily checklist is mostly unchecked.

  6. – Many of us come from extensive backgrounds of volunteering but, for some reason, stop our efforts when we get to medical school. Volunteering is an easy way to remind yourself of how much you love the “giving” aspect of medicine. I promise you weren’t lying in your admissions interview; it really is satisfying.

  7. Talk to an upperclassman. – If you’re a first year, you’ll be grateful you’re not a second year. If you’re a second year, you’ll be glad to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

  8. Plan something fun. – Set a date (working around your exams) for a day trip, a night out with neglected friends, or just anything that you can look forward to as a reward for your hard work.

  9. Watch “doctor” shows. – House, Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, Code Black – pick your poison! While you can argue that not all of these are 100% accurate, I guarantee you will get excited when you get the Dx before the actors do, or you will get mad when it doesn’t add up. Either way, it’s just like studying…right?

  10. Call home. – Your mom and dad will never stop believing in you, and sometimes that’s all you need to hear.