A Day in the Life of a Dual Degree Program Student

Jul 11, 2019 by Rachel Bigley

Meet a graduate student tackling a masters and medical school simultaneously. Here is how they do it and what they find rewarding about it.

I’m a medical student and graduate student in a small program, a hidden medical school at UC Berkeley, called the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program (JMP). An incoming class of 16 per year are accepted into the program, which cultivates a close-knit group of students that ultimately feels like family. Students study at UC Berkeley for 2.5 years to finish pre-clinical coursework for an MD degree and to obtain a Masters in Health and Medical Sciences before transitioning to UCSF for 2.5 years for clerkships. 

I was initially interested in this combined program because of my background and career-long interest in combining patient care and research. I understand that there’s not just one way of doing this, but by learning how to do both from the beginning of my training, I’m hoping I’ll be prepared for a career balancing research and patient care.

So, what’s it like?

The life of a dual-degree medical and graduate student involves wearing several different student “hats” even in 1 day. By now, I have grown accustomed to balancing research, classes, learning medicine, having a social life, running, and spending time with my family and partner. However, during the first year it was a constant struggle. I questioned why I went into a dual-degree program which will result in being in a huge amount of debt and sacrificing my 20’s to learn medicine while my friends are traveling the world, getting married, getting promoted, or buying a house. However, while in my second year, I’ve begun to see that being in medicine is filled with many unanticipated emotions and opportunities for self-growth: it’s challenging, but rewarding; it’s intellectual, but filled with kindness; it’s poetic, artistic, and drives wonder and curiosity; it inspires and reveals the perseverance, resilience, and magic of the human body and mind. It’s a privilege and a blessing to be part of this community of healthcare providers and I try to remind myself of this as much as possible, motivating me to push myself to learn more and be better equipped to be a great physician.

During my winter break, I have tried to balance my time between taking a much-needed break, going through Pathoma videos and making flashcards on Osmosis, starting analysis on the qualitative data I collected during fall semester for my master’s independent research study, and also directing a live storytelling event with a couple other medical students at UCSF. Although this is my winter break, I have maintained a regimented schedule! However, during the school year, it’s a little different. Here’s an example of a week in the life of a dual-degree medical student. Using Mondays as an example: 

  • 5:45am: I wake up, grab a cup of coffee, and go to the gym. I usually do my workouts in the morning so I can have the rest of the day free to get other stuff done. I run 4-5 miles while watching my daily dose of television. I usually do some flashcards I made on the Osmosis mobile app while stretching after my workout.

  • 7:45am: I’ve showered, eaten breakfast, and I’m ready to go, so I have 1 hour to study and get assignments done before class. 

  • 8:45am: I walk 15 minutes to get to class, usually while listening to either music, the news, or an Osmosis or Boards & Beyond video on a concept or two that I hadn’t quite gotten yet. I show up to my first class: Problem-Based Learning (PBL). This is a 3-hour student-run class that’s 3 days a week where we get a new case every week to learn about new diseases, drugs, tests, etc. Learn more by watching this Osmosis video with collaboration from the JMP. 

  • 12pm: Done with PBL and now I have one of my master’s classes: Statistical Analysis of Categorical Data. I try to eat my packed PB&J on my way.

  • 1pm: Phew, that class always makes me think so differently than I do in PBL! After this, I’m done for the day with classes and I go to the library to finish my assignment for PBL, which I try to submit the same night so I can focus on Master’s and Clinical Skills on Tuesday.

  • 4pm: I need a break from the library, so I walk home, get a snack, and study there. I usually listen to music or call a friend or my mom during this 30-minute walk back. I cherish these moments of freedom when I don’t have to do anything productive. 

  • 6:30pm: Around this time, I get really hungry and fix myself some food. My partner doesn’t usually get home until around 7:30 or 8pm, so I eat alone.

  • 7:15pm: I usually am back at my desk by this time, either finishing up and submitting my PBL assignment, checking email, or doing writing for my masters. During our second year of the program, we have to have a completed literature review on the topic related to our project. I am finalizing up my literature review to submit for final approval from my thesis committee, so I work on that tonight. 

  • 10pm: I stop studying and answer any leftover emails from the day. I get ready for tomorrow and clean up whatever mess I made in the kitchen. I read a book or write in my journal before getting into bed at 11pm.

Tuesdays are my favorite day of the week. Hello clinicals! 

The day starts with a clinical skills class with 6 other students and we spend the majority of the time going over a case with the instructor acting as the patient. Although this is helpful to slow down, I get excited for real patients during my preceptorship, to which I must drive about 45 minutes. I work with a family doctor every week, so I’ve become accustomed to the workflow and the clinical staff, including the nurse, care coordinator, onsite psychologist, and social worker. This day of the week reminds me why I wanted to go into medicine in the first place--direct patient care. I usually leave clinic inspired, but honestly sometimes overwhelmed with how much I still have yet to learn. It’s quite a struggle to study for a few hours once I am home after such a long day.

Wednesdays are always a little busier than the other days of the week, with class from 9am-7pm. However, starting the day with PBL is always awesome—we always begin with a student-led meditation, taking 3 collective breaths as a group, and start discussing what we learned since the last session. That day I also have my stats class and a new one for my content course for my masters research: Mental Health and Psychopathology, which is a 3 hour class once a week. Next up: last class of the day that I’m a TA for: Healer’s Art (HART). This is my favorite part of the day; it’s a time to slow down and reflect. I’m reminded of just how important it is to recognize the human side of medicine in this class.

Masters masters masters! Thursdays are full of masters work, with thesis working group during the first part of the day, physical exam practice with another student, and then data analysis in the afternoon. In the evening, I switch mental gears again to study my medical school portion of the curriculum to prepare for Friday’s discussion.

I’m exhausted--but it’s Friday. Like all other days of the week, I wake up, grab a cup of jo, and go to the gym. After a full day of classes, Friday nights I prioritize my social life--my partner, my friends, or me time. I do not participate in any productive activities and allow my mind to wander and focus on life outside of medical school (crazy, right!).

Although this schedule is tiring, it is so rewarding. I have the privilege of being a student investigator on my research project and being around some of the most intelligent people I know. I’m inspired every day by my classmates to be a better person, to push myself at the gym a little harder, and to show up emotionally and physically ready to learn. This is the life I chose and I’d do it over again if given the option. Afterall, bettering the world one individual at a time in clinic and pushing research discovery boundaries are together what drives me to wake up and go to the gym every morning. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

About Rachel

Rachel is a 2nd year medical student at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program (The JMP). Although still early on, she is currently interested in OB/GYN specialty. During her free time, she enjoys running, hiking, and salsa dancing--pretty much anything that keeps her active and feeling healthy. She also enjoys writing as she ventures into medicine and has started a writing group with her preceptor (a family doc), a therapist, and a neuroscience researcher (her partner). She hopes to incorporate medical humanities writing and engagement into her clinical practice as part of her career.