Evaluate Priorities to Balance Personal Life, Medical School

Are you wondering if your life will be over when you start medical school?

I’ve heard students, upon graduation from med school, say something to this effect: “I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I didn’t know how demanding it would be before I started.”

Medical students have to be disciplined to make time for life while studying. Learning how others do it is always a good idea. Understanding what aspects of life mean most to you is the best place to start.

Let’s say athletics is one of your basic life necessities. At my med school, a group of first-year students got up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym. The students were in class by 8 a.m., studied in the afternoon and early evening, and slept well to get up early again the next morning. Their camaraderie motivated them to support their friends by upholding their commitment to fitness and to each other.

As a result, they were alert in class and stayed physically fit. Although their schedules were all different by the time they hit clinical clerkships in year three, they still tried to connect and support one another and perhaps jog the stairs together now and then in the hospital. Jogging the stairs in a large hospital is an excellent way to exercise when you have very little time on a demanding clinical clerkship.

[READ: How to Discuss Mental Health Issues in Medical School Applications.]

Another student trained competitively when she was not studying for board exams or on a full-time clinical rotation. During her research year, she had more control over her time and chose taking an extra year in school in order to leave room for flexible scheduling and competing nationally.

Meditation, yoga or journaling may have been hobbies you found useful to reduce stress in the past. If so, try to keep them. They are good tools for life that you can use throughout your career. Often at the end of these activities, you can feel more focused and ready to study effectively.

Some med students describe real life as having their own children. Although there is no perfect time to have a baby, nonclinical rotation offers more flexibility in scheduling. Once the baby has begun sleeping through the night, completing requirements of nonclinical rotations such as studying preventive medicine online or writing a scientific report become easier to manage.

Of course, timing conception doesn’t always meet expectations. I had a baby in August of my internship year. I thought I could come back after one month, but I needed seven weeks before I returned. In recent years, many new moms have chosen to stay home longer and extend the total length of time in training.

Think carefully about where you would extend your medical training without causing too much anxiety while still being able to catch up once you return. You may want to talk to your student affairs adviser or a residency program director. This is easier to do in some specialties than others.

Some students have valued very active social lives as undergraduates and find it very challenging to give that up. To be honest, an extremely active social life likely isn’t sustainable in most medical schools — and impossible once night call begins.

I have known students who left med school because its demands to reduce their social life were unacceptable to them. Even students who are good with patients may not want to sacrifice that much personal freedom. After discussing with advisers, they have gone off to pursue careers in music, consulting and cooking. One student preferred to give up med school rather than give up his competitive status in various video games.

[READ: Common Reasons Students Leave Medical School.]

In hindsight, it would have been easier if they had made this decision prior to applying and starting medical school. Med school may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Romance and family life are important personal factors in feeling supported during med school, but long-distance relationships that may accompany them can be challenging. Finances and the amount of time needed to study may determine the frequency of visits.

One father drove three hours each way to visit his children nearly every weekend for a full year before his family could move to the same city where he was in medical school. Another trainee visited his partner’s city every other weekend. Most students don’t have the money to fly, but the internet and video chat make closeness easier.

A relationship strengthens when the bond is supported on both ends. How does one do that? There are many ways, but having the same values and behaving consistently are probably the foundation. Similar views on politics, faith/spiritual life, family connectedness, types of free time choices and level of generosity can all help strengthen a relationship.

However, the more differences in these areas, the more hurdles to jump if life becomes increasingly stressed. Daily commitment to conversation and likely more than a quick text are critical.

If you want someone to be there for you, then you have to be there for them. If the expectations are too far apart, the relationship may not work. It would be better to recognize this earlier before the serious investment in med school is made.

Married couples often find other married couples in their class and become friends. They may go out together, support each other and even share child care. The more values they mutually endorse, the greater these networks function.

Sometimes students find a soul mate within their class. Again, making sure those values match is more important than physical attraction, if the relationship is going to be long-lasting.

Respecting each other, learning from each other and having a healthy sense of humor are also important if a relationship is going to stand the test of time. Do you take turns naturally, help with chores and discuss differences of opinion constructively? Yes, it really is about those skills we learned in kindergarten.

But what happens if, at a certain time, the requirements are heavier for one than the other? Farther down the path, a shift can be made and balance reestablished.

[Read: What a First-Year Medical School Student Can Expect.]

Watching television, barhopping and communicating on social media are activities that can eat up valuable free time. Consider what matters most in the life you want to live.

Time with my spouse and family, some exercise and a little community service filled my schedule, apart from work or study. Although I loved cooking, I had to find acceptable speedy alternatives when I was a full-time medical trainee. I had to give up my choir and practices to maintain other obligations.

So, how do you define the life you have? My husband defines a meaningful life as having three components: learning something new every day, taking opportunities to make a difference and having fun with the people you work with.

Medical school offers many opportunities to learn, to make a difference and to enjoy the people who have values similar to yours. It’s up to you to set priorities that allow you to get true meaning and joy out of your experience. As for my life, I still believe the sacrifices were worth it and am so glad I chose a medical career.

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Evaluate Priorities to Balance Personal Life, Medical School originally appeared on usnews.com

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