Many students worry about how to pay for their education, particularly during periods of inflation and concerns about possible economic recession. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the average medical school debt for 2021 graduates was $200,000 — excluding undergraduate debt — and most schools continue to raise tuition.
Most med school student affairs deans will suggest that med students not take a job. Medical school is your job. There was an old saying that you were married to medicine, once you started med school. I remember saying upon graduation that I was glad I had chosen to go into medicine, but glad I didn’t know how much work medical school would be before I started.
During undergraduate years, I held up to four part-time positions at a time. During med school, I did not hold any job unless you count work during vacation breaks.
Looking over the four years of medical school for extra time for employment brings obstacles into focus.
The first one and a half to two years, especially, are extremely demanding, with massive amounts of work and often the first board exam. Then you hit clerkships, and often there will be weekend or night responsibilities in the hospital that conflict with many jobs.
Your senior year, residency applications and interviews will take up extra time. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual interviewing may give you more wiggle room to look for some part-time work if there is flexibility. Remember, too, that residency match is in March and is often followed by apartment hunting on weekends before graduation. “Free time” during senior year is often taken up completing research projects and writing scientific articles.
There are many more considerations before jumping into a job. The first thing I suggest is to have a very clear idea of a budget, and do so early. Predict what your rent, food, transportation, tuition and other necessary expenses will be. Schools generally provide this information online.
If you can’t find the budget information you need, ask your dean of student affairs or financial aid officer. Once you assess any shortfall you may project to pay for med school, ask about grants or scholarships available to you. Don’t be shy about this.
If your financial situation is not healthy, let them know why. Perhaps your parents can’t or won’t pay for whatever reasons. Perhaps your school debt from the undergraduate program you attended is very high. Yes, you will have submitted this information earlier to med schools, but plead your case again. No med school administrator wants to see students suffer and will do cartwheels to try to get funding from some donor or another to help.
Let’s say this attempt fails and you have to look at loans. There are lower-interest federal loans and higher-interest private loans. You really want to avoid the latter — although some private loans have lower rates for applicants with a great credit history — and make sure you’re clear about that in your “pleading dialogue.” Student loan debt forgiveness or cancellation happens in some cases, but it’s not a guarantee.
My advice to first-year med students who decide that they must work is no more than four hours at the start. See how that goes for one semester. Talk to upper-class students at all levels and ask about their experience with employment.
Don’t fool yourself by thinking, “I was a straight-A student in the past and I can handle 20 hours just like I did before graduating from college.” Forget it. You have never been with as many smart students as you will see in medical school.
If you find that four hours goes well and you don’t have to give up sleep or exercise, increase to eight hours. Just be careful not to overdo the work and fall behind academically. If you do so and have to extend your time in med school, it will cost you a whole lot more in tuition, rent, food, transportation and other expenses.
It’s also important to consider what kind of jobs offer you good return and the time of day you can work. Students who coach others for the MCAT can control their time more easily and make decent money.
Research can be an excellent option, and if you study efficiently you may be able to increase these hours while building good relationships with faculty. You may already have the skill set many primary investigators need, putting you at the top of their list for work possibilities.
Most professors conducting research know that med students are driven and are likely to view their applications for these jobs very favorably. Looking at your school and hospital online job sites, networking with upper-class students and asking faculty for tips are productive avenues for identifying these positions.
Waiting tables and bartending at pricier restaurants can be lucrative but may cut into your sleep or study time. Jobs that cause sleep delay or shortening of sleep are concerning, as sleep deprivation can lead to depression in vulnerable individuals. Depression and anxiety are not what you want to provoke in medical school. Low energy, poor concentration, falling grades and a variety of other consequences caused by depression or anxiety are not worth the extra money.
If you do wait tables or bartend, ask for Friday and Saturday shifts, allowing for the least conflict with prime study periods.
There are many challenges in medicine, but the profession brings much satisfaction and meaning to life. When preparing in med school, especially during trying financial times, appeal for grants and scholarships from all available avenues as a first step. Second, tighten your budget. Money saved now will be worth it later when you weigh taking out loans down the road.
Financial aid officers can teach you many ways to save money. Ask for money gifts for birthdays, holidays and graduation. Don’t cut away at your sleep any more than the med school curriculum demands. If you take care of your body, it will serve you well in the years to come. Be thoughtful and cautious about taking on more responsibilities than you can juggle.
If you do take a job, tiptoe into the shallow end first before committing to many hours. You want to succeed in medical school and beyond, and remain healthy as a good model for your patients.
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