Being in med school isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon, and those who succeed are those who can endure.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise for me, but it was. I’d heard medical school compared to “drinking out of a fire hydrant.” The comparison assumes that the sheer volume of information, thrown at us all at once, was what made it so hard.
Spoiler alert: that’s not what makes medical school hard.
Me at the Holiday Classic Loma Linda Loper’s 5K — their 25th anniversary!
Well, at least not directly. That factor alone isn’t what makes medical school hard (make sure to do your multivariate analysis! Thumbs up for EBM!*). I like the analogy I heard from a fellow medical student: medical school isn’t so much like a fire hydrant as it is a water faucet turned on full-flow. . . that never stops. What makes it hard isn’t just the amount of information, it’s the amount of time we have to sustain such a high level of performance.
But I didn’t realize that at the beginning of school. I still thought the hardest thing about medical school was the large amount of material we had to learn in a short amount of time. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found that the demands of med school were very doable. Yes, we had to learn a lot, and there wasn’t much time to do it, but learning it all was far from impossible. It would just require a not-insurmountable step up from my studying habits in undergrad.
And that’s what I did. It started out well enough. I scouted around campus to find quiet study spots, fine-tuned my study methods and chose what resources to focus on for each class, and soon my days fell into a rhythm. Go to class, study. Go to class, study. Go to class, study. . . It sounds heart-rendingly dreary, but it didn’t seem so at the time. It felt good to stretch and exercise my academic capabilities, the way the endless activity of putting one foot in front of the other can be invigorating to runners.
How studious! Just like a good little medical student.
(And I admit, I exaggerate — I took plenty of time out to have fun — watercoloring, baking, playing music, going on walks with my eight-year-old cousin, taking weekends off to go on church camping trips, visiting Disneyland. . .)
At any rate, I felt prepared when the first week of exams** rolled around. And it was nice to change things up from the grind of morning lectures-afternoon labs-evening studying. During exam week, there were no lectures to go to, no labs to do, no new material to study.
But then the second test cycle began. After a week of relative relaxation, I felt like I couldn’t go back to the reality of med school. Go to class, study, go to class, study, go to class. . . let me do something with my day that’s not studying.
There’s a word in Tagalog, sawá, that describes the feeling you get when you’ve been doing the same thing for a while and you’re tired of it, like when you eat a lot of something and you get tired of the taste. If you’re not careful, that can happen in medical school. The material every day is new, but the monotony of
go to class
go to lab
go to sleep
. . . and doing it all over again can get, well, boring. It doesn’t help that I tend to fall into routines — studying in the same place, in the same way, at the same time.
Then before I knew it, our second set of exams was before me. And like magic, new motivation to study suddenly appeared! The week before exams I studied harder than I had since before our first test week. But there’s only so much you can stuff into your brain in even a week, before everything starts to merge together into a muddled mess.
The Yerkes-Dodson law states that that level of performance — whether school-related, work-related, or whatever — increases with increasing stress up to a point, at which increasing stress will decrease performance. This is part of the basis for procrastination. There’s always a willpower-barrier to getting any task done, and sometimes it takes the stress of an approaching deadline to get over that barrier.
The Yerkes-Dodson law: increasing stress increases performance up to a point, after which performance falls
Liken it to a reaction’s activation energy: stress is the catalyst that shrinks the mountain in the middle, allowing the reaction to proceed to completion. Unfortunately, the longer I’m in school, the bigger that hump seems to be.
Activation energy is the energy barrier to completing a reaction. A catalyst reduces the activation energy and allows a reaction to proceed more easily.
So, what’s the end of this story? The hump will get bigger and bigger, and the stress will have to be higher and higher for me to get over it, leading to greater and greater procrastination? (Insert hyperventilation here)
I don’t think so. I’m going to be optimistic and say this is just a temporary setback. I may have “hit the wall” now, but that’s nothing a little rest, some stretching, maybe a massage, and — most importantly — not giving up can conquer (marathoners will relate to this!). In the words of Dory from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim, swim.”
I’ll give you one more analogy, but the Bible says it better than I would. Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.” We just have to keep doing it, and God will reward us. Even if we start to grow weary, never fear! Isaiah 40:29-31 tells us,
“He gives strength to the weary,
And to him who lacks might He increases power.
Though youths grow weary and tired,
And vigorous young men stumble badly,
Yet those who wait for the Lord
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.”
*EBM stands for Evidence-Based Medicine, which is like a research class for continued medical education. Even after we’ve finished medical school, we won’t know everything (hard to believe, I know!), but we should have the skills we need to find the correct answers to questions we and our patients will have.
**For those of you who may not know how our schedule works, we take our classes in blocks of four to five weeks, after which follows a week of exams. Each day’s exam is an amalgamation of questions from all our subjects; this helps simulate the experience of the national boards exams.