The first thing to expect from medical school is that, at the beginning, you will not actually feel like a medical student at all. The reasons you wanted to be a doctor, which you eagerly quoted in your interview, don’t seem to even remotely resemble reality, at least not in your first year. You are essentially learning a foreign language, patient contact is minimal, and you don’t see how memorising the metabolic pathway of acetic acid could possibly help you save a patient’s life!
1. The challenges of medical school are in applying your knowledge
No one denies that a medical course is a tough one. But the beauty of medicine is that, most of the time, it makes perfect sense. So even if the volume of material you are expected to learn can feel overwhelming, the principles are not conceptually hard.
What makes medicine quite challenging is application – in other words, learning how to apply these vast amounts of information in practice, using your judgement to make decisions and acquiring the skills to communicate your knowledge to your future patients. This becomes more apparent as you progress through your degree, as you slowly begin to realise what being a doctor is really about.
2. Don’t expect to get perfect grades all the time
All medical students are academically high achievers, but do not expect to get perfect grades all the time. Most students who would have previously been top of their class at school can get quite a shock when they realise this. It may take a while to adjust and understand that this is perfectly acceptable and does not mean you will become a rubbish doctor!
You will inevitably have to learn vast amounts of anatomical structures, lists of unpronounceable medications, numerous intervention and management guidelines. But you are not expected to know absolutely everything. The more you progress through your degree, the more you learn to focus on what is clinically relevant, and you will be amazed how much you will pick up on the wards during your clinical placements.
Even though everyone seems to think you have everything pre-planned, it is very unlikely that you will know what specialty you will follow until after you graduate. Many medical students even go through a phase when they wonder if medicine was for them at all. This is natural, at least until you find what you really enjoy and have a passion for.
5. You’ll have different terms to your non-medic friends
Medicine is very different from other courses in many ways. Term times and holiday periods can differ greatly, you are expected to act like a professional from day one, and you will find yourself in situations you would never have been exposed to otherwise. You find that you are far from living your typical university life, which becomes particularly apparent when all your non-medic friends have started to graduate, only to realise that you are still half way through.
Even amongst medical students, each person’s experiences will be different, depending on who they are, where they go and who they meet. So expect it to be a long ride, expect to be challenged, and try not to plan too much, because medicine is no ordinary degree. But then again, it wouldn’t be special if it was.