Life of a Medical Student

Day in the Life of a Medical Student

Every day is a different at the hospital, regardless of whether you’re a medical student or much further along in your career. The day depends on who walks in the door, what they’re story is, what illness or injury they have.  That doesn’t even take into account what specialty rotation you are on (General Medicine/ General surgery/ Neurology/ Trauma/ Plastic Surgery etc), which hospital network you’re placed at… the list goes on. Confusing as it is, I’m hoping this article can provide a little insight into what you have to look forward to!

As a little disclaimer before we get into it, I picked this day to document primarily because it erred more on the side of being exciting and, well, I want you to know how diverse and fun hospital life can be as a medical student. However, my days are by no means always this busy nor lacking to this extent in formal teaching and lectures so please take this example with a grain of salt. This is also a day in my life as a third year, clinical medical student and looks very different to my preclinical years! If you’d like me to write one about a day in the life of a preclinical medical student or even another variation of a clinical day in the life please feel free to leave your request on the iCanMed Facebook page!

Anyway, let’s get into it.

5.30am: ‘BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP’ were you jolted out of your pleasant reverie by that? Because I was. Regardless of whether or not I’ve had my eight hours 5.30 will probably never feel like an appropriate time to be awoken from my slumber.

6.00am: Depart the house. Ward rounds aren’t until seven, but one of the unfortunate realities about hospital placements is that they can really be quite far from where you live.

6.54am: Arrive at the hospital. I’m more asleep than awake, but quickly stop feeling sorry for myself when the interns pointedly inform me they’ve been there for ½ an hour already and I’ll be in their shoes before I know it.

7.00am: Start ward rounds. This is the point in the morning where we visit all the inpatients who the team is responsible for and determine the plan of action for each of them that day. It’s my job to run and grab folders between patients (not that fun, but really wakes you up) and to write the occasional inpatient progress note (somewhat more fun).

9.00am: Radiology meeting. Today’s round was snappy, efficient and there were no new admissions in the emergency department so we arrive on time and get the good seats in the meeting room for once.

10.00am: Mandatory coffee break. A lull in the action of the day means it’s time to refuel with coffee, and have a casual research meeting with my supervisor. 

10.30am: Clinic! Typically one of the better learning opportunities as a medical student, especially on days like today when the opportunity arises for me to see some patients on my own, and hopefully answer some of their questions, before they go on to seeing the doctors.

12.00pm: Lunch. Today I opt for a longer lunch and eat at the park across the street with a friend who is on a different specialty rotation at the moment. We talk about how pathology makes no sense and throw a frisbee for a dog that keeps coming up to play.

12.30pm: Tutorial. This afternoon it’s one on peripheral vascular disease and I can’t say I’m particularly excited about it.  

1.00pm: Surgery! I grab a couple of biscuits as sustenance, attempt to charm the theatre receptionist into lending me a locker key for the afternoon and go down to the operating theatre for the second case on the afternoon list. Today is a simple laparoscopic cholecystectomy, open inguinal hernia repair kind of day.

5.30pm: I run out of steam just about when the operating list ends and it’s time to head home. The bad news is its peak hour traffic, the good news is tomorrow’s a Friday!

6.45pm: HOME. I finally make it back after moving at snail’s pace. Why is it that the traffic always has to be worse on the way back at than the way in?

8.30pm: Independent study. After having dinner and gathering enough strength to get myself off the sofa I want nothing more than to go straight to bed. Alas there is work to be done and I should probably put in at least an hour of study. 

10.30pm Bedtime! I am fully aware of how early 10.30 is for bed, but trial and error has lead me to realize that I will most probably sleep through my alarm if I don’t get my eight hours. 

When I reflect on why I am disproportionately excited by eleven hour days and getting up before the sun, two broad themes come to mind; that I become bored far too easily, and that I love stories. Although the general process of the day may be similar, the patients, their medical issues and the narrative of how they came to end up sitting in front of you in the hospital is ever changing, and often fascinating. As a bonus, the nature of a doctor’s work is always varied, where a more academic approach is required to piece together symptoms and test results to come up with diagnoses and conclusions (as you might do on a ward round, or in clinics) and a task-based approach is more relevant to the hands-on aspects of the job (like putting in IV drips, suturing in ED, or surgery!). Hence medicine offers me variety to combat boredom and constant contact with people who will kindly tell me their stories.

I subject myself to being a cliché by saying this, I know, but I really do feel privileged to live out a day-to-day routine that I genuinely enjoy. Even more so, I’m privileged that I’m able to say with confidence that I’m working towards a job I know I will love!

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Highlights (and a few Lowlights) of the Preclinical Years

For those of you who haven’t yet begun browsing the ‘Future Students’ or ‘More About: The Faculty of Medicine’ tabs on every University’s website and physical prospectus, here’s a very brief aside on the structure of medical school to give you a clearer idea of what it is we’re talking about before we get into the article. If you’re already a seasoned expert, feel free to skip down a couple of paragraphs!

Aiming to speak broadly about Australian Universities, the most typical breakdown of medicine as a course is two years of preclinical learning for undergraduates (one for postgraduates) and three to four years of clinical schooling and/ or research terms. The preclinical years are aimed at instilling a foundational level of theoretical knowledge. That is, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, pathology for each system and the basics of things like medical law, ethics and epidemiology. The University usually sprinkles in a placement day here and there, just to keep us on our toes, but essentially all of preclinical is spent in lecture halls, tutorial rooms, labs and looking for the cheap snacks on campus. The clinical years provide the ‘real life’ experience of medicine if you will, and give us the opportunity to hang out in the hospital pretty much all the time (save for a few tutorials and weekly lectures). It’s during the clinical years that people seem to put all the little bits of knowledge together, get a grip on the practical skills, and generally learn how to doctor. 

Let’s face it, the preclinical years of medical school- no matter where you go- rarely live up to the standard of the clinical years. To me, it makes total sense, it’s not until you hit the hospitals and/ or clinics full-time that you feel as though you’re a part of what you actually signed yourself up for. Even so, although I can’t say I miss it, preclinical definitely wasn’t all bad, if bad at all! So, here we are again to reflect upon the highs and the lows, the pros and the cons, the hits and the misses- and hopefully give you a taster of what you have to look forward to. 

Let’s start off with a couple of lows so we can end on a high! The not-so-good parts about my personal preclinical experience generally fit under the broad category of a sort of ‘small fish in a big pond’ syndrome. What do I mean by this? In essence, medical school is a different ball game to high school and, at least in the beginning, it can take a bit of getting used to. From what I’ve seen, heard and experienced a lot of us finished up our high school years having gotten into a good rhythm, we had an idea of how many hours of study was enough and the little techniques that worked for us. Then, suddenly, the carpet is pulled from under our feet and for a while there all the study tips that we honed so well didn’t seem to work anymore and we started receiving exam scores that were sorely disappointing. This is exacerbated by the fact that medical school tends to attract people who are very strong academically, and there is always someone who seems to be “way smarter and way more on top of it than me”. This same principal applies to everything in University really, the pool of people becomes larger, the competition more heated, and hence your exposure to rejection and disappointment is increased tenfold. Aside from this, the only distinctly unpleasant incident that I recall from my preclinical years was a situation in which a patient refused to have me in the room during their consultation. Truly, this was a no-big-deal incident and it has happened to me a few times since. In hindsight, patients do ultimately have their right to choose not to see us medical students. Plus, there will be many, many more who will kindly let you speak to them/ elicit their clinical signs/ take their blood the list goes on!  

In saying this, the most memorable moments of my first two years of medical school are, of course, all the best ones! Academically speaking, it was starting anatomy tutorials that captured my interest. Using the prosection specimens to visualize all the intricate puzzle pieces that constitute the human body and, ultimately, dissecting cadavers for myself was an experience that I had been looking forward to since the first day. It certainly didn’t disappoint! Then, there were the glimpses into moments of ‘real-doctoring’ on our first few clinical placements. These days at major tertiary hospitals (and the smaller rural ones), GP clinics or rehabilitation facilities were admittedly few and far between during my first two years, but certainly made for the most standout moments and always left me buzzing with excitement (as most days at the hospital still do now). Alongside this, there were the smaller victories. Simple things like being satisfied with how I performed on an OSCE (our practical exams which are notoriously more difficult to pass than our written exams), receiving credit for good work, or having a patient thank you for spending time with them that made for a few particularly joyous memories amongst the mediocrity of sitting in class after class. Then there were the co-curricular surgical workshops, and teddy bear hospitals and sock puppet-making with primary school children and a whirlwind of social events… need I even mention the friendships?

Medical school is a process, and though I find myself putting great emphasis on how incredible the clinical years have treated me (so far that is), the building-block years are equally as important. No matter how average or bland some days can be (there’s a limit as to how much you can enjoy a lecture, I know) set your sights on the end goal, and know that you only carry your greatest hits with you anyway.

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Why do YOU want to become a doctor?

If you’re considering going into medicine as a career, chances are you’ve been asked (probably about 100 times) “Why do you want to become a doctor?” by every relative, teacher, careers counsellor, friend and checkout-counter-lady-making-small-talk. I found it perplexing, particularly when nobody seems to default to the same line of questioning for my sister, who is an artist, or any of my friends, who are undertaking a commerce degree, that people are so fascinated with my reasoning behind going into medical school. In fact, on occasion it almost sounded like a trap, by which everyone was waiting to catch me out as someone who isn’t doing it for the right reasons, or worse yet, for me to admit I’m only studying medicine because my parents gave me a choice between that or law.  

This is a theme that recurred in my life time and time again particularly around interview season, and occasionally still comes to haunt me nowadays when I meet somebody new. And still, I struggled for far too long to express myself in a coherent way or shorten my rambling story into a digestible one-sentence response. Why did I really want to become a doctor, and why did everybody care so much to ask?

To set the record straight, I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up surrounded by a medically inclined family and, despite the Asian-as-they-come grandparents on both sides I was never even encouraged, let alone pushed, into becoming a doctor (nor a lawyer for that matter). Instead of plastic stethoscopes and syringes, I passed my afternoons snipping little scraps of fabric, drawing colourful shapes I called dresses or jumping around in ballet shoes.

It wasn’t until my more senior high school years that I realized what I really wanted was a job which allowed me to work with people, rather than sit at my computer; that I was not too shabby when it came to the sciences, but was never going to be better than passable at math, nor have the patience to read and write enormous chunks of text on an everyday basis. Somewhat simultaneously, I happened to fall into, and in captivation with, the social justice program at school and quickly decided that whatever I was going to do when I graduated had to allow me to continue on that trajectory. With a little assistance from google (see search history for “job that combines science and people” and/ or “social justice in science”), oh and my school careers counsellor, eventually all the dots connected and medicine became an option to consider for the first time in my life.

Considering the only exposure I’d had to real-life doctoring at this point was whatever they showed on channel seven, I then went in search of proof that saving peoples’ lives from some insane accident every day and dramatic love triangles is the reality of a doctor’s day to day practice. Doing this the only way I knew how, I took up two weeks of work experience at a hospital, where I understood nothing of the medicine itself but had the opportunity to grasp a small snapshot of the job and the lifestyle.

The point I’m trying to make is, eventually I came to realize the gravity the question, “why do you want to become a doctor?”, and when I sat down to think about the experiences that led me to the decision, I was suddenly far better at formulating an answer. The necessity of knowing ‘why’ was not for the sake of being able to give a smooth response to whomever I was making small talk with, or to be able to speak confidently in an interview, but because I owed it to myself to be sure that medicine was what I wanted before I started jumping through the hoops to get there.

Medicine is fascinating, dynamic and the more I experience the more I understand that it’s a privilege to work with patients. Still, it’s undoubtedly difficult work, and it seeks people who are wholeheartedly committed. It demands a lifetime of study/ learning/ CV building/ extra degrees/ research projects, can be physically and emotionally taxing and is a job that doesn’t lend particularly well to a good night’s sleep or weekends off. Believe me, if you asked an intern they’d say that I don’t even know the half of it!

Of course I don’t mean to turn you away from going after the dream, if you ask me being a doctor is probably the coolest job out there! Nevertheless, I do want to encourage you to seek an opportunity to understand what the job entails for yourself, and be firm in your personal whys as well as your ultimate goals. At the end of the day, it’s those reasons that tend to serve as your motivators when you have too many exams, or you’ve barely had enough sleep, or nothing is going right and it would be easier to give up and go a different path. 

So I guess the question I’m really asking here is, why do YOU want to become a doctor?

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What to expect from your first week of medical school

My first day of medical school can be likened to the first day, of my first year of high school. My lab coat was as oversized as my school blazer (although I don't think I’ll be growing into it), the campus was far too large and I was on high alert trying to understand all my new classmates and how I fit in to the whole picture. Only this time I was well aware that a large chunk of these people were in the top 1% of academic genius high school graduates in the country.

 Intimidating as it all seemed, I jumped out of bed that first morning buzzing with enthusiasm for the next big turning point in my 17 year existence. On the bus ride to uni I tasked myself with creating a list of things I was likely to learn that first week, deciding in for myself that rationally we were going to have to cover a tiny bit of excruciatingly dry basic sciences, but surely we’d spend the large majority of our time learning procedural skills like IV cannulation and studying anatomy by cadaveric dissection! Of course, as reality would have it, I was instantly proven wrong and we started our dream course with a full day of the ten stages of the Krebs Cycle!

Prepared as I evidently was not, here are a few things I would have liked to know going in to my first week of medical school.

 1.     You have to learn to walk before you can run!

 Upon reflection I set my sights unrealistically high on the kinds of skills I would be acquiring and practicing as soon as I started at Uni. Maybe I spent too much time day-dreaming about being a character on Grey’s Anatomy over the summer; but I know a great deal of medical students, brimming with enthusiasm and expectation for their career as a doctor, experienced a similar reality check. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you wont be performing operations, or even taking patients’ blood, from day one. Instead, the days are filled with basic anatomy, physiology and a whole lot of biochemistry in the form of lectures and tutorials. It can be dry, and it’s common for students to question whether they made the right choice. However, if you’re anything like me small excitements like taking blood pressure manually and listening to an interesting patient’s story will tide you over until your clinical years- that’s when you really get to run.


2. Your university experience will be different

Everyone has heard about the negative aspects of the medical school experience; having twice as many compulsory classes as your high school friends, studying for an exam every six weeks and the sacrifices you have to make in your social life. Although I don't deny you’ll be in class, or studying in the library for a greater number of hours than the average first year university student, an outsider’s perception of the amount of work you have to put in can be deceiving. The fact is most weeks are more than manageable, and medical students have as much a propensity for parties as the next person. As a bonus, seeing your classmates regularly and constantly is a rarity at uni and makes med one of the easiest courses in which to make a group of close friends!


3. You might feel lost in the beginning

As with any big start in a new environment, medical school can be a bit of a shock to the system in the beginning. The little fish, big pond analogy becomes incredibly real when your lecturer begins shooting questions to the audience and other people are jumping to respond before you’ve understood what you’re being asked. A lot of people will tell you you’re amongst the “cream of the crop” or that they're impressed by how clever you are, and still you might feel as though you aren't quite sure whether you fit this pre-assumed mold. Though it certainly seems at the time that everybody else is adapting a lot more quickly than you, we’ve pretty much all been there and done that. There’s no harm in taking time to find your feet!


4. You will meet amazing people

After my first few days at the university, I came home totally elated that the people I had met were some of the most humble and easy-going despite their long list of accolades, and warning’s I had heard about cockiness or bullying. The culture of medicine is really one that fosters and rewards passing knowledge on to your colleagues. In the hospitals this means consultants actively teach and support their registrars, who pass do the same for their residents, who are looking after the interns- with everyone working towards best patient care! This whole concept of sharing information, and giving back by teaching trickles down into medical school and the older students are more than willing to volunteer their time to teach you. You’ll also have a unique opportunity to meet expert scientists and clinicians that are giants in their fields, and fellow likeminded peers who understand both your aspirations and struggles.


In my first week of medical school I discovered the exceptional boredom only biochemistry lectures can inflict upon you, the correct way to wear the earpieces of a stethoscope and how many minutes it took to run from the carpark to the classroom. I found role-models in my seniors and lifelong friends in my peers, I was introduced to the library that stayed open the latest (“for when exam time rolls around”) and which shop sold the cheapest snacks. Cheesy as it sounds, I experienced my first taste of the joy and true privilege of being in medicine, and remember that week as a great one.

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The Day I Received My Medical School Offer

Allow me to set the scene for you.

It’s the 18th of January 2016 and I’m visiting my grandparents in a not-very-well-known part of Indonesia where the weather is stifling and the internet connection is questionable at the best of times. I’m the first of many grandchildren to take an interest in medicine, much to my grandmother’s delight, and the whole household- aunties and cousins and family friends and dogs alike- all know that today is the day I find out whether or not I got into medical school. Whether I have failed or succeeded. Needless to say, my main objective of the morning is to stay in bed as long as humanly possible, where Wi-Fi is inaccessible and no university acceptance email could ever catch me. What you don’t know can’t hurt you right? Not really. The anticipation gnaws away at me like necrotizing fasciitis (Ha. Med joke!) and eventually I have to drag myself out of bed to face my inbox. I take my seat at the dining table and pretended not to notice how the whole family has congregated around the edges of the room to watch my reaction.

In hindsight, they must have been a little concerned at the number of times I refreshed the email in disbelief and how manically I clicked on the link that said ‘accept this offer’ before I even thought to turn around and announce my big news.

Now, a couple of years down the track, I can safely say that I reflect on the memory of that day- one all-important, life-changing, turning-point of a day- and say it was not nearly as dramatic as my anticipation of it might have suggested. Despite a tragic inward battle, a great deal of disbelief and serious concern that the university was going to retract their offer if I didn’t accept it as quickly as the struggling Wi-Fi signal would allow, I did manage to get in!

The moment I opened the email is actually a bit hazy in my memory. I put it down to the stress of it all, or maybe the fact that it was a literal dream come true. However, what I do remember with a great degree of clarity, is how my family members were not nearly as astonished as I had expected them to be. In fact, they smiled, and congratulated me, and said “I knew you could do it”. Yes, I realize that phrase is the most standard of standard responses in the context of praising someone for an achievement. Nevertheless, reflecting on the memory makes me wonder- why is it that I was so certain I wouldn’t get in? Sure, there’s an extent to which it is natural to be nervous about an important decision that is out of your hands, but why, in this situation, did I have more doubt about my ability to succeed than anybody else?

The unfortunate truth is, somewhere along the lines someone told me that only the kid who’d been learning anatomy from their surgeon parents since they were ten, or the guy who started private UMAT tutoring in year nine, or the school captain, sports-star, perfect ATAR model student was going to get into medical school. What’s worse? I totally believed it, and I get the impression that there are plenty of current high school students who are full of potential (yes, all of you guys) that will believe it too.

Now, please don’t take my message the wrong way. I don’t mean to say that the process is going to be easy, that you shouldn’t study or don’t need to work hard. Nor is this a platform on which to brag and put down anyone that may have missed out on their offer the first time around. But, what I am here to do is set the record straight once and for all and say- medical students are not that special!

I consider it a blessing that I went on to put a great deal of effort towards getting into my dream course, despite feeling so uncertain about the outcome. But there are still far too many students who I have conversed with about medical school entry that are where I was two or three years ago. Students who begin half their sentences with “I know I’m probably not smart enough” or “other people are already way ahead of me” or even “I don’t come from the right demographic, I’m not at a private school or a selective school” when, realistically, a great deal of them are more than capable. I hate to think that some of these students may go on to give up their dream because somebody painted them a false picture, and told them they would never be able to achieve it. So please allow me to be the opposing voice and say that truly, it is possible and you have what it takes.

The bottom line is, if you truly want to get into medical school give it everything you’ve got! Don’t fall into the trap of worrying about how other people are more equipped than you are and take yourself out of the race before you’ve even started running. Prepare thoroughly, give yourself as much control over the process as possible, and go into the university acceptance period with confidence that you’ve given it your best shot. Above what everybody else has to say, putting yourself in the game is the first step to reaching that end goal!

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