Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from undergradute, graduate school, medical school, residency and beyond.

It’s just school…

It’s the middle of summer for most undergraduates, a time when most are on – or contemplating a much-needed vacation. While you are on vacation, this might be a good time to look at your past performance and tweak anything that didn’t allow you to do your best work academically. First, if you achieved all that you wanted to achieve academically, then congratulate yourself and keep up the good work. If you had some difficulties, it’s time to access what went wrong and do some preventive maintenance.

For most people, keeping up a long-term relationship with academics, especially the sciences, is a very difficult task. This means that while your colleagues who are studying business, social sciences and education are out partying during the week, you are going to be completing labs, preparing reports and keeping your knowledge base up to date. For most people, studying physical science is a daily challenge that needs daily mastery for the best long-term results. The emphasis here is on “daily” which means that if you had the idea that you were going to utilize the “last-minute” cram method of study, you likely fell far short of your expectations in your coursework. Make no mistake, the same study habits that bring the best results for mastery of basic science will bring the best results for mastery of medicine. Taking a long and objective look at what didn’t work for you in terms of daily disciplined study is a very sound strategy for getting ready to head into the next year of undergraduate work.

If you are expecting that your undergraduate coursework should be entertaining, then change your thinking here too. Higher education is not for entertainment but for intellectual development. While one needs entertainment and relaxation, don’t look for these things in your coursework. To be able to attend college in this time is a privilege which is becoming rare for many people who would have been able to afford college even ten years ago. Tuition is very expensive  which means that one needs to get every dollar’s worth of learning out of each class. Rather than thinking of your coursework as drudgery or entertainment for that matter, think of your coursework as a valuable experience that can’t be repeated or duplicated. In short, you have one shot not to ruin your academics for any reason especially if medicine – medical school is your goal. Repeats and restarts in coursework are as costly as failures in this process which means that you need to get your mind ready to do everything in your power to master your upcoming courses.

Many students can’t take their eyes off of the “getting into medical school” mentality. In my day, we called this “pre-med” syndrome and it was a much a waste of time and energy then as it is today. If you get YOUR work mastered, it doesn’t matter what others in any class are doing or not doing. You can’t afford to get into the “someone ruined the curve” or “I was sick and couldn’t do my work” or any of the countless excuses that seem to abound when the grades do not come in as one would expect. You also need to stop trying to blame the professor for your poor performance as the professor is the most redundant element of any course. One needs to go into any class with the attitude that you will master the material regardless of classmates, professor or what you have “heard” from previous students.  The material to be mastered is and always be the same material and will require diligent, disciplined and daily study. This is a good time to start planning how you will do this for the upcoming year.

The entitlement ego needs to go along with the valiant search for short cuts. I have seen too many students whose parents have filled their heads with  how “bright” and “intelligent” they are so there must be something wrong with the school or the course when they bring home “Bs” and “Cs”. It doesn’t matter that their “bright” son or daughter didn’t keep up or didn’t master the coursework because they are “bright” and should be rewarded with a grade that reflects that “brightness”. In academia, you will receive the grade that you earn based on your mastery of your educational materials and not based on how “bright” you or your parents believe that you are. In short, the coursework (and your professor) doesn’t care about your “brightness” or your sense of entitlement. If you had all of those wonderful educational advantages that you parents spent loads of money to provide for you, use those advantages and do your best work without a sense of entitlement.

The “ego” like the entitlement needs to go by the wayside in the sense that you can be confident that you can do the work but bragging about your greatness isn’t confidence – it’s the opposite. Since I teach biochemistry on occasion, I can’t count the number of students who have visited my office to tell me how smart they are and how much they work and what grade they must have but have not demonstrated either their “smartness” or “work ethic” by a strong performance on an exam. They are very quick to point out how they were able to “ace” so and so’s course that they took previously but they aren’t making the cut in my course. To do well in my course is very simple, you have to study daily and systematically. Biochemistry is based on understanding and mastery versus rote regurgitation of what is said in lecture. If you are not mastering the concepts and putting them to use, biochemistry is not going to be an easy or pleasant course for you.

Getting to know yourself from an objective standpoint is a very useful exercise for the summer vacation. In her latest book, 89-year-old Betty White makes the case for being able to look into the mirror at yourself daily and for liking what you see. One has to come to terms with who is in that mirror and one has to like that person on a daily basis in spite of your faults and mistakes. One has to see that you are no better or worse than the next person that you will encounter because you are a human. Getting to know and like yourself is a very long process but well worth the effort if you are to have success in the most important aspects of getting your career underway. It’s not easy to admit that you slacked on some of your studies in the past but it’s worthwhile to acknowledge and to move past. If you can’t tell yourself the truth, then how are you going to be able to recognize what you need to progress past for personal growth.

Professional growth requires constant adjustment in personal growth. Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is an exercise in non-growth that few people can afford as any person can decide at the very next second that you will do anything differently. Professional growth will require constant examination of what works and what does not work. Utilizing this summer and your vacation is a great time to assess where you are and where you want to make improvements.


8 July, 2011 - Posted by | medical school preparation, pre-med courses, study skills

1 Comment »

  1. This was an excellent article! Although the Fall undergraduate semester has already started and I have just now stumbled across this information – it’s invaluable. I’ll most definitely be implementing the tactics and strategies discussed above.

    Thank You!

    Comment by Issac | 6 October, 2011 | Reply

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