For most people, a “traditional” path to medical school is followed where you do 4 years of college, get a high GPA and MCAT, do a bunch of extra-curriculars and get in. The nice thing about this traditional path is that it provides tunnel vision and allows you to focus in on your one big goal in life (at the time). Everything you do more or less, is related to getting into medical school because once you do that, everything will be sunshine and rainbows.
This very tunnel vision becomes a big problem once you are there however. Once you get into medical school, that “one big goal” is gone. You did it. You did the seemingly impossible and got into medical school against all odds. You did your volunteering and studying, suffered through the MCAT and interview stress and now you are finally here. As we talked about in a previous post, once you’re in the med school environment, it no longer feels like a big deal because that is the baseline just to be there. So you begin comparing yourself to everyone else and always find yourself falling short. The loss of that “one big goal” can feel like a loss of purpose. There is no north star to look to anymore until you find another.
This is when the reality of medical education really sets it. Everyone loves to talk about “life long learning” in their med school interviews as an attractive part of medicine. That is until you realize that “lifelong” actually means “lifelong”. There is no finish line. There is always a next step in the journey. Always another exam, another interview, another boatload of information to learn which will be irrelevant in a few short years. You realize that now you have to out-compete all the smart people again, only this time for a residency spot where you’ll work inhumane hours to get to the next step of being an attending. Then you realize that the rest of your life; relationships, family goals, hobbies, passions left unexplored, none of that pauses for you. Time flies and you begin to question if you’re doing the right thing.
The more you learn, the less you feel like you know and things can begin to seem futile. You forget everything you learned right after the block exam which is fun the first year, but as you get closer to 3rd year rotations and it becomes clear that you don’t know anything, it makes you question what you’re even doing here. If I don’t remember any of this stuff right now, how am I going to be a doctor? How am I going to handle people’s lives in my hands? All that work I put in to get here, was it even worth it? The rest of these people seem so put together, am I the only one struggling? What if I just put all these hours of work and tens of thousands of dollars into a passion I genuinely enjoyed?
All of these questions and feelings of crisis come up in every medical student at one point or another but are rarely ever talked about. In an environment of Type-A high achievers, it can come across as weakness to explore such ideas. But we can tell you for a fact, you are not alone in this struggle. There have been times during exam weeks where I’ve had to go to the bathroom and talk to myself in the mirror, telling myself to keep it together. Telling myself that I worked way too hard to give up now. That it’ll be worth it one day. I still choose to believe that, but the honest answer is that I have no fucking clue. We all like to believe that the things that happen in our lives are “meant to be” or that we all have some path to follow. But honestly who knows? Maybe I should’ve stayed in that highschool band and we’d be on tour right now. I’ve had friends drop out and switch to engineering. I’ve had friends who seem the most put together get therapists to work things out. Friends take a leave of absence and travel the world to “find themselves”. I used to think stuff like this was ridiculous but now it all makes sense. Medicine is such a long, never-ending journey, it makes sense to explore your options.
As far as dealing with this feeling of existential dread and these questions that come up, there’s a couple different ways of going about it.
1) Go into the crisis
Instead of telling yourself everything is okay and powering through, take some time and explore what you are feeling. If you need professional help, seek that out as well. Genuinely explore what you would be doing if you weren’t here and how feasible that option is. Don’t be afraid of uncertainty or fear that you don’t know how it will work out. A few years of up and down now is worth the rest of your life. Explore your reasons for going into medicine and see if they still hold up and determine for yourself if medicine is something you want to continue. Not what others will think if you quit, not the title or status or the money. Is this something you want to keep doing?
2) Seek mentors
If you want to continue with medicine then it is helpful to seek higher-up mentors. That can be upper year medical students, residents or even attendings. Find people who’s personalities you vibe with and talk to them. They have all been through it before you so seek their wisdom in how they dealt with things like these. I’ve had experienced lecturers tell us that they still have these feelings 20 years into their career. It helps to see that they are human too and that its okay to have these feelings. Most people are happy to help and will be flattered that you looked to them for their leadership.
Please understand that you are not alone in having these feelings and it’s completely normal. We hope this post helps and as always, feel free to reach out.