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What Does Life Balance Look Like in Medical School?

Juggling the demands of medical school to achieve a work-life balance

Many people who go into the medical profession have been dreaming about their future of helping others since they were little kids. Those dreams probably included visions of saving lives, being there for people in some of their most vulnerable moments, and gaining respect in their career. 

…What those dreams didn’t include was how to balance life and school along the way. 

Medical school is one of the most challenging and rewarding paths someone can take, and knowing how to balance your time in med school is a skill that will require some specific, focused attention. 

med students learning about science studying

Even if you’ve been highly successful in your academic career up to this point, the demands of your personal priorities combined with the intensity of a medical program will be one of the trickiest balances you’ll ever face. Still, you can do it knowing that you aren’t alone and that there is a path to find balance in life.

Tips for balancing work, studying, and life

Tip 1: Know What Success Looks Like

Most people who go into medical school are already well acquainted with success —getting high grades and establishing yourself as an ambitious, driven student who knows how to get things done. Those skills will certainly serve you well in medical school, but you’ll need strategies to focus better in school and meet academic demands that are beyond anything you’ve done in the past. 

As the University of Vermont details about the characteristics of a successful medical student, good grades aren’t everything. It’s important to understand your goals and define what success looks like before you become overwhelmed with having balance in your life. 

Here are some areas of your professional identity you’ll want to establish as you define your own version of success: 

  • Compassion– How will you develop and nurture your sense of compassion and care for others so that you carry forward the tools necessary to be an effective medical professional?
  • Service– Where will you prioritize giving your time, energy, and skills to others in support of their needs?
  • Integrity– How will you use your time in medical school to strengthen your ethical frameworks and leave with the integrity necessary for the profession?
  • Scholarship– What will you do to maintain your sense of curiosity and engagement with new knowledge to set yourself up for a lifetime of staying relevant in a changing medical landscape?

As you can see, these qualities reach far beyond any exam scores. Reminding yourself of these necessary skills and characteristics can help you prioritize where you spend your time and focus when demands get overwhelming. 

qualities of a medical proffesional list

Tip 2: Set a Schedule and Stick to it

If you’re wondering how to balance school and life or how to balance school and work, the answer starts and ends with your schedule. No matter how good you’ve been at tackling full-time school and work in the past, the demands are about to get much more serious, and winging it through your day will almost certainly lead to oversights and missteps. 

Think of your schedule with multiple levels of specificity and detail. 

And here’s what I mean. On the top level, consider your long-term goals. What needs to be accomplished by the end of each month? Each semester? Your entire program?

Now consider how you can ensure that you’re chipping away at the small goals that will get you to those larger benchmarks. That becomes part of your daily schedule, and even when the balance between work and school starts to feel like too much, you can use those anchors to pull you back in line with your goals.

For example, experienced medical students gave advice to future medical students in a post at St. George’s University. One piece of advice was not to put off studying for licensing exams. At the beginning of your med school journey, these can seem like a distant hurdle, but making consistent study part of your practice early on will make a daunting task much more manageable. Build time for it in your schedule. 

It’s also important to plan time for yourself, your social life, and your family commitments, but you need to be realistic about what this will look like while you’re in medical school. That brings us to the next tip. 

Tip 3: Communicate Honestly with Friends and Family 

There’s no easy way to put it: balancing work and studying while in medical school is a demanding task. Especially if you’re working during medical school or needing to spend extra time to be better at schoolwork —your free time will decrease significantly. 

Not everyone understands these demands. Those who have not attended medical school may have difficulty grasping just how important it is to keep yourself balanced, so you must communicate with them honestly and openly to avoid hurt feelings and strained relationships. 

One way to manage your relationships effectively and compassionately is to identify who serves different roles in your life. 

two friends meeting over coffee

It might be helpful to think about your relationships during medical school like a traffic light: 

  • Red (light)- These are people who — whether they mean to or not, do not fully respect or understand your need for a rigorous schedule and total commitment to your studies. As you are balancing work and school, these are individuals you may not open up to as much about the emotional side of your medical school experience. Avoid scheduling your time to see them during periods where you are likely to be at peak stress (such as right before an exam). 
  • Yellow (light)- These are people who may not fully understand the demands on your time but who respect the boundaries you’ve set. They aren’t going to pressure you to stay out later than you should or blow off an important study session. While they may not be as connected to the pressures, they’ll likely do their best to listen with compassion. 
  • Green (light)- These are people (often fellow medical students) who really understand this phase in your life and can be there for you with full support and understanding. They will serve as a compassionate confidant when you need to vent and respect your boundaries around your time and schedule. 

*Know who will fill up your energy and who will drain it, and plan your social time accordingly. 

Finding Balance Takes Work

Identifying your balance in life is no easy feat, and it can sometimes feel easier to submit to the flow of whatever comes up at any given moment. If you remember your goals and why you took on this challenging path in the first place, you’ll know that it’s worth it to keep your eyes on the prize and build a school-life balance that will get you where you’ve always wanted to go.

If you’re interested in learning more about navigating your journey through med school, sign up for my email list. I share tips and lessons from the medical profession and in life.

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