Q&A for Med Students

Q&A for Med Students
July 21, 2020 |

The summer before starting med school is often filled with uncertainty, but this year, incoming students face unique challenges. From picking the best scrubs to navigating coursework during COVID-19, we’re here to help ease your mind.

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Here are your questions for the start of  Med School this fall

How can I network with physicians virtually?

If your undergraduate experience was anything like mine, you might be used to sending many cold emails asking for shadowing or research opportunities to physicians, only to never hear back from them. Now that you’re in medical school, physicians at your home institution will be much more eager to answer your questions. As an M1, they know you’re likely not sure of your future specialty choice and are excited to share their enthusiasm for their specialty with you.

To maximize your chances of finding a good mentor, find a physician who is already in a teaching position. This likely means they care about educating the next generation and will be more receptive to your questions. In your initial email, explain who you are and why you are interested in their field. Then set out a specific request from them – do you want to maintain an email correspondence, set up a time to chat on the phone or even request to shadow? Keep this email short and sweet. If they don’t respond, wait a week before emailing a quick one-liner to make sure they’ve seen your note. Depending on how enthused the physician may be, you can keep them updated with your journey and ask any questions you may have.

How will my education quality with the virtual curriculum compare to in-person learning?

Bliss Chang

Great question. By and large, I think most senior medical students and residents would agree that the bulk of their learning came in two forms: a) self-studying, particularly for the STEP exams and b) clinical rotations.

If you are in the preclinical years, I think there will be very minimal difference in education quality, and many students will probably enjoy the virtual curriculum (many lecture halls go empty with students in the preclinical years anyways!). If your school uses a problem-based learning (PBL) approach, I think it is important for the school to try and facilitate this using platforms such as WebEx or Zoom, but I think it is totally do-able though perhaps the interactions are not in-person.

If you are in the clinical phase, I think the quality of education would be significantly impacted by a virtual curriculum. However, I do believe many schools are continuing clinical rotations this upcoming year. If your school is converting rotations to virtual experiences, it will be particularly important for you to be self-motivated to learn the relevant material for each rotation. You should focus on bread and butter topics rather than what is provided in board exam books (e.g. on heart failure exacerbation rather than Takusubo’s cardiomyopathy). Though it will be difficult for you to pick up certain clinical skills such as the physical exam and the logistics of clinical work, those are easily picked up when you head back to the wards. What is important is to build your knowledge base appropriately so that you have a solid foundation to build upon when returning to the wards.

How do I create a study space for myself to study well at home?

In Atomic Habits by James Clear, he argues the importance of having a separate space for separate tasks. Then when you enter these spaces, your brain automatically knows what task it will begin doing. Mixing tasks up, like studying in the bed where you sleep, confuses your brain and causes you to be less focused.

Pick a place in your home where you study well and commit to studying there every day to train your brain. If you don’t have a place set up yet, use trial and error to see where you work best. Observe your environment. Take notes on your energy levels, your focus levels, and little annoyances you might have from your environment. Over time, you can optimize your study space to work best for you. I noticed I work best with natural sunlight. So, I pushed my desk right next to the window and start studying when the sun rises to maximize the natural light. In contrast, I have friends who focus best without getting distracted by the time of day so they moved their desk into a room with no windows. I work well in silence, so I wear noise-cancelling headphones while I work. In contrast, I have friends who work well with noise, so they run a YouTube video of coffee shop noise in the background as they study. Try different things to see what works.

It also helps to make the space into a place you look forward to going in the morning. My study desk has a quote from Maya Angelou that never fails to inspire me every morning. I moved my cat’s bed underneath my desk so she can sleep near me while I study, which also keeps me going. Studying at home is hard but with some trial and error, you can figure out what works for you and create a space that feels like yours.

update on 08/14/2020

What advice do you have for optimal learning through a virtual environment?

Bliss Chang

I think a virtual environment has many advantages but there are also some challenges. Without being physically present, you have more opportunity to slack off and fall behind. Stay motivated and follow along; it can be a good idea to keep engaged with your close medical student friends and maybe even attend class virtually together in small groups! Next, try to reflect on your learning experience regularly, like each week. Since nobody has truly gone through a virtual medical school curriculum before, it’s important for everyone, especially students, to be cognizant of what is working and what is not. If something isn’t working, let your school know and think of how you can circumvent the problem. I see great opportunities for preclinical medical education in this upcoming virtual year, but it will truly take all of us to optimize our learning experience. Lastly, if your school doesn’t provide interactive sessions where you discuss more complex topics and apply your knowledge to cases, try to set up these opportunities within your friend circle. Appreciate what your medical school has prepared, but also be ready to forge your own path if needed.