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Advice for those starting medicine


Moderator Band
Hi all,

I’ve recently just completed my first year of medicine and thought I’d post a collection of my thoughts/reflections/advice for those starting medicine next year while they’re still reasonably fresh in my mind. This is partially riding off the back of the tragic loss of the article that pi wrote at the start of the year (R.I.P). Note that I am a graduate entry student, so it’s possible that undergraduate entry students may find their experience different to mine. Anyhow, here’s a collection of advice!

Don’t do pre-study to “prepare” during your holidays. You’ll waste a big chunk of time that should be spent relaxing and having fun, and you likely won’t learn things that will actually be useful to you, because at this stage you likely don’t know what is and isn’t worth learning. Then, when you actually get taught these things, they’ll be delivered to you in a fraction of the time you spent learning them yourself. In medicine, you should enjoy your holidays when you can get them. You’ll be at a huge risk of burning out if you don’t.

Don’t let medicine become your life. It’s really easy to get caught up in the medicine “bubble” – after all, you spend five days a week at university studying medicine, and then there is a continuous stream of social events run by the medical society, and then your medicine friends want to catch up outside of class, and….. it goes on. Of course you should enjoy yourself, go to social events and form close relationships with your peers. However, make sure you take time out for yourself and dedicate sufficient time to your non-medicine friends and family. Sometimes you just need to take a break from it all and having people that you can meet with and talk about things unrelated to medicine is invaluable. I personally ensure that I dedicate (at the absolute minimum) one day a week (usually a weekend day) to doing no study, I make a conscious effort to catch up with my non-medical friends just as much as my medicine friends, and I strive to maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine (all of the above can become very difficult to maintain during the exam period). You will thank yourself in the long run if you maintain methods to keep yourself sane, healthy and have different interests and hobbies in your life. Don’t sacrifice your non-medical interests while you have the time to pursue them.

Revolve your study around learning what you need to know to be a safe and competent doctor, and not merely so you can pass/smash your exams. This was a direct tip from pi which I’m really glad I took on board. Of course exams are important (and to some people, they are more important than others) but just because something isn’t going to be assessed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn it! This isn’t to say to completely ignore your medical school’s syllabus, either; those exist for a reason.

Don’t worry about what other people know. Particularly in the lead up to exams, but also more generally, you’ll likely hear your peers talking (flexing) about what they’ve studied, how much they’ve done in the lead up to exams, and probably things you’ve never heard of before. This is the nature of grouping a whole heap of high-achieving and highly motivated individuals together. You should focus on yourself and what you need to learn, rather than what other people are discussing. Of course if you’ve been formally taught something or every other person knows something and you don’t, then this is an indicator that you need to know it. However, there will always be someone that knows more than you, that has done more study than you, that got a better mark than you, etc. You need to become comfortable with this, your own approach to your learning and exam preparation, and learn to ignore other people who will just stress you out.

Use your peers! On the flipside to the above point: you don’t have to do everything by yourself. Form study groups, ask other students and staff for help, and don’t be afraid to ask “stupid questions”. The reality is that there are probably a whole heap of other students that were wondering the same thing and will be grateful for you asking the question for them. Don’t worry about trying to display some intelligent persona to others; medical school is about learning, not showing off how smart you are or are perceived to be. If you’re trying to look smart, this probably won’t be looked upon as favourably as you think it might.

You’ll only get out what you put in. If you’re afraid of failure or “looking dumb” and this holds you back from putting your hand up for things, then this will only hinder your learning. Medical school will involve a lot of things that force you out of your comfort zone, and you’ll be much better for it. Make the most of your learning opportunities when they present themselves! While this has already been very apparent to me as a pre-clinical student in PBL, clinical skills and communication skills sessions, I’ve no doubt it’ll become even more relevant in clinical years.

It takes time to figure out your learning style. This one challenged me a lot, as my medical school is very dependent on students learning things for themselves. There’s a lot of gaps in our teaching that we are expected to fill, and we often aren’t told about these gaps. I had to learn what the best way for me to learn independently was, and it frustrated me that I kept trying different things and they weren’t working. What I’ve learned from this is that there is no magical approach: you need to trial lots of different things, and this may take the better portion of a year (well it did for me, anyway). Ask others for tips and advice, but don’t rely on a certain study method that worked for someone else if it isn’t working for you. You will quickly discover that the learning style required in medicine is very different to what was required in high school (and for me, my undergraduate degree) where there is a hell of a lot more spoon-feeding and a lot less self-direction required.

There is always more to be done to prepare for exams. This is a feeling you need to get used to. There is such a huge amount of content you’ll need to learn in a relatively short space of time, and when any of it is assessable, it becomes pretty much impossible to know it all for your exams. While I can’t speak for other schools, my medical school also likes to assess a bunch of things that we haven’t been taught, were never told we should know, and what most people have never heard of before, presumably to separate out the highest scoring students from each other. In short, you’ll need to learn how to pick out the high yield topics from the lower yield topics for the purposes of exam preparation, and this is a skill that can take some time (I haven’t got it down pat myself, yet).

Exam results don’t define your knowledge or capabilities. This goes without saying, but you’re here to become a doctor, not to beat everyone else. It does not matter if you are average or below average in certain areas, and it’ll often reflect something completely unrelated to your knowledge in that area. Now is a really good time to separate your self-worth from your grades. Your grades do not indicate how clever you are, or your skill as a doctor. Also, try your best not to get caught up in conversations about your exam results with other people; if they are asking what mark you got in an exam, it’s presumably to be competitive or show off, rather than because they actually care about how you went. Steer clear of these people if you can, or take my approach and ensure you don’t ask them what mark they got after they ask you (because this is usually the real reason they asked: so they can flex their score on you).

Compile a useful bank of resources. Lots of people make the mistake of studying the same thing in four different textbooks because they think it will help them know it better. This isn’t true. If you’ve read one good textbook on a topic then you’ve probably read everything you were going to in another textbook. Pick the one that works best for you. You shouldn’t need too many resources once you’ve found the ones that work best for you. Some of my favourites:

  • Marieb Anatomy & Physiology: Great for understanding the basics of pretty much any body system, and good to rely back on for foundation before you learn in more detail.
  • Guyton & Hall – for more advanced physiology.

Robbin’s Basic Pathology is the only textbook I look at, but my school has an excellent pathology lecturer so that helps a lot.

  • Rohen’s Colour Atlas: the best anatomy textbook out there with labelled cadaver images.
  • Acland’s Anatomy: if you get access to these through your medical school, make the most of it. The videos are well paced and take you through cadavers for pretty much anything you’ll ever need to know for anatomy.
  • The Australian Medicines Handbook (AMH) site is amazing and you should rarely need more than what it provides.
  • Rang & Dale’s Pharmacology is my go-to if I want anything that goes into more detail than the AMH, though I usually don’t.
Talley and O’Connor is obviously a must and is outstanding for anything related to clinical examination or history taking, and from what I’m told it’s used not just in medical school, but for preparing for postgraduate exams as well.

BMJ Best Practice and UpToDate: both excellent resources for understanding the epidemiology/aetiology/pathophysiology/treatment/complications of pretty much any disease you can think of, based on updated guidelines.

I also use AMBOSS (which is a paid resource) and find it absolutely amazing. It saves me loads of time: I can look up any disease and find out everything I’d want to know about it in an instant. However, you can definitely get by without paying for study resources, so don’t take this as gospel. I only paid for the “resource library” and wouldn’t invest in the question bank at this stage.

Enjoy yourself! This year has been the best year of my life. I’ve had so much fun and absolutely love what I’m studying. Remember that you won’t be a student forever, so make the most of your time as a student while you have it!

I might add more to this as it comes to mind, but for now: hope this can be of good use to those just embarking on their medicine journey! 😊

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