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What Grey’s Anatomy Doesn’t Tell You About Becoming a Doctor

my advice to any student considering a career in medicine

Unlike Meredith, I’ve never had an affair with an attending. Not to say that I haven’t had some handsome ones, but that’s actually rather frowned upon. As I enter my final year of residency, I’ve learned a few things that you should know.

Throughout the course of your medical education you receive a lot of advice. You never know who might share something that changes your life. These are my “greatest hits” – the aphorisms, witticisms, and wisdom that I have most valued and have proceeded to share with others…whether they ask for it or not.

High School / College

“Stop worrying about grades and take Spanish,”

Advised the nutty professor to end all nutty professors, with scraggly hair, a beaming smile, and sweater vests. He taught more about the theories and famous chemistry experiments than the things we actually had to know for exams. But those things are memorable. I guarantee you I’ve forgotten the rest. He chose to mentor me – a reforming type-A-straight-A student – and made sure I studied things that were valuable for my life, even when I was sure I’d fail. Thanks to him, I can still get by in emergencies with my residual Spanish skills.

Med School

“Choose the specialty in which the most annoying and mundane things bother you the least.”

I wish I could remember which professor told me this. Thank you, anonymous wise person, you helped me more than you know.

“Surgery is the coolest club around, but the dues are high and you have to decide whether or not you want to pay them.”

The PGY9 (nine years out of med school) fellow on my sub-internship told me they didn’t have interns, so she wanted a third year medical student to function like a second year resident. That’s a three year promotion – utterly terrifying. While having outrageous expectations, she gave specific feedback and superb mentoring that enabled students to succeed. Her metaphor (simile? don’t shoot the former biology major) helped me crystallize my early interest in surgery and decide it was indeed worth paying the dues.

“Wear compression stockings. And start now!”

Suggested the neurologist in an adjacent chair at the hospital blood drive. Trust me on this one. Just do it.

Medical school feels like drinking from a fire hose and drowning in the information. Remember: the most important things are taught more than once. I’m now a chief resident in a surgical subspecialty, but I learned and forgot how to hand-tie suture knots at least four times in as many rotations before it stuck.

One thing I tell all my medical students: When deciding where to go to residency, you should seriously consider leaving the state. How often in your life will you get to move anywhere in the country for a specified period of time? Learning at multiple institutions gives you more connections, job opportunities, mentors, and you can always go home after residency, bringing new perspectives and skills with you.

Residency

“You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t.”

What else can you say? Sometimes you just have to do your best with what the situation presents.

“As long as you keep a lively mind, you will learn wherever you go.”

Before I decided on fellowship and an academic career, I fretted to one of my attendings that my biggest fear about finishing residency was ceasing to learn and explore in medicine. He pointed out that learning has more to do with you than your context.

To myself as a junior resident, I would say, “Publish more papers!!!” Besides that, developing good organizational skills stands you in good stead, especially as you get closer to chief year. Use checklists and plan ahead to take advantage of downtime between cases. Figure out what time of day you study best and make the most of it.

My advice to any student considering a career in medicine:

1. Major in whatever the hell you want.

Medical schools take more interest in someone who studied Chinese philosophy or renaissance literature or anthropology (not the store, unfortunately), took pre-reqs and did well on the MCAT than they take in a biology major. Study something you’re passionate about. Stand out.

2. Get as much medical experience as you can.

Shadow or volunteer in a hospital or clinic. You could even think about becoming an EMT or medical assistant – not mandatory.

3. Be well-rounded.

Do lots of other life things. Learn a language. Travel. Volunteer – it shouldn’t always be medical. Playing a team sport or a musical instrument are both associated with success in surgery residency (both in matching into, and succeeding once in).

4. Find mentors to help you strategize along the way.

Identify people with skills or interests or career paths that you admire, and people whose advice you respect. Choose people who are at various stages of their training to ask about specific info for your stage as well as to learn about the big picture.

5. Don’t rush.

Take that study abroad year, apply for a Rhodes or Fulbright or Rotary, join the Peace Corps or Teach for America. Medical training looks like a long road at the beginning, and it is, but it goes much faster than you expect.

6. Finally, be kind to yourself.

Do the best you can to eat healthy food, get exercise when possible, and cut yourself slack when you fail to do these things. Normal people don’t have to choose between sleep, showering, exercise, eating, and studying. Some days in medicine, you have to choose.

Hint: sleep is always a solid choice.

Keep up the strong work,

Single with Scalpel

About the Author

Single With Scalpel is a Pediatric Otolaryngology fellow who tweets about life, humor, and medical education. She blogs here when 140 characters simply aren’t enough.

4 Comments

  1. Here are mine:

    1. Travel. Go and live/work wherever you can. It’s not healthy to stay in one place. Move around your country, and do stints in other countries. You’ll make lifelong friends and you’ll learn more than you ever would in the same place doing the same thing, however awesome that place may seem.

    2. Get married and (if you wish) have kids. Don’t believe any bitter twisted souls who say this isn’t compatible with surgery. On the contrary, having a solid home life makes everything seem okay when work is shit. If all you have in your life is work, no matter how much you love it, you’ll be missing out. Your career will wait for you, your ovaries won’t. Life as a woman in surgery has never been better.

    3. Choose a career you love. If you settle for second best, you’ll always wonder ‘what if’ and if you make a career decision based on something transient, it’ll change before you get there. Life is too short not to do exactly what you love doing. Chase that dream.

    4. Always be a giver. It hurts sometimes, but you don’t ever want to be the entitled, arrogant taker. Give freely of your time, experience, love, forgiveness, and thanks.

    5. Support others. They need it. You’ll make a bigger difference than you think. And don’t confine this to junior colleagues, your seniors need love and support too.

    6. Failure is no bad thing. Take it on the nose, get up and keep trying. You’ll know when it’s time to stop trying, but if you don’t persist, you’ll never get there.

    • Thanks, British Lady Surgeon. I especially love the emphasis on being a giver and supporting others!

  2. Scribing is a good option for early healthcare experience now. You go into all the rooms, hear all the stories, watch the cool procedures, and not for nothing, you learn how to write a billable & defensible chart. Tough job but if I were starting over considering medicine that’s what I’d do. Alternatives like EMT-Basic or healthcare aide place you too far from the experience of the physician to really learn much about it.

    • That’s a fantastic suggestion, Robert! Definitely a great way to get up close and personal with the experience of medicine and to learn a lot while doing so.

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