A Day in the Life: First Year Medical Student

by Ryan Emhoff

Every day thousands of dedicated college students around the nation work for a chance at earning one of the coveted spots in an MD program.

Katherine Fu, valedictorian of the graduating class of 2013 at USC, is currently in her first year at Keck School of Medicine. She was kind enough to share a glimpse into the life of a medical student.

It is difficult to compress a typical schedule into a daily routine because each day is so varied. Katherine said, “In the morning we usually have lecture from 8-12 followed by either gross anatomy labs, or Introduction to Clinical Medicine.” This usually takes several hours.

The gross anatomy labs consist of human donor dissections to learn how to identify key structures and their relationships.

The clinical medicine course helps students develop necessary intrapersonal skills.

“It’s a really refreshing break because even though you’re not treating them, simply taking their medical histories or blood pressures reminds you why you’re here,” Katherine said.

This aspect of the medical student curriculum is an integral step in molding compassionate doctors of the future.

The expectations in an MD program differ significantly from those of an undergraduate program. The first two years of medical school classes are pass/fail, which is great according to Katherine. “It inspires more collaboration,” she said. One still has to study every night, but the lack of a competitive environment found more typically among premed students makes that studying more relaxed.

This by no means suggests the course load is easier since students generally take six to seven subjects, each of which covers a large body of material. Katherine brought up a common metaphor that is used to describe this effect: “During undergraduate education one drinks from a hose, but in medical school one drinks from a fire hydrant.” Additionally, once a student begins to wear a lab coat every day people expect more professionalism from them because that student is training to become part of a highly complicated and well-respected craft.

The process of getting into medical school is highly competitive, as only 44.7% of applicants are granted admission to at least one school according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Once accepted, however, it does not get any easier. “You have to find something outside medicine that’s yours…something to help ground you and relieve stress,” Katherine said.

For her, outside activities consist of martial arts and music. She has practiced Shaolin Kung-Fu for several years and plays the viola. She also joined Chorda Tympani, an a cappella group at school.

“Student organizations are very low-commitment. They know what your schedule is like so they understand if you can’t make all the meetings,” Katherine said.

For example, on Tuesdays at lunch Chorda Tympani meets and Friday afternoons after classes she practices martial arts at the gym. Even though the time commitments from her classes keep her very busy, Katherine still chooses to find time nearly every day for an engaging pursuit unrelated to medicine.

Another tip Katherine gave was to have a good support network. “Keeping loved ones close within the framework of one’s life and leaning on them in strenuous times is vital to pushing through,” she said. Accessing that support network might be a necessary part of the daily routine during particularly stressful periods.

Medical school is a fast-paced combination of high-level academics, clinical work, research, and patient interaction. “Taking it day by day is a great idea,” Katherine said. Each day is filled with demanding activities and stresses. Some may consider this undertaking an overwhelming prospect, but in the end the sun still rises the next morning.

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