Revel in your first summer as a medical student — it's the only "real" one you'll have, says Dr. Helen Lam, 2015 graduate of the David Geffen School of Medicine (DGSOM) at UCLA. Maintaining a healthy school-life balance, especially in the summer, is one of the greatest challenges confronting medical students. Luckily, your studies are worth every sunny day as long as you're organized.
Your first summer offers the most personal opportunity. Students can elect to puruse clinical, basic science, or global research opportunties through the school. If selected, all will receive a stipend for the summer. Others may choose to return home and be with family or take time to themselves before returning in August. During the first summer, many students spend the bulk of their time exploring research or scholarly opportunties as part of DGSOM's Short Term Training Program. According to the DGSOM admissions office, students also pursue one of three types of scientific research to open their curriculum. The remainder of the season is the best opportunity students will have to devote to themselves. Yet, to have that time, according to Dr. Lam, school-life balance requires what she calls "purposeful planning." Dr. Lam advises, "Know your priorities."
There are many 8 week research opportunities after the first summer and a few one-year funded fellowships. These 'scholarly opportunities' could mean spending a year with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), other medical schools or in a similar educational setting. Otherwise, students devote the majority of the second summer almost entirely to study and research in preparation of the USMLE Step 1. Dr. Lam says some even form study groups, which was a valuable resource for her at the time.
Becoming a doctor (after vacation, of course)
The fourth year pays favor to the "life" side of one's school-life balance. Because school is more about becoming a doctor as opposed to committees and examinations, a lot of the pressure to read up has shifted at this point. Therefore, the summer of the fourth year is when Dr. Lam and many other students take a full-fledged vacation for service or the things they love doing. For Dr. Lam, that included both. In addition to a volunteer aid trip to Haiti, she spent time doing a variety of outdoor activities.
Don't forget relationships
Dr. Lam also reminds those considering medical school of what really matters — the people who love and believe in you. Maintaining important relationships, however challenging it may be, is important. In her case, it was a little difficult for her family to understand why she had so little time for them once classes started. Nonetheless, they were patient and supportive. She made up for lost time with them when she could.
Take care of yourself, too
"Purposeful planning" includes remembering your health. Along with taking care of your relationships, Dr. Lam stresses the value of exercise for students. Studying is a constant responsibility, and it is imperative that students do what they can to stay fit. Dr. Lam left undergraduate school with a degree in exercise biology, so it is little wonder why she prescribes exercise as one of the best ways to sustain mental health. Performance improves and stamina increases — both critical ingredients to success as a student pursing a healthy school-life balance.
Not every student wants to devote what little free time they have to studying, including Dr. Lam. So when students have the opportunity to do something they enjoy, she believes they should. For those looking for volunteer opportunities during the summer, community service is always a helpful activity to squeeze in. She served on the Well-Being Committee as senior representative during 2014 – 2015.
Dr. Lam looks forward to beginning her family medicine residency at Kaiser Napa-Solano in Vallejo, California.
By Charles Hooper