The Life of a Medical Student at UBC (University of British Columbia)

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview a UBC medical student about her academic, professional and personal life. In this insightful interview, we break down stereotypes and share the unfiltered, gritty details of what life as a medical student is really like. Find out more about the medical school application process, the challenges and rewards of being a medical student, and how medical school affects one’s social life!

1. Describe your typical day. When do you start and end classes? Do you have any breaks in between?

I’m currently in my fourth and final year of medical school at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.  Our program begins with mainly classroom learning in the first two years; consisting of lectures on various medical topics, diagnoses, and treatments grouped according to body system.  In third year, we complete “rotations” in each of the major medical specialties, including Surgery, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Obstetrics & Gynecology, Psychiatry, Emergency, Anesthesia, Orthopedics, Ophthalmology, and Dermatology.  The typical days are quite different depending on the rotation – ranging from assisting with C-sections in the OR, to stitching up someone’s forehead, to providing your opinion on a baby’s heart problem based on your knowledge so far.  Similarly, the wake-up calls are also very different!  For instance, General Surgery might require your alarm set for 5:15 AM, whereas Dermatology is a bit more relaxed and allows for some extra sleep.  This year, we choose specialized schedules based on our individual interests, therefore everyone’s “typical” day is unique!

2. What sorts of classes do you take? Which ones do you enjoy the most? Which ones do you enjoy the least? Why?

In first and second year, we take mandatory courses to cover the basics of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, communication skills, and ethics.  Third year is devoted to core rotations, and fourth year is a chance for elective experiences.  After medical school, extra training is required to actually practice as any specific type of doctor.  This is called “residency” and ranges from two to more than 5 extra years.  My plan is to specialize in the field of Internal Medicine (sort of like Dr. House), so my electives are focused in that territory, including Respirology, Gastroenterology, Nephrology, and Intensive Care Medicine.  Each of us has distinctive interests and skills, which ultimately guide our career and training decisions.  I enjoy these electives and work settings the most because I appreciate having the time and resources to critically assess these complicated problems. I also enjoy collaborating within a team of health care professionals and physicians to find a solution.  Though surgical specialties are fascinating and often provide the opportunity to quickly remediate the issue in a concrete way, they never quite piqued my interest the same way.

3. Do you have time to work, volunteer, and participate in extracurricular activities?

At this stage of training, most days already look more like “work” than “school” (although we still pay tuition!).  However, many medical students work part-time in the first year or two when schedules are more reasonable.  My participation with volunteer initiatives and extracurricular activities is slightly more judicious now that the average day is busier, but I continue to mentor students through the YWCA, contribute to UBC Medicine initiatives, and plan bits of traveling or clinical research.

4. What sorts of extracurricular activities are you involved in? Why?

I have been involved with the YWCA High School Mentoring Program for 3 years now, which has been a fantastic experience and allowed me to personally introduce other girls to the field of medicine.  I’ve also been involved with fundraising for the UBC Medical Journal.  During the summer breaks, I completed an exchange with an Italian Hospital in the Department of Anesthesia, and completed a research project in the field of Hematology about people with rare blood disorders.

5. How did you decide to pursue medical studies?

I’ve really been anticipating a career in medicine for as long as I can remember.  Some of my great role models, family members, and mentors were physicians and I always connected with their enthusiasm for science and this particular profession.  As I went through school, biology became a clear favourite subject.  By way of a summer program before grade 12, I garnered some exposure to biomedical laboratory research and pursued that idea for a short time, before realizing that clinical medicine was much more fulfilling and exciting for my personality and areas of strength.  Several others in my graduating class found their path to medicine via more wandering routes, sprinkled with travel, higher level degrees, or other employment – sometimes in completely different fields such as engineering, fine arts, and business.

6. How does one become a medical student? What is the process like?

Most Canadian medical schools require their applicants to have completed a minimum 3 years of undergraduate university education.  There are generally prerequisite classes (ie. Biology, English, Chemistry) and an average mark is calculated to provide an academic score.  In addition, extracurricular activities, volunteer experiences, and employment history contribute to your application, which is reviewed by a committee.  Although some schools no longer require it, the MCAT is a standardized multiple choice exam which medical school hopefuls write and receive a scaled mark which must meet minimum criteria.  If the faculty is impressed by your application, they will invite you to an interview with a variety of possible components, such as discussions about ethical situations or personal qualities which suit you to a career in medicine.

7.What stresses you about your program? Why?

Being accepted into medical school is very exciting and somewhat of a relief, but it can be stressful to think about how many more years of training are ahead, especially when lots of friends and peers are already established and well-paid employees at their jobs.  After medical school, you must apply again to your chosen residency program; a process that requires more rounds of reference letters and interviews.  Some of these medical subspecialties are incredibly competitive, and the whole process can be fairly stressful.

My average day has a few busy, frustrating, and stressful moments, but they are usually short-lived, and over the course of medical school each of us develops an arsenal of stress-relief and resiliency tactics! Overall, it is most definitely worth it, considering how fortunate I am to be in a program I love, and work towards improving the health of my patients.

8. What is the best part of being a medical student?

This is a difficult one – academically I’m fascinated by the challenging scientific subject matter, and the collaborative team environment is amazing.  It is incredibly special to work with patients who trust me to care for them in vulnerable moments, and they teach me what a textbook never could about other cultures, family relations, the power of humour, suffering, and a wide range of approaches to life, death, and illness.

9. What is the most challenging part of studying medicine?

Working as a physician has different trials and tribulations compared with studying as a medical student.  There are significant academic challenges in medical school, in terms of complexity of concepts, sheer volume of material, and often, our own high expectations for learning and understanding.  Now, I find it most demanding to integrate this knowledge into real life, by explaining diseases, tests, and prognoses to patients; communicating information to more experienced health care professionals; maintaining work-life balance, and confidently handling stressful or urgent situations.

10. Does studying medicine impact on your social life?

It would be stretching the truth to claim that my chosen field has no impact on my life outside work or school.  For the past few years (and the next 2-5 ahead), vacation days are limited, significant free time is spent studying, reading, preparing; and even when I watch TV it’s hard not to gravitate toward the medical shows! However, medical school is a fantastic opportunity to meet like-minded, ambitious, and ridiculously fun people from diverse backgrounds – we definitely squeeze in time to relax and keep each other grounded.  In many ways, this new network has enriched my social life, and I appreciate any occasion to celebrate or unwind even more.

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via photopin cc

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