I remember going on a tour of my future medical school while I was an undergrad. The tour guide was explaining all the new amenities that the school had to offer and among them was the multiple small group rooms scattered about each floor of the building. These rooms, our guide explained, would be the new focus of our education. The days of sitting in the library alone with a book were over and we would be spending most of our time learning in groups and being trained how to work as a team. As an introvert, I almost collapsed from exhaustion on the spot.
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing that you consider yourself an introvert so you don’t need me to explain why the thought of spending hours a day forced to interact with my peers sends a shiver of horror down my spine. It’s not that I don’t enjoy their company, in fact, I love my classmates, it’s just that socializing can be draining and I need to recharge by spending time alone. It’s a fundamental component of my personality and I have long accepted that there is no way to change it–but that doesn’t stop it from being quite annoying at times. In this article, I hope to share my experiences with medical school through an introvert’s perspective and offer some strategies I’ve used to carry me through.
First though, let me assuage some fears. The level of interaction promised by my tour guide all those years ago didn’t pan out, and I have spent many hours in the library alone with a book. For the time that you are in a small group, you are usually working toward a goal and the people in my groups have quickly become my friends so I’ve actually really come to enjoy the time we spend in small groups. Overall, it has been really easy to make friends in med school and you will be surprised how similar many of your classmates with be to you both in terms of the level of introversion and in general interests.
Tips for the stressed out introvert:
Hit the ground running
Just like in college, during your orientation week, everyone will be eager to meet each other and it is easy to strike up a conversation and make friends. Even though it was exhausting and I spent a ton of money on alcohol (the price I pay for high-intensity socializing), I tried to go to every social event during orientation week. In this time I was able to meet at least half of my 130 classmates and meet several people that have become very close friends. There are certainly plenty of opportunities to meet people during the course of your first several years, but in my experience, there has been no better time than orientation week to get to know so many people in such a short amount of time.
Remember that Med school is about cooperation not competition
And to ease another fear, the competition between students has decreased significantly in the past several years. Many medical schools have switched over to a pass/fail grading system and have deemphasized the importance of class ranks. Because of this, many of my classmates have shared notes and resources with me when I was struggling and I have happily reciprocated. My school also has many opportunities for tutoring and peer mentorship so it is unlikely that you will find yourself floundering with no one to reach out to. The prevailing view is that a rising tide lifts all boats so there is a good chance that your classmates will be extremely helpful and understanding. For me, this made it a lot easier to spend time with my classmates because I knew that in the end, most of them truly did care about me.
Focus on your mental health early
This is certainly not universally true of introverts, but I found that the degree of social interaction that feels natural to me, can also easily leave me feeling isolated. I have struggled with depression in the past, and as a result building a robust support system for myself was one of my first priorities when I started school. For me, this meant reaching out to a psychiatrist and a counselor, and in having a person outside of medical school (my wife) who I was able to vent to about the stresses of school. Your support system might look totally different than mine, but having this in place has helped me immensely whether it was in dealing with a particularly stressful test, or in tackling my shyness and finding strategies to overcome it.
Maintain your hobbies
Another global strategy that I have found helpful is to maintain whatever hobbies you had before medical school. I enjoy reading and writing, and even though I only have time for a few minutes of these on most days, I still try to make it a priority to relax for at least a short time every few days. This has helped me maintain my sanity as well as recharge for another day.
Accept who you are
You don’t need to be a bubbly personality to be a good doctor. There is immense value in contemplation and active listening, and in your experiences with patients, they will value your underlying compassion more than anything you might say at that moment. No matter whether you consider yourself a shy person or just need some time away from people to recharge, you can be a great doctor and have the potential to thrive in medical school. Good luck!