A few days ago, during a slow afternoon on inpatient psychiatry, I was having a discussion with another student about balance during medical school and professional school in general. She related that she and her classmates in pharmacy school felt overwhelmed with their coursework and responsibilities. She said that students knew that they would have to sacrifice time for extracurricular activities, sleep, and would even have trouble making time to talk to their family members. She also described a large number of students in her class who had been cut from the program for failing to achieve the required GPA.
These statements were somewhat alarming to me. As I’m nearing the end of third year, I feel pretty well balanced. I know how to manage clerkships and studying for shelf exams, while still attending to my personal responsibilities like relationships with family and friends. I’m sure that at least part of this feeling of balance has come with my increasing familiarity with the demands of medical school and personal growth over the years. But I think an important part of achieving balance is demanding it, and sometimes accepting some compromises along the way.
In my experience, balance needs to be fought for – it doesn’t just happen without effort. The first steps to achieving better balance might be as simple as carving out a little time to call a family member every few days, or finding some time to prepare a meal and savor it, no studying allowed! Protecting weekend time is the next step. Every hour doesn’t need to be devoted to studying, and the quality of your studying will improve if you’re in a better state of mind. During my second year I made time to go ice skating at the local rink nearly every Saturday afternoon from January to March. I still passed all my tests and Step 1, with no problem. Of course, everyone is different, and you know your own study requirements best, but try protecting a little more time for yourself, and see if your grades suffer. I bet they won’t!
Balance also may require compromise. I have been lucky that my school uses a modified pass/fail system in the pre-clinical years. This has been an enormous help in taking the pressure off! Instead of dedicating many extra hours to memorizing the minute details that aren’t clinically relevant but are necessary to achieve the top score, I can better use my time for other activities – sometimes for more productive studying and sometimes for relaxation.
Professional school is a marathon. Achieving balance is one way to remain healthy and able to continue making forward progress. Without balance, students may struggle, burn out, and fall apart. To avoid that outcome, it’s balance or bust.