What to Expect When You’re Expecting…Your First Summer as a Medical Student

By Richard A. Giovane, MD

“D”, I said to myself, the answer was clearly D. Hypoglycin A, the patient clearly had Jamaican Vomiting Sickness due to eating unripened ackee fruit. That last question sealed the deal with my biochemistry final and ended a long stretch of studying in my first semester of medical school. After the post exam celebration, I packed my things and flew back home—where I actually kissed the ground when I landed—and made plans to see my friends.  However, I had a sudden intense surge of anxiety. Not from exams or that classic feeling of “oh I cannot believe I missed that easy question.” Instead, the anxiety was from that strange feeling of “What do I do with myself?”

For the past 4 months, I studied more than I thought possible. I was in lecture from 8am to 5pm, before studying from 6pm until 2am…and that was just on a weekday. Weekends were nice, but not because it was the weekend. They were glorious because I had two entire days to study from sunrise to sunset…a gift for any medical student! Gone, I thought to myself, were the days of spending Friday nights with my study partner, elbow deep in a cadaver trying to quiz each other on the vasculature of the bowels, or waking up early on Sunday mornings to attack biochemistry with my study buddy, grilling each other non-stop on the various energy pathways (which is something we also did two years down the road when we were studying for Step 1].

After coming to terms with the fact that I didn’t need to study every hour, I tried to remember “What did I do before medical school?” I felt like Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption, trying to rejoin civil society as best as I could, though I truly did not know what to do with myself.

I slowly began doing the things I loved. Working out became routine, slaying the countless demons in Diablo 3 as a barbarian was once again realized, as well as seeing my friends and family. Here is a small list of things to do on that last summer off as a medical student:

  1. Relax: I cannot stress this enough! This will probably be your last summer off, so enjoy it. Travel, work out, see friends and family…choose your own adventure but take time for yourself. You just went through a tough academic year filled with tons of things to learn, so give your brain a rest. Rekindle your old hobbies or find brand new ones! This time is yours, so don’t squander it!
  2. Shadow: I did some of this near the end of my summer break. Although grinding for hours in Diablo 3 was tons of fun as well as playing some Magic the Gathering with my friends, I found that it started getting stale and that my brain getting too relaxed. Shadowing is a great opportunity to expose yourself to what you will be getting to do as a MS3, plus you will be able to make sense of things when you are shadowing. If you are fortunate enough, you can get to see some procedures done and even partake in history taking. Any medical experience is valuable, especially if you are already in medical school.
  3. Research: If you have the drive to do it early on and have the right resources, why not? Any research is good research, it will boost your CV, especially if you are academically inclined. Research always looks good on a CV and will give you extra things to discuss on your residency interviews down the road. See if your school can help you do this as medical writing is a valuable experience. You will also be surprised with all the people you meet. Connections are a great thing in medicine!
  4. Pre-study: Ok, I am joking. As you were told before the beginning of medical school, don’t pre-study! The same rules and reasoning apply as before: whatever you cover in a day pre-studying, it will be covered in an hour during lecture! The summer is yours to enjoy, so do not worry about how hard pathology is in MS2…that is for your future self to worry about!
  5. Mission trips/ electives: I know some students who did this, and they loved it. My medical school set up electives in countries such as Thailand and the Czech Republic, where you could shadow doctors, take histories, and get experience with ample time to explore the country and surrounding areas. If you love to travel, this is a great option!

    rear view of man sitting on rock by sea
    Photo by Riccardo Bresciani on Pexels.com
  6. Teach/Tutor: I did some of this during my summer off. It is always rewarding to teach since it forces you to keep your mind fresh and to stay organized, which is great after having time off. It doesn’t even have to be medically related. I chose to tutor high school math and it was fun, as I had to revisit concepts I learned many moons ago. You can also earn some money as well!
  7. Work: Depending on your financial situation or preference, some students do this. Either to earn some extra money or to keep their mind off things, working can always help pay the bills. I found it to be a good way to keep my mind off school while I pushed a wheelbarrow full of concrete at 6am while listening to my dad and uncles chat in Italian to one another. Although it may sound strange, at that moment, all you are focused on is the task at hand, and not dense reticular fibers or the cranial nerves. Aside from the mental benefits, I have learned far too many lessons from my father while I worked with him regarding hard work, integrity, and discipline.

Whatever it is you decide to do with your time off, just remember to do what works best for you. If you enjoy staying academically busy, go for it. Relax, recuperate, and recharge for the upcoming academic year!

About the author: Richard Giovane is a current PGY-3 in Family Medicine at the University of Alabama, at Tuscaloosa [Roll Tide!]. He was born in Canada but has an Italian background, and yes, he does talk with his hands a lot and has difficulty grasping the concept of the volume of his voice! He enjoys reading, writing, playing video games, and has a strong passion for medical education. He is currently the Senior Editor for Step 1 Qmax and has served as an author for several First-Aid books.


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