What to Expect When You Are Expecting…to Quit Medical School?

By Richard A. Giovane, MD

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Rain drops…hundreds of them hit the window with unrelenting force. The sky was a lifeless grey, like a patient euthanized after a code, while the sound of the Caribbean Sea slapping against the harsh coast reverberated in the library. It was second year of medical school, midway through actually. It was a Tuesday or no wait…it was Wednesday, it didn’t matter however because all the days blended together.

I had just arrived at the library after an intense four-hour lecture on cardiac pathology and the bug parade of microbiology. Ah yes, I remember the bug parade, one that never stopped. I arrived in the library to a constant “squish” noise; my shoes had a hole at the bottom of them and it was the wet season in Grenada, which meant torrential downpours all day, every day. My socks were soaked, and I was sure I would develop trench foot as I didn’t have the time to go buy myself a pair of shoes at the store. My friend joked that I should rub whale oil on them like soldiers did during World War I to prevent trench foot.

I squished up three flights of stairs to my old study spot in the library, jacket soaking wet, my backpack somewhat dry, and my laptop snug inside with my other books. I sat down at my usual chair and let out a small ‘sigh’…it was my second year of medical school and I was having a rough week. I wasn’t understanding any of the pathology presented to me and microbiology was overwhelming. However, I knew that exams were fast approaching, whether I was ready or not. The only words that came into my head were “this sucks…why did I every sign up for this?” I sat down and looked out the window. At my medical school, the library overlooks the airport. It is both cruel and motivating; cruel because salvation from medical school is just one plane ride away, but also motivating because you want to get on that plane as someone who has successfully completed basic sciences in one piece.

I remember closing my eyes and being entranced in a somewhat humorous rendition of what I would tell someone who is thinking of going to medical school. I envisioned the TV show Beyond Scared Straightbut instead of out of control teens, there would be gunner pre-meds who would come visit medical school and be scared out of going to medical school. The pre-meds would enter a small room where current medical students would come in and tell “their story” of how they ended up here. I’d enter and speak my piece: “They call me Big G, student number: A00659109 [my actual student ID] and now… you are in my house! I am doing a 4 year stretch with 3 years minimum of residency…this ain’t no game! Some of you pre-meds think you are hard…do you think you can roll with my study crew? We got Johnny T from the Bronx, Slobue from Cali, and Ivan Draggo from Penn…all doing 4 years just like me! You all have your whole lives ahead of you… don’t make the same mistake we did!”

I sat back further in my chair and chuckled at the scene I had envisioned. I reflected on my rough week. “Why am I doing this to myself?” I asked. I could leave at any time and be free to do whatever I want. “But what do I want to do besides medicine?” I countered. I mean, I had other hobbies, but nothing else I could see myself doing. I kept saying to myself how much this sucked: the constant fatigue, the endless hours of studying. “Is it worth it though?”

At one point during medical school, almost everyone has that thought of quitting. Just packing up and saying “Nope, no more!” I had this feeling almost daily during my first year of medical school. It could be the stress or the feeling of inadequacy or any other reason that makes us want to quit. But I stayed. We all do. We realize that there is nothing else we see ourselves doing. Or we know a person a year ahead of us that isn’t the brightest person…if they made it through, then it can’t be THAT bad. We stay because we are committed. We spent countless hours getting here and tell ourselves, “now is when it counts; when stuff gets hard!”

Should you quit medical school? Only you know the answer to that question. But, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are you just having a bad day or week or even a bad month like I did during second year? Yes, it is perfectly normal to feel sad or even disconnected during medical school; you are always studying and have little time to be social. But as the old saying goes, “this too shall pass”.
  2. Can you see yourself doing anything else? More importantly, can you see yourself doing it for the next twenty years?
  3. If you do leave, what will you do then?
  4. How will you pay back your loans?
  5. Will you be ok with your decision and not regret it later on in life?
  6. What year of medical school are you in?

Whatever you decide, be sure to take your time before making a decision.  Let me leave you with some words of wisdom, from my mother and father, which helped me when I thought about quitting.

My mother told me that quitting is the easiest thing to do in life. Why? Because it requires no effort. She reminded me that if something requires no effort then it is not worth your time. My mother told me that being a mother, raising three boys as a stay-at-home mom was the most difficult yet rewarding thing she has ever done. There was no instruction manual. There were times when she felt humbled by life. But she kept going and that determination to just keep going gave her a sense of fulfillment. The takeaway from my mother’s advice: keep moving forward. One day, you will be able to look back and see what you have accomplished.

My father’s advice: until the medical schools kicks you out, you should be there. It may sound silly. But what my father was trying to say is that the greatest enemy in life isn’t anyone but you. Only you tell yourself that you cannot do this. So, work hard, stick with it and focus on the end goal.  The end goal, for us, at least is to become a doctor. Medical school helps you become the best doctor you can be. My father added that, years from now, a patient will come to you, asking for help and assistance. The patient will not ask about your grades in microbiology. The takeaway from my dad’s advice: keep working hard. It is the only way to become the doctor you want to be.

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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