Evaluate Priorities to Balance Personal Life, Medical School

Medical students face a heavy workload, but should make time to maintain hobbies and relationships.

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Identifying activities most important to a satisfying life can help medical students avoid burnout and have successful careers.

Are you wondering if your life is over while you're in medical school? The answer probably depends on who you ask.

Upon graduation, I've heard students say something to the effect of, "I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad I didn't know how demanding it would be before I started."

Realistically, medical students have to be disciplined to make time for life while studying. Learning how others do it is always a good idea. Understanding what aspects of life mean most to you is the best place to start.

Let's say athletics is one of your basic life necessities. At Cleveland Clinic, we have a group of first-year students that gets up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym. These students are in class by 8 a.m., study in the afternoon and early evening and sleep well to get up early.

[See how new medical school programs are fighting student fatigue.]

Their camaraderie motivates them to support their friends by upholding their commitment to fitness. As a result, they are alert in class and stay physically fit.

Another student trains competitively when she is not studying for board exams or on full-time clinical rotation. During her research period, she has more control over her time and may even consider spending an extra year in school in order to leave room for more flexible scheduling.

Others describe "real life" as having children. Although there is no perfect time to have a baby, nonclinical rotations offer more flexible scheduling – and once the baby sleeps through the night, completing requirements of nonclinical rotations, such as studying preventive medicine online or writing a scientific report, become easier to manage.

Of course, timing conception doesn't always meet expectations. I had a baby in August of my internship year.

I thought I could come back after one month, but I needed seven weeks before I returned. In recent years, many new moms have chosen to stay home longer and extend their total length of time in training.

Still other medical school students value having the same social life they did as an undergraduate. To be honest, that isn't sustainable in most medical schools and impossible once night call begins.

[Take a vigilant stand against physician burnout in medical school.]

I have known students who left medical school because they found its demands to reduce their social life were unacceptable. Even students who are "good with patients" may not want to sacrifice that much freedom.

After discussing with advisers, they have gone off to pursue careers in music, consulting and cooking. One student preferred to give up medical school rather than give up his competitive status in various video games.

Romance and family life are important personal factors, and the long-distance relationships that often accompany medical school can be challenging, especially when finances and studies determine the frequency of visits. One father drove three hours each way to visit his children nearly every weekend for a full year before his family could move.

Another trainee visited his partner's city every other weekend. Most students don't have the money to fly, but the Internet and video chats make closeness easier.

Watching television, bar hopping and communicating on social media are activities that can eat up valuable free time. My advice is to consider what matters most to the life you want to live.

[Consider finding alternative routes to a medical education.]

Time with my spouse and family, adequate exercise and a little community service filled my schedule, apart from work or study. Although I loved cooking, I had to find acceptable, speedy alternatives. Choir practice was gobbled up by other obligations.

So how do you define the life you have? My husband defines a meaningful life as learning something new every day, taking opportunities to make a difference and having fun with the people you work with. Medical school offers many opportunities to learn, but it's up to you to set priorities that allow you to get true meaning and joy out of your experience.

Kathleen Franco, M.D., is associate dean of admissions and student affairs at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. She previously served both as director of residency training and director of medical student training in psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic. She is board-certified in psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine and attended Medical College of Ohio – Toledo.