Welcome to Medical School: A Step-by-Step Guide to Surviving and Thriving on the Journey Ahead

Medical school is hard.  

It’s physically and mentally demanding and, as a medical student, it’s hard to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Through my experiences with medical school, however, I’ve learned an invaluable lesson: there is life outside of the book pages and lecture notes that fill our minds. 

I am married with two little kiddos who I love spending time with. One of my biggest concerns before starting medical school was the challenge of discovering a balance between my studies and my family. Now, as I enter into my third semester, I’ve discovered comfort in my hectic schedule and understand how to handle all the work it entails. This comfort was not easy to find but, in finding it, I’ve found the balance I need to succeed. 

I was challenged early on, but my experiences have created a blueprint for overcoming those challenges. Now, as countless others just like me begin their medical school journeys, I want to take the time to illustrate that blueprint, step-by-step, in the hopes that you too can find comfort. 

The Most Important Thing to Do BEFORE Medical School 

Talk with your significant other!  

Communicate with your significant other now. Take a bit of time now to sit down and talk about the immense amount of time and energy you’re going to need to devote to your studies going forward. Have discussions about simple things, such as household chores, and figure out how you can best help each other through an otherwise difficult time.  

You and your significant other should have clear expectations before you ever enter into a classroom. 

Remember, the world does not stop when you become a medical student; there are still plenty of responsibilities at home.  Going into medical school with good communication will help a lot. The demands of school will be stressful, and they will put a strain on your relationship. If you wait until this boils over, it will make it even more difficult to overcome. And remember, this communication shouldn’t stop here. You may need to adjust certain responsibilities as different lectures and tests come about. Communicate with one another throughout the journey. 

The Most Important Thing to Do the FIRST WEEK of Medical School

Get organized! 

Get into the flow of medical school! Figure out how to best navigate your new schedule. Decide which lectures you need to attend, and figure out which ones you can watch later (if allowed). No matter how much I prepared prior to starting medical school, the first week was rough.  

I knew my schedule beforehand, but actually accomplishing everything it demanded was even more demanding than I had anticipated. Once that first week was over, however, I had a better idea of how much time I needed to spend doing medical school stuff and how much free time I had (very little, it turns out). I became acclimated in my first week, adjusting my expectations with my significant other, and we continued growing into our new life.

The Most Important Thing to Do Your FIRST SEMESTER

Stay ahead!  

Staying ahead of course work is a huge step in avoiding unmanageable stress. It is all too easy to put off a lecture for tomorrow, but that slippery slope picks up speed fast. By staying ahead of my tasks, I allowed myself to be more at ease with upcoming tests and had more time to spend with my family.  The alternative — madly cramming and stressing for upcoming tests — would not only have been bad for me, but would have negatively impacted my family. By staying ahead of my course work, I also prepared myself to better handle unexpected events that occur with families, such as sick children, checkups, etc… 

Spend time with your family!  During medical school, you will have a few beautiful weekends (and when I say few, I do mean only a few). You won’t have an upcoming test to study (or cram) for, you won’t get caught up in past lectures and you’ll be able to take a break from studying. When this incredible rare set of events comes to be, don’t miss the opportunity it presents! Do something with your family! 

By no means does this “something” need to be big. Something as simple as a walk in a park, a hike on a nearby trail, or a trip to a local museum will get your family out of the house together to make lifelong memories with one another. 

And even in the most challenging times, try to spend time with your kids daily.  Even just thirty minutes rolling around on the ground with them will be invaluable.  It’s hard to be spontaneous, so I tried to plan family events with my spouse beforehand. This way, we both knew when it was coming and could plan accordingly.

The Most Important Thing to Do DURING Medical School

Enjoy it! All of it!  

Medical school is difficult, especially with a family. But we must make an effort to enjoy every aspect of it in some way. Take time to enjoy yourself. Create special memories with your family.  One day we’ll look back at this time and smile. We will be future doctors, capable of helping and giving back to others.  We are smart and capable people who have worked hard to be where we are now. Let’s enjoy the fruit of our labor, now and later.

Balancing family and medical school is difficult, but the challenge is such a blessing!

It is great to know that I can come home from a hard day at school to my loving family.  They provide me with happiness and good times, and I work to do the same for them. Medical school is important to me, but it only lasts so long. My family, on the other hand, will always be there for me, helping me through difficult times and making the best times even better. 

My family not only supports my mission of becoming the best doctor I can be, but helps me to be the best person I can be every day. 

Ryan Belk

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Ryan Belk