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How should med students spend their summer?

Last year, med students experienced a summer unlike any other in recent history as the pandemic affected classes, clinical work opportunities and exams.

Amid all the uncertainty, med students across Canada stepped up to help out where they could, collecting and distributing PPE, delivering meals to vulnerable populations and seizing the opportunities to help their communities.

Everyone navigates their medical education differently, and what works for some (like meditating to unwind or enjoying a distanced walk with a bestie) might not work for others (like those who are ramping up to tackle their first year of studies, or those navigating the transition between second and third year).

No matter where you are in your medical journey, the summer can bring more anxiety and uncertainty than peace and quiet. It’s important to remember there’s no right or wrong way to spend your summer!

So here it is — we break it down into five fundamentals so you can build a plan that works for you.

1. Find a balance.

As a med student, you’re probably driven by two seemingly contradictory impulses: you want to succeed, achieve and advance your career, but you also want to engage with the world around you, experience new things and give your brain and body a much-deserved rest.

Those two urges don’t always align — and that’s probably becoming obvious as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. You want to help, but you may also need help. You want to be engaged, but you may also need to disengage for your own mental health.

The most important thing is to be honest with yourself. What motivates you and what do you have energy for? Take stock of your mental and physical state by tuning into your thoughts or keeping a journal. If you’re feeling a little tired or overwhelmed, this summer can be your chance to recalibrate and refresh yourself by not taking on anything extra.

2. Don’t get lured into projects you don’t love.

Getting involved in a research project or volunteer program (like many that have sprung up in the wake of multiple lockdowns) can help you connect (virtually) with other students and faculty members, earn a stipend, learn some new skills and even pad your resume — but unless it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or aligns with one of your passions, you might want to take a pass.

Ask yourself: would I want to do this even if it didn’t push my career forward? If the answer is yes, that means you’ll be spending the summer doing something you love. But if you’re facing the possibility of throwing yourself into a project you’re not 100% invested in, you’ll want to consider whether or not your time might be better spent giving yourself a break.

3. Get those good habits going.

You may have found, as your life has been thrown into upheaval, that the one thing that keeps you grounded is your habits. The chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic may have thrown them into disarray, but all those things that you (try to) do every day — exercising, eating healthy, practising mindfulness — are the vital habits that will help you get through these strange times with your sanity intact.

Use the summer to get your neurons firing and set a solid foundation for healthy habits. This might also be a good time to look at your budgeting habits, so you can start the school year off with financial confidence.

4. Don’t put off the things you’ve always wanted to do.

It’s intuitive to think that quarantine and lockdowns = more free time. For some, that’s true. But for others, the anxiety and stress of dealing with the pandemic has actually reduced their capacity to pursue their hobbies, learn new skills or do much of anything productive.

But the truth is, as the world tries to find a way forward, there may be no better time than now to jump in with both feet to whatever you’ve always wanted to do. Time, money and a universal vaccine aren’t necessarily going to make it easier to do these things. Your life as a physician will be just as fraught with obstacles as your life as a med student. So, if you can, do it now.

5. Listen to those who have been there before.

The first year of med school can be the most intense academic experience of your life. Odds are, you’ve never crammed like this before. And you’ll often hear that the summer between first and second year is your “last summer” — from here on out, you’re on the medical world’s calendar, and there are no more summer vacations.

Let’s ignore the idea of a “last summer” taking on a terrifying new meaning, and just focus on the fact that your first priority should always be your own mental health. This might mean connecting with peers online and in communities like #MedTwitter to learn about how others cope and manage. What resources do others find helpful? Feeling prepared is another great way to keep your mental health in check.

Some of the tools in the onboardMD app can help you navigate your way as you begin your career in medicine — like tools that compare and contrast specialties to find out which one is right for you, or give you insight into the different residency programs, along with a snapshot view of your first year’s pay, health benefit details and any annual fees you should know about.

No matter what year you’re transitioning to, online schooling is tough, so do whatever recharges you for the school year ahead.

You have a passion for medicine, despite how heavy the burden of med school can often feel, and you chose to be here because you love the profession. So, whether you’re resting, researching, renovating or finding your groove in this brave new world, make sure you’re doing the thing that will ultimately make you the doctor you want to be.