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How should med students spend their summers?

To chill or not to chill—we break down the dilemma of how to make the most of your summer  

Summer is finally here! Time to relax on the beach, or head up to the cottage, or fire up the barbecue, or take a barefoot walk in the grass, or spend time in the garden, or hike through an ancient rainforest, or maybe just enjoy a cold patio drink with your besties. Summer is when you chill out and forget all your worries, right?


Only someone like you knows how different the summer can be for med students. And if you don’t already know—you’re about to. Either you’re ramping up to tackle your first year of studies or you’re trying to navigate the transition between the unique phases of your education—all of which are very different, and, likewise, require very different forms of preparation. The fact of the matter is: no matter where you are in your medical journey, the summer can bring more anxiety and uncertainty than it does peace and quiet.

So, how do you draw a line between keeping your eye on the prize and keeping yourself from burning out? Well, there are no easy answers. Just like almost everything else in life – from managing your finances to choosing a specialty – your choices should be based on your own unique needs and goals.

So, here are some things to keep in mind while you’re figuring out what to do this summer.

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 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 never more obvious than during the summer months. Be honest with yourself about how demanding med school is. Take stock of your mental and physical state. If you’re feeling even just a little bit tired, overwhelmed, or stressed, summer can be your chance to recalibrate and refresh yourself. Like it is with pro athletes, pushing through an injury is often the best way to make it worse.

Get a new perspective.

You’ll be faced with all sorts of big decisions in the coming years, and you want to have every bit of information and experience available to you to help you make the right ones. One great way to get a different perspective on the medical world, and perhaps come to better understand what place you want to occupy within it, is to see what health care is like in different cultural and social settings. And you can do that through organizations like the IFMSA, which offers pre-clinical and clinical exchange programs across the world. If you’re used to travelling during the summer months, programs like these can be a great way to advance your education while exploring the world.

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

Sure, getting involved in a summer research project might help you make connections with faculty and 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 that you’re not 100-percent invested in, you’ll want to consider whether or not your time might be better spent giving your brain a breather. That way, when that passion project does finally come along, you have the energy to jump in with both feet.

Get those good habits going.

Good habits are easier to establish when you have the time and freedom to focus on them. And the summer months can be a good place to start. Exercise, eating healthy, practicing mindfulness—these are the vital habits that will help you get through med school with your sanity intact. As your medical journey evolves, you’ll be forced to improvise in just about every aspect of your life, so use the summer to get your neurons firing and set a solid foundation for your behaviour before your existing routines are thrown into upheaval.

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

You might be waiting to take that trip of your dreams (Greece?) or invest more time in your hobby (building that back deck?) or learn that new skill (goat yoga instructor?), and you might be telling yourself: I just need a bit more time, a bit more money, a bit more freedom. But the truth is, there may be no better time than the present to jump into whatever you’ve always wanted to do. Because time, freedom – and even money – 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, and the fact is, there are going to be things you won’t be able to do in the coming years. So, if you can, do them now. Despite what you might think, it’s never too early to indulge.

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. Which is somewhat true. But not totally. While your first priority should always be your own mental health, it’s important to remember that you have a passion for medicine, and that, despite how heavy the burden of med school can often feel, you chose to be here because you love the profession. So, whether you’re resting, researching, renovating, or learning how to be a goat yoga instructor, make sure it’s the thing that will ultimately make you the doctor you want to be.