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How should med students spend their pandemic summer?

How to make the most of your summer in these unprecedented times

Last year we wondered whether or not med students should spend their summers chilling or gearing up for the upcoming school year, and our conclusion was…well, it kind of depends.

Everyone navigates their medical education differently, and what works for some (taking a barefoot walk in the grass or enjoying a cold patio drink with your besties) 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 it does peace and quiet—and this summer might be more uncertain and anxiety-inducing than any other in recent history.

With so much change happening in such a short period of time, and so many schools racing to adapt to those changes, the day-to-day reality of academics might seem like a distant consideration—even as September is quickly approaching. In the midst of all this, is there a way to keep your eye on the prize while avoiding a nervous breakdown? There may not be an easy answer. But the way you choose to spend the remaining few weeks of the summer can help you adjust to the new normal—whatever the new normal might turn out to be.

You might be surprised to know, then, that much of what we suggested to you last year is still relevant, and might help you to find a perspective that works best for you. So here it is:

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 probably becoming very obvious to you in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. 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. 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 re-calibrate and refresh yourself.

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 the lock down) can help you make connections with other students, faculty members, 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 that you’re not 100-percent invested in, you’ll want to consider whether or not your time might be better spent giving yourself a break.

Get those good habits going.

You may have found, as your life is 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, practicing mindfulness—are the vital habits that will help you get through these strange times with your sanity intact. As the situation evolves, you’ll be forced to improvise in just about every aspect of your life, so use these last few weeks of summer to get your neurons firing and set a solid foundation for your behaviour before your existing routines are thrown into even more upheaval.

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

It’s intuitive to think that quarantine and lock down = 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, or 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. Because time, money, or 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.

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 fact that the idea of a “last summer” has taken on a terrifying new meaning, and just focus on the fact that 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 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.