How to Explain Medical School to Friends & Family

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Whether you’re drinking from a firehose or running a marathon, you know what it’s like to be in medical school. Submerged in a sea of academia, you seem blind to what is going on around you. The daily news becomes a thing of the past, your family and friends take a back seat to your copy of First Aid, and your hobbies have become seemingly unimportant. Looking from the outside in, a stranger would easily identify you as going through a personality crisis.

    How does one explain becoming an academic hermit to friends and family? How do you persuade your family that it’s a good idea for you to study this hard so that maybe you can have a job in 4 years, then train for another 3-7 years? How do you justify the lost relationships and moments?

    It’s not with the aforementioned analogies, which barely reflect the personal struggles you face. The most effective way I’ve found to illustrate the true medical school experience with family and friends is to share it with them as I went through it. I started by sharing “a day in the life” with some of my friends at home.

    The local Starbucks was the go-to hotspot for my friends and I (thank you, “gold star rewards”). Prior to medical school we would often spend hours talking about various ideas and interests. We’d read the newspaper, play card games, check out our cars etc. After starting medical school Starbucks remained the local hotspot for me, however instead of chatting I would walk in at 8am on my days off with my books and study, then hang out when I could. I didn’t have to explain to my friends the tremendous amount of work I had to do, they saw it.

    I used this same approach with my family, I would sit in the kitchen and play my video recorded lectures as my parents sat in awe trying to comprehend what was going on. I only had to do this for a little bit and eventually they understood that this wasn’t a college biology course; this was an immersive process by which you are taught how to think like a well-rounded clinician.

    As I progressed to the clinical sciences I learned to share my personal stories with friends and family so as to give them an appreciation of what my life in the hospital is like. I told them about my successes as well as my failures. I shared with them my fears and worries. I didn’t need analogies at this point; I made it as real to them as it was to me. Over time they started to appreciate what I was doing and how I was doing it, encouraging me to maintain this level of commitment to my patients and career.

    6 years later as a resident, I’m still running the marathon, hoping one day to reach the finish line. Today, my loved ones have a great appreciation for the person I am and where my priorities stand. This was all made possible by sharing my life during medical school with them, rather using words to try and explain it. I encourage you to show your friends and family what you do and how you do it. After all, actions speak louder than words.