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(MedEd)itorial – Taking Time Off During Med School: A Biased Review

Let me begin by saying that taking time off from the incessant academic path is one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made. This quarter-century arduous journey that starts in Kindergarten and ends with an M.D. can be grueling and even myopic, only to roll into throes of residency, attendinghood, and eventually, retirement. Conventional wisdom dictates that we remain on the fast track to success, flying through all of these milestones, in order to “waste” the least amount of time, further our education as quickly as possible, and start to contribute to the world (and our 401k’s) as soon as possible.

For some perspective, here is where I am coming from: In late college, I was pretty sure I wanted to become a doctor, but all of the most brilliant people around me (PhDs, MDs, and grad students in a proteomics lab) instilled the idea that there is no rush. Medical school wasn’t closing its doors, and would always be there should I decide I wanted to apply. Some of the staff expressed regrets about never taking that cross-country road trip, or seeing what a job in industry was like. Others missed out on adventures to faraway places and the chance to devote themselves wholly to other pursuits for a bit. With their advice superimposed on my own desire to have some fun and take a break after a hard-working  and enjoyable college experience, I put off the MCAT and moved to Colorado to become a ski instructor. I continued on this self-forged path for another 4 years before studying for the MCAT and applying to medical school. Here’s why I recommend you strongly consider some non-academic life experiences inserted into your medical career.

Gain Perspective

Ever hear that “youth is wasted on the young?” While this blanket statement is a bit of an overstatement, there is definite value in the wider, more crafted perspective that only comes with age and experiences. Just as it is impossible for the eye to see itself, it is quite difficult to appreciate and understand “the outside” world when we are wrapped up in non-stop academic work. Developing real-life work experience, surviving on your own in a far away place, or giving appreciable time to volunteering all help to make you a more complete person who understands his or her place in the world.

Know Who You Are and What Drives You

As a bright-eyed and bushy tailed eager 21-22 year old blazing through college into medical school, it can be difficult to know who you truly are. How many times have you looked back through your life and thought, “I thought I knew everything I needed to know x years ago. I was way off!” Chances are, your 21 year old self is a bit different (and far wiser) than your 18 year old self. During this formative period, values, drives, desires, and attitudes can all drift and warp. By moving some of these huge decisions down the line until you are a more complete person, you will have a much better idea of what you want out of your life and career, and can make better decisions all the way through.

Experience Less Burnout

While my own perspective is limited by being a freshly minted PGY-2, my understanding is that the demands of life and work continue to grow as time passes. Sure, the scut work may decrease as time goes by, but the responsibility and workload, both inside and outside of work, continue on an upward path until we hang up our stethoscopes. That easy-street sweet life that we might have envisioned when a bit younger and more naive might not be waiting for us when we are dubbed attendings. With physician burnout a hot topic across all specialties, we must afford ourselves some free time and living for ourselves when possible. While one can try and squeeze decompressions into occasional 2 week blocks, it is far simpler to exercise this right when there are no other huge obligations academic, or otherwise. With the passage of time comes the collection of pets, mortgages, spouses, and children. While all of these bring us joy, they make it difficult to truly “get away from it all” and feel the peace of mind we often seek. There is no easier time to achieve this state, and hopefully fend off future burnout, then by taking a side-step on your rigorous academic path, and doing that which you truly want to do.


Is there value in pushing straight through? Like everything we do in medicine, we must weigh the risks and benefits of any decision, and decide what is right in each particular case. If getting to “the finish line” or being in charge as soon as possible is what is most important to you, then go for it. Let nothing stand in your way. But if you are experiencing any level of doubt, and think that your life would be more complete by teaching English in Asia or working on tall ships in Halifax or establishing a clinic in Peru, then follow your heart, and realize medical school isn’t going anywhere. There are innumerable ways to enrich our lives and our knowledge that cannot be found in the pages of a book.