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The Do’s and Don’ts of a Med Student’s First Summer Break

It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. Or maybe more appropriately, at the middle of the tunnel. Your one and only summer, between first and second year. And to think, this might be your “last” summer. The last one until retirement that you could choose to spend kicking your feet up, watching Netflix, sleeping in, and traveling incessantly. Haven’t you earned it after the most academically rigorous year of your life?

The angel on your shoulder chimes in: Look at all this time you’ve got! Time to do research, to get published. Time to make inroads with faculty and participate in community outreach projects and global health initiatives. Time to study undisturbed and set yourself up for second-year success. Only a fool would squander such an opportunity!

Surely a compromise must exist….

To put things in perspective, let me give you full disclosure: Like most normal humans, I love having fun, often as much fun as possible. And, like most normal medical professionals, I like succeeding, advancing, and perennially trying to be the best. Can these two forces be reconciled?

Yes, they can, as you will find below.

Let’s go through some of the DOs and DON’Ts of this rare and magnificent summer between first and second year:

DON’T try to start studying aggressively for Step 1.

This coming from a USMLE prep-driven blog? What lies speaketh we?

We stand by this 100%. After completing first-year, you will have amassed a solid but rudimentary understanding of how the body works. But, believe it or not, until you have completed more of your coursework, much of this knowledge will still be a bit out-of-context. And, without a doubt, you won’t quite know how best to study for Step 1. That said, if you want to “brush up” on some first year concepts that didn’t quite transform themselves into knowledge, then go right ahead. You will have a dedicated time to do some hardcore studying for the test, but it is not during this summer.

DON’T do a project you are not interested in — research for the sake of research, etc.

I can’t tell you how many friends and classmates decided to “do research” in a field that was not their burning passion, felt emotionally disconnected from it, and ended the summer with loads of hours spent and no publication to show for it. Sure, you might strengthen a faculty connection, but working on a project that does not make you happy or further your credentials is more or less a waste of time. However, if research and publications are necessary for your field of choice, then this is a prime time to get started on a project.

DON’T go nuts trying to do too much; there will be plenty of time for hecticness.

It’s important to relax when you can. This summer is a perfect time for that. Not to instill fear, but the forthcoming years look like this: heavy-duty coursework, Step 1 preparation, 3rd year clerkships, specialty decisions, residency applications, acting internships… then comes sweet, sweet, hard-earned fourth-year freedoms. Pure relaxation will help you reset your mind and body, and have you approaching this long and difficult 2.5 year stretch with clarity and vigor.

DO what you won’t be able to do in the coming months/years.

Sure you’ll get 4th year time, but now is here now. Have you always wanted to go to Egypt? Or visit a coffee plantation in Nicaragua? Or take a road trip across the country with your best friend(s)? Maybe a medical mission to an impoverished nation is more your cup of tea. Or maybe you want to pick tea in China! Take some time and think about what you would absolutely love to do with this time, whether it is travel to a far away place, or give yourself selflessly to a larger cause.

DO make time to see family and friends both near and far.

I always thought people overstated the fact that in medical school, you can forget about seeing family and friends. That said, you will be working and studying on many nights and weekends, and time that might have otherwise been spent with family and friends certainly decreases. It is paramount that you keep these relationships happy and healthy, and put in the effort to be a good friend/child/sibling/significant other. These people will understand that maintaining these relationships takes a little more effort during your training, but it is up to you to be there when you can and not use busyness as an excuse for absence.

DO use the time to instill some good habits — exercise, early rising, hobby development.

Maybe you let your guard down a little bit during the throes of first-year. The gym membership has been collecting dust, you’ve become nocturnal, watching lectures at home at 10 PM. This summer is a fantastic time to do a mental reset, and start to chisel in the habits you’d like to continue throughout the rest of medical school and throughout life. Healthy habits are much easier to continue than they are to begin, and they are much easier to begin when there is a bit less on your plate. If you haven’t touched that oboe that you once loved playing, or your love of fermenting foods has fallen to the wayside, get back in there!

DO some shadowing and specialty investigation.

While some schools offer more elective time than others, you might find yourself at the end of third-year saying, “I wonder what ophthalmology is like… What does a radiation oncologist do every day?” This summer is a great time to find a physician that can mentor you through shadowing or other means. Spending a 40-hour week with an attending will give you a truly legitimate picture of what life is like as a something-ologist, and you might even walk away with a great mentor.

DO try to strike a balance between business and pleasure.

Remember, you don’t need to marry yourself to “a summer of research” or “a summer of hedonism.” If time permits, why not do both? Find your inner-Buddha and follow the middle path. Spend a month working on that research project in a field you truly love, and then treat yourself with a visit to a Tibetan monastery and full-moon party in Thailand. This way, you will never look back at this valuable time and find yourself regretting something you missed.

To sum it all up:

DO whatever it is you want to do.

Only YOU can decide the best way to spend your free time. Follow your heart, and you will never be wrong.