The Stigma of Getting Tutored in Med School

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • If you’re currently in medical school, you know better than anyone else how toxic the environment can sometimes be. We’ve heard from countless students (and tutors!) about the aggressive, cutthroat air of competition that pervades their campuses, where fellow classmates only look out for themselves and it feels embarrassing not to do everything completely on one’s own. As the most recent episode of My First Cadaver (which  full disclosure  we sponsor) discusses, there’s a rampant stigma against reaching out for help in the world of medicine.

    Medical Tutoring Is Not a Sign of Weakness

    From an academic perspective, there are many reasons to do so that in any other field would be viewed as obvious, sensible, and respectable. But in medical school — whether one is struggling with material, wants a second set of eyes on what they’re doing, needs to go over something not covered in class or is looking for an extra edge where they already excel — getting tutoring or outside help can be inexplicably viewed as a sign of weakness. We certainly are far from the first to suggest this attitude could be the single greatest challenge facing students today. What’s more, we firmly believe that asking for help is one of the greatest signs of strength, not weakness. 

    Another great post on our blog breaks down some of the core misconceptions about tutoring (for example, that working with a tutor means you are less intelligent than your peers or that everyone should be able to do it all on their own) and reveals how ridiculous these all-too common impressions are. That being said, even with objective facts it can be hard to shake the feelings of self-consciousness that working with a tutor may stir.

    Take it from Atul Gawande…

    If we can’t convince you to hold your head up high and proudly yell from the rooftops that you’d like to take your performance to the next level by working with a tutor, perhaps celebrated surgeon and author Atul Gawande can. In a 2011 New Yorker article, Dr. Gawande recounts his realization that in his eight years as a surgeon, he has never had anyone come into the operating room to watch his work and help him further improve. As you might expect, he ends up hiring a coach to do just that. Their first “session” together and subsequent twenty-minute conversation, in Dr. Gawande’s words, “gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.”

    Dr. Gawande believes that coaches should be a necessary, easily accessible asset to both students and accomplished doctors alike, just like they already are for athletes, performers, writers and teachers. In his mind, they should even be a source of pride for aspiring MDs. “There was a moment in sports when employing a coach was unimaginable,” he writes, “and then came a time when not doing so was unimaginable. We care about results in sports, and if we care half as much about results in schools and in hospitals we may reach the same conclusion.”

    The main challenge he sees to tutoring becoming a widespread and accepted part of med school? Unsurprisingly, the warped culture that caused it to become taboo in the first place. As he puts it, “The greatest difficulty, though, may simply be a profession’s willingness to accept the idea.” Of course, if some people don’t feel like they need a tutor, they certainly shouldn’t be forced to work with one. Tutoring isn’t for everyone and that is perfectly okay! However, if you think you could benefit from outside help but are afraid of the stigma some associate with it, there’s no time like today to start the change you — and we — hope to see in med school.