Can we do it? Yes we can! The juggle: medical school and family
Sharmila Sambandam BSMS, BSc*,
Shaun Thayer BEd/BSc Grad Dip (Medical Physics)* |

*Year 4 Medical Student, The Australian National University

With an increasing number of postgraduate medical schools, the average age of medical students has increased compared to the past (1-2). This increase in average age has lead to more people entering medical school with pre-existing commitments. They might have to juggle other responsibilities in addition to medicine, including work and family.  Medical school is hard enough as it is. Some people already have children when they start; others have them during the course of medical school.

One of us (a father) had three children and went for the fourth and final, and ended up having their fourth, fifth and sixth at the same time (triplets!!!). And the other one is a first time mother who had a baby during medical school and took a year off and returned to study. This is our account of how we survived medical school and family life with children. As fourth year medical students at the cusp of graduation, we would like to share our experience and strategies hoping that this might help others in similar situations.

There are three elements to this situation. There is you; your family and your study.

Let us be egocentric and start with you. You can’t achieve anything if you are not in the right place mentally as well as physically. To achieve this you need adequate sleep, eat well, get some form of physical activity and do something you enjoy. The bottom line is if you do not look after yourself you are in no position to look after anyone else or perform well in your studies. Well that is a statement that everybody would have heard but it comes down to how many of us follow it. It is almost impossible to perfect this art of looking after yourself when there are competing commitments. Sometimes you have no choice but to lose sleep close to exams or when your child is sick. But one must realise that this is not a sustainable state and to be productive down the track, you have to reevaluate and prioritise. At certain times one priority will rise above another; this is not to say that the others are completely neglected. The process of prioritising is a dynamic one.

Now getting on to the family: Before children it was easier to migrate into a cocoon the weeks preceding exams. But young children do not realise it is the most important assignment or exam. They have no idea! You still have to engage them, play with them and take the time to make them feel special even if you have exams the day after. But it is all worth it. Picture this; you get home after a long, hard day where you have been hammered by your consultant, you walk through the door and your two year-old waddles up to you with a big smile, lifts their arms up and gives you a big cuddle. All the difficulties seem to melt away.

Stroke death rates by sex, 1987-2007. Sourced from AIHW (6, p. 81.)
Figure 1. Picture by Samuel Thayer (Age 6 years)

There are other great positives to having family with you during medical school. For starters, you have endless volunteers (even if they were coerced into it) to practice your clinical skills on, but don’t get too comfortable crossing the doctor-patient relationship boundaries. Jokes aside, a content family means more understanding and support in general but more importantly close to exams. It does take some effort and thought into preparing the family for hard times. It is very important to be open and communicate well at all times. This helps set expectations for yourself and your family at various points in the course. Some suggestions in keeping the family happy are flowers, untouchable family time (well, almost), one on one time with the children and partner, baking, outings, good food – anything to recognise their contribution and make them feel appreciated. One strategy that has worked for us is to do more than your fair share during the times you can and then close to exams you can hand over everything or almost everything and take the time off when needed.

Now getting down to business: managing your studies. Organisation is not just a good quality to have but an absolute necessity. Some strategies to organise your schedule are to have lists and cross them out as you go. This not only gives you direction and helps you prioritise but also gives a sense of accomplishment. Another strategy is to set specific time for study, this could be early morning or late at night when the family is asleep. As it gets closer to exams weekends have to be encroached upon as well. Some people find it difficult to study at home for one reason or another. For us the only time we get to open our university bags at home is to get our lunch box out. Because of this it becomes a necessity to find a location for study outside home – this could be the library, or the park. 

Even with the best laid plans and all the organisation in the world, you still have crises pop up when you least expect them. This could take the form of you, your children or partner getting sick or other family commitments. In all these situations you may have to take time off. This might lead to you feeling behind in your studies (well you are behind). Our solution to the above crisis is to prepare for them by working consistently. Part of that is to look up the requirements for the entire year including assignments, portfolio items etc. On days when you think you can’t be very productive, get the fluff out of the way.

People, please get a study group. They are valuable. They give you an idea of where you stand and push you to the boundaries, they give you plenty of support and they give you accountability to your study. We are luckyto be in a really good study group. Sometimes there can be some tension, but we always realise people are considering each other’s best interests and we have become close friends. One of our friends in the group says, “This is more of a support group than a study group”.  So get in a study group with people you get along with andhaving a mixed group of people with and without children is a good idea. Make it fun as well. If you are going to spend hours in the same spot, it is good to have food as part of study sessions.

Just a little note on taking a year off and coming back to medical school: There are a few challenges that come with this. You haven’t touched a book in a year and you have been busy learning to be a mother or a father for the first time. It is not easy. You forget medicine. You come back and there are a whole bunch of new people who have already developed friendship circles. Initially you don’t feel like you fit in. You have a lot of self doubt. You have to leave your baby in child care and you are focused more on what your child is doing more than anything else that is going on around you and guilt is a constant state. But in the face of all this, you have to keep focused and you have to remind yourself of why you chose medicine in the first place. Just remember you are setting a great example for your children and don’t feel bad if there are days or even weeks when you can’t perform as well as the others. That will make a difference. As they grow it gets a little easier and you are not worried every time they are sick and rush them to ED. It will get better.

In conclusion, juggling family with medical school is not easy. It takes a great deal of work and energy. It is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding and it is time consuming. Yet the hard work is worth it and in our experience the people who have done it have done it well. Medical school is just the start and you are going to achieve bigger and better things. You need your family by your side to enjoy your achievements and in our view, in the long run, family is of greater importance.  Don’t let that which is of greater value be at the mercy of that which is of lesser value. To conquer the world at the expense of family is just not worth it, but with them on your side you just might!

References

  1. Australian Medical Workforce Advisory Committee. Innovations in medical education to meet workforce challenges. Aust Health Rev 2000; 23 (4): 43-59.
  2. Harris M, Gavel P, Young J. Factors influencing the choice of specialty of Australian medical graduates. Med J Aust 2005; 183 (6): 295-300.