Having endured nine months of second year and varying shades of pity and schadenfreude flickering in the eyes of older students, I’ll be frank with you: studying medicine at university isn’t always the most pleasant of experiences. There are long and tiring and tiresome days (those in clinics say I haven’t seen anything yet), and volumes of occasionally interesting but often useless information to understand and memorise and regurgitate in the hope that you can pass the rather taxing exams. And all this learning and exam sitting and hoop jumping doesn’t stop at the end of the six years, but apparently there is the added incentive of a less than lucrative salary and dear old Jeremy Hunt rampaging around causing chaos. Simply because you ‘want to help people’ or because you ‘want to pursue an intellectually challenging and meaningful career’, or because you’re ‘really clever, please please let me in’.
Despite my seemingly boundless cynicism, studying medicine at university is so much more than studying medicine at university. The rather hackneyed recommendation to ‘get involved’ and ‘try new things’ will no doubt be bandied about willy-nilly over the coming months to the incoming freshers, supplemented with offers of free food and free beer if you join their club or society. However, although it is repeated year after year, this advice is no less pertinent.
These societies are so much more than glorified drinking clubs partaking in debauchery and tomfoolery as described so delicately by the newspapers. Aside from fun outside of the library, they offer different glimpses of a 270ish-year-old institution with old and new traditions, moulding its character and its characters. Membership is determined by an enthusiasm for activities ranging from rugby to appreciation of dinosaurs, and levels of participation can also be varied: in their ranks, societies offer room for novices and professionals, teetotallers and socialites. They offer more opportunities of exercising and developing teamwork, communication, and leadership skills. Most significantly, sports and societies make up a large part of the social fabric of the medical school and wider university. With burnout prevalent in 26.7% of medical students, and figures up to 66.5% for depression, the medical school community is invaluable in providing pastoral and academic support, combating and engaging with mental illness, as well as encouraging a healthy work-life balance; admittedly, this ratio is helped by Thursday morning absences for some.
One rather neglected aspect of university life is volunteering, which adds another dimension to the medical school experience. Although many did regular shifts at old people’s homes and the like to tick that box on the medical school entry requirement checklist, few find the time to maintain this at university. This is despite the existence of worthwhile projects such as UCL Student Hospital Play Team, Save a Baby’s Life, Teddy Bear Clinic, Meducate, UCL Marrow, just to name just a few. I managed to squeeze in some shifts with Play Team this year, and found that it was not only flexible, but required a mere hour of my time per week. These shifts were exceptionally rewarding, not only because I met new people and noticed considerable improvement in my Mario Kart game after repeatedly suffering humiliation, but also because it reminded me that there was a reason for struggling in the anatomy lab with what looked like spaghetti but was actually the brachial plexus (still not too sure about the Krebs cycle, but I am hopeful that it will come later). Keeping an eye on the goal of being a qualified doctor has been tremendously helpful in preclinical years.
Osler once said that ‘the practice of medicine will be very much as you make it – to one a worry, a care, a perpetual annoyance; to another, a daily joy and a life of as much happiness and usefulness as can well fall to the lot of man.’ It is very easy to see medical school as the former and not be aware of the latter; the university experience is so much more rich and diverse than hitting the books every possible waking moment, and I assume this also applies to life after graduation. I, for one, will be one of those bandying about ‘get involved’ and ‘try new things’, so that more people take the opportunity to experience what medical school has to offer outside of a degree.
3rd year UCL medical student, pseudo-intellectual.
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 Cecil J, McHale C, Hart J, Laidlaw A. Behaviour and burnout in medical students. Medical Education Online 2014; 19(25209). http://www.med-ed-online.net/index.php/meo/article/view/25209 (accessed 14 July 2015).
 Hope VA, Henderson M. Medical student depression, anxiety and distress outside North America: a systematic review. Medical Education 2014; 48(10): 963–979