Blog | Friday, February 24, 2012

How med students should spend their final free summer

The summer between first year and second year of medical school is sometimes referred to as the "last summer" since it is the last time students can travel or take off before they start the journey towards USMLE Step 1 and then their third year clerkships. With the angst building, first year medical students are actively deciding in the dead of winter what they will do over the summer.

Sunglasses taking a sunbath by Andres Rueda via Flickr and a Creative Commons licenseOne popular decision is to do research. This is not uncommon since residency programs are increasingly competitive and look for students who have a commitment to scholarly work. However, there are a plethora of other things students could do as well. As tonight is our "Intro to our Summer Research Program" for Pritzker medical students, I thought I would share some of the most common questions I get about the "Last Summer."

Should I do research in a competitive field? The answer here is to do substantive research that you are interested in with a "CAPE" mentor (Capable, Available, Project interests you, Easy to get along with). As my premed advisor once told me, "Mickey Mouse" research is not going to look good to anyone (no offense Mickey).

The key is to find something you are passionate about. After all, you have to tell this story on your interview trail of why you choose to do this and the answer "because I wanted to go into ortho" is not really that captivating to anyone (even to an orthopedic surgeon). Instead, if you do something you are passionate about, like community health work, you can always tie it back to your chosen field.

Most residency program directors don't expect you arrived in medical school with laser-like focus towards their field anyway and expect to hear some type of journey or a-ha moment that drew you to their field. Because competitive specialties are often reimbursed for clinical work and tend to be smaller departments, they depth of research opportunities may be more limited. But, don't forget that neuroscience research is relevant to neurosurgery. Any oncology research on head and neck cancer is still relevant for ear nose and throat doctors, and so forth.

The best research is often interdisciplinary and crosses department boundaries so you should not be afraid to, either. It's also important to remember that as a first year student, it's hard to even know if you will be competitive for radiation oncology or associated competitive specialties. You will need killer board scores, and great clinical grades. So, while you may think securing the research with the department chair will give you an extra edge, nothing and no one can make up for a poor performance on high stakes exams or clinical rotations. So, don't forget to study!
I want to go to country X? How can I get a global health rotation there? Well, certainly the urge to travel is strong in anyone (including me). But, you need to separate your travel bug from a genuine interest in global health. Most global health rotations are not a vacation, and may not be what you think of as "tourist" destination (despite the short-lived popularity of Off the Map).

Maybe your stars are aligned and your school or a nearby affiliate you know has a program near your hot spot of interest. Usually, however, it is not that easy and you should consider how strong your affinity is for a specific country or location versus your interest in getting the best global health experience possible. Global health programs that fund medical students are not easy to come by. So, if you are genuinely interested in global health, it is always better to go with an established program and mentor to get the most substantive experience even if it's not in the exact country you are interested in.

The other thing to remember is while this may be your last summer for a while; it is not your last vacation! You will have time to plan a vacation to your designated hot spot if you can't work it in this summer.

Do I have to do anything? The answer here is easy. No, you don't have to do anything per se with your time off. Many students find themselves on the hamster wheel of endless extracurricular activities. The real question is what is your goal? If it is to go home and see family and friends, there is nothing wrong with that! The key is to ensure that you are doing something with your time off that will make you feel ready to face the second year of medical school.

It is easy to forget that there is a lot of time to participate in extracurricular activities at various other points in your medical school career. The key is that if you will regret not spending time with your friends or family this summer, then you need to make time to do that.

What if I want to do everything because I don't want to close any doors? This is not an uncommon feeling for medical students. However, it's important to remember that your summer work is not choosing a specialty! There is essentially nothing you can do over the summer that will close a door. There may be some things that allow you to put your foot further into the doorway, but that does not mean another door will close. The only doors you close are the ones in your mind.

Most students decide on their specialty after their third year rotations and will often fine-tune their experiences in research in that area in the fourth year. Another thing to consider is to do research in a cross-cutting area like ethics that could apply to everything.

Sometimes the angst you may be feeling is about making a choice that is wrong for you. However, the truth is that as long as you are genuinely interested in the opportunity, you cannot make a wrong choice since it will be an easy story to tell no matter what you do. Since everyone is different, it is always good to get individualized advice from a faculty advisor at your school who can comment on your specific career and research goals.

Finally, no matter what you do with your last summer, don't forget to make sure you enjoy it!

Vineet Arora, MD, is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. She is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist, supervising internal medicine residents and students caring for general medicine patients, and serves as a career advisor and mentor for several medical students and residents, and directs the NIH-sponsored Training Early Achievers for Careers in Health (TEACH) Research program, which prepares and inspires talented diverse Chicago high school students to enter medical research careers. This post originally appeared on her blog, FutureDocs.