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Student tales: What I wish I knew before becoming a student

25 October 2022

Imitha Goduka, third year medical student at Stellenbosch University, considers the early learnings from medical school so far.

When you say you want to get into medical school the first thing you will be told is “make sure you get excellent marks”; as much as how the selection criteria to get into medical school doesn’t look at your academic performance only (it also looks at how involved the applicant is in other extramural activities and not just academics) academics still play a major role in the selection criteria and understandably so. But as a third-year medical student there are a few things I wish I was told, not only about medical school but about university in general. 

Firstly medical school is mentally taxing. I wish I had been told of the mental struggles that come with being a medical student. We all know how academically challenging it is to get a medical degree but truth is I think it’s more mentally challenging than it is academically. Had I been aware of this maybe I would have been more prepared; maybe some of the struggles wouldn’t have come as a surprise because I would have had insight. Just like the academic struggles don’t come as a surprise because we are made aware of them. 

I wish I knew that as a medical student I will be literally working for the state without getting paid. As much as it is expected for medical students to be in hospital because that is where most of our learning takes place. The amount of work that is expected from us and the hours that we spend in the hospital, one would swear we are getting paid. Sometimes you have no weekends, no public holidays; sometimes you have to report at 6am and sometimes you only leave hospital at 10pm, not to mention the 24 hour calls and the overtime hours that you have to work. In hospital the students are literally treated as though they are getting a salary for the work that they do. 

I wish I could have been told more about the financial wisdom that one needs when preparing to go to university. And as much as we are always told about the freedom that comes with being in university, many people don’t speak about the financial wisdom that one needs to get through university. For me, and I know many students in the same position, getting a monthly allowance is something that we only got to experience for the first time in university; going from being a high school student that did not even know how much a bag of potatoes cost to now being expected to buy my own groceries, toiletries, clothes, stationery and still have money aside for entertainment was a lot. And many of these adulting activities came as a shock. I wish I was told the importance of budgeting and saving because those are very important skills that one needs to have in university; one literally goes from having your parents managing your life to now being fully responsible for yourself. 

The importance of community is not emphasised enough. Becoming a university student is a huge transition from high school, the environment is very unfamiliar and because of that it is very important for one to find one’s community; by community I mean find your people and also know relevant people that can be of help in this journey. Be aware and familiarise yourself with the support structures that are available for you because you can really find useful tricks and tips of how to navigate this journey in a much easier way. Get to know the people that are surrounding you and form good relationships, because being a student on your own is very difficult and to some extent I think it is impossible to complete a degree alone, especially a medical degree. 

And lastly, choose what you love because studying can be fun when you love what you are studying. University is tough, yes it can be very fun but for the most part trying to get that degree is difficult and very challenging. The only reason why I am still pursuing this degree is because I love what I am studying. Know your why. With a medical degree you have to know the reason why you are doing it because the only thing that gets you through the struggles is your ‘why’. 

Medicolegal commentary

Medicine is a stressful career, and this can begin at medical school. The first advice for dealing with stress is to get help early. Being unaware of the depth of the problem can cause it to escalate and lead to more serious issues such as depression, or drug or alcohol dependency. 

Be aware that after graduating, you are responsible for informing your employer of any health issues. 

Staying well is important for both you and your patients. It’s important both to seek independent and objective advice about your own health. Register with a GP and ask for advice from your doctor or occupational health department at university – or both, if you are worried about your health. This includes mental health as well as physical.

Health issues can arise at any time in your medical career, from the early days at university to the final years of clinical work. It is always important to seek help – the sooner the better. Medical Protection offers support and advice, via our team of expert medicolegal advisers, and through access to a confidential, independent counselling service. 

Medical Protection provides advice and guidance for students on how to avoid situations that could affect your career or your future as a doctor. If you are struggling with your work, or think your health may be affecting your studies, do talk to someone, and let your medical school know, before things escalate.