The (not-so-definitive) guide to surviving your clinical years

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Okay….so I’ll admit that I’m far from an expert on the clinical years, but I’ve been through 1 full year of clinical rotations, so I’d like to think that my advice will useful to a certain extent, especially for those of you who are still in your pre-clinical years and are wondering what to expect in the second half of your medical school journey.

First things first, congrats on surviving the 2 most boring years of your medical education! You will no longer have to spend all day in lectures or staring at a lifeless set of notes, and you’ll now have the freedom to roam the vast wilderness of the wards for the remaining 3 years of your medical school life (2 if you’re an MD/postgrad).

Disclaimer: Everyone has different styles of learning and levels of passion towards ward-based learning/work, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all guide to coping with the foreign territory of the clinical years, so I’ll be basing this post on my own relatively chill & enjoyable experience in the clinical years.

Survival 101
  • Be patient with yourself, and give yourself time to get used to clinical life. It took me some time to adjust to the rhythm of clinical life and new colleagues/teammates, but over time you’ll just die inside get used to it and you’ll figure out how you want to allocate your time among ward work, clinics, sleep and leisure.
  • Expect some long days, but don’t worry, you’ll also have your fair share of shorter days. This varies vastly from person to person, and is determined by your university, the hospitals you’re posted to and the specialty. Make the most of your short days, go out and have fun…because you won’t be having any once you start work (sorry to be a buzzkill)
  • Be proactive in your own learning, and also in terms of helping out around the wards. I don’t really remember the actual content of most ward rounds in M3, but I remember being the ‘Designated Curtain Draw-er’. All these small gestures seem unimportant but helps increase the team’s efficiency. Of course, if you have questions to ask during rounds, be proactive, seize the moment to learn and ask any doctor for a quick explanation.
  • Learn to be thick-skinned and also get used to getting rejected!! In the wards, you need to be confident and slightly shameless when asking patients for permission to take histories from them or examine them. Patients are usually really kind and friendly, and will gladly give their time to noobs like us. And if they reject you, don’t take it personally because they’re probably just really tired/not feeling great.
  • Be considerate of everyone around you, especially patients. If your friend tips you off on a really rare or interesting patient with great signs, you’ll understandably want to see the patient. But remember that all the other students posted to the same department are also likely to have heard about it or already examined the patient, and if you put yourself in your patient’s shoes, getting prodded multiple times is tiring and isn’t fun at all. This happens pretty frequently in the wards, and sometimes the patient will turn you down, so just respect them and be on your way.
  • Don’t take scoldings or criticisms personally. When a doctor corrects you or tells you you’re doing something wrongly, they’re not criticising you; they’re just trying to help you learn, grow and improve. If a doctor is unnecessarily nasty or demeaning, then perhaps they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a young & scared medical student.
  • Don’t lurk around in the wards for the sake of it (or just to impress your supervisor). There’s really no point in wasting your time waiting around in wards if there’s no work to be done, or if the learning is low-yield. Your supervisor is unlikely to care very much: from my personal experience, supervisors are usually more senior doctors, so they have a lot on their own plate. And trust me when I say that medical students are near the bottom of their list of priorities. Don’t waste your precious time!
  • Accept that you’ll never be perfect – not even the top students in your class – and none of us will ever be. Thinking that you’re perfect and know everything is pretty dangerous as a doctor; imagine a doctor who doesn’t consult with his/her teammates and treats the patient according to what he/she assumes is correct? Making mistakes and learning from them is just part of the lifelong journey that is Medicine.
  • Stay hydrated, and I can’t emphasise this enough!! Whether you’re in the wards or studying in the hospital lounge, remember to keep your brain and body hydrated so you’ll function better. If you don’t dare to take toilet breaks, at least take small sips of water so you don’t desiccate, plus it helps you to stay awake! The only time you shouldn’t hydrate is before going into the OT.
  • Last but certainly not least, avoid drama, be it in the workplace/with your colleague or in your own life. You are highly likely to encounter backstabbing, rude/selfish, or bad-tempered schoolmates in the wards (of course I pray you don’t), but don’t be too bothered by their actions, because you’re not responsible for how others choose to behave. If you have any drama in the workplace, be sure to remain professional, stay classy, communicate clearly and aim to resolve it promptly. Seek the faculty’s help or talk to your college counsellor if things get out of hand.
Tips for staying sane
  • Study consistently. You’ll be glad you did, especially in the lead up to the exams. Just a few extra minutes of revision each day eventually adds up, and it’s more effective than last-minute cramming (which has lower retention rates and is more stressful).
  • Study smart. Don’t waste your time and brain space studying extremely rare cases/conditions or learning minuscule details; focus your energy on getting your foundations right and studying the more common conditions in-depth. You can always come back to the more exotic cases later, and study the obscure details after you’ve nailed the basics, but remember to prioritise studying common stuff first!
  • Don’t push yourself too hard. You’ll always feel that you don’t know enough, or you haven’t studied enough, even on the day of your exams. It’s a perfectly normal feeling in med school, where everyone came from overachieving background and wants to compete with their peers. While it’s good that you want to be a competent and knowledgable doctor, don’t have unrealistic expectations because that’ll only lead to burnout.
  • Get enough sleep, it’s not cool or fun to be sleep-deprived. I know this is easier said than done, because of social obligations, external commitments/hobbies or Netflix bingeing, but try to get as much sleep as your hectic schedule allows! Your body will thank you, and your memory + level of function at work the next day will be better than if you were surviving on a miserly 3/4 hours of sleep. I personally had no problems getting my 8h of sleep every night; the least I slept was during my Surgery posting, when I got 6.5-7h a day due to the longer commute to work.
  • Do things at your own pace, don’t let other people pressure you or stress you out! Everyone who puts in effort to learn/study consistently and knows their content well enough passes the year with relatively little trouble, so don’t be too bothered if your friends are too hard-core and are trying to nail every single detail or read ridiculously thicc thick textbooks. (I didn’t read textbooks as I have a terrible attention span)
  • Help your friends out and remember to support one another, because they’re also going on the same arduous journey as you. Med school can be a pain and an endless grind, but having friends around makes it at least a little bit better!
  • Accept that you’ll miss out on the typical college experience, because life as an undergraduate medical student is extremely different from the average college experience. Your friends who aren’t in med school will have a much more relaxed and fun experience, and you might feel some FOMO when they post Instagram pictures while on a 6-month overseas exchange. But don’t feel bad about it, because your medical school friends are suffering alongside you. 😛
  • Self-care, pursuing your hobbies and doing things that make you happy are crucial in helping you maintain your sanity in this terribly long 5-year journey. Find a self-care routine that works for you, exercise/don’t become a couch potato, and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Medicine is your own race to run – and it’s a marathon if you’re intending to make this your lifelong career – so set your own goals, run at your own pace and don’t forget to live a vibrant life outside of Med school. (sounds incredibly cheesy, I know)

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2 responses to “The (not-so-definitive) guide to surviving your clinical years”

  1. Hi Faith! Im a student from LKCSoM and I’m currently in my third year of studies. I’m struggling a lot in terms of adapting to clinical years as I’m not sure on how I should study at all. Could I check with you on what study methods you employed on a daily basis in terms of revision, and also how did you approach note taking on the wards? Should I just look to study the recommended textbooks like Browse from cover to cover or focus more on the conditions that I’ve come across in the wards? Thank you so much for your help and I absolutely love the content on your blog! It’s been really useful throughout my medsku journey so far 😀


    1. Hi Andrea! M3 is a huge jump from M1/2 both physically and mentally, so take your time to adapt and don’t worry too much about catching up with content; there’s really not that much that you need to know for MBBS, just have to know your approaches/broad ddxes well, plus some common core conditions!

      I personally never touched a textbook throughout med school, and relied on seniors’ notes (Medbear, Nigel’s, etc.)! For ward note-taking, I used my notes app and just messily typed down wtv new learning points were taught, but didn’t bother taking down stuff I already knew. I used UpToDate to look up stuff really quickly during rounds too!

      Jiayous and just put in small amounts of consistent work, med school seems overwhelming at times, so remember to enjoy life outside of school as much as you can!! 🙂


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