The essential guide to studying medicine at university

Congratulations! You’re going to be a doctor. You will put your hands in places you never thought possible or legal. But first there’s a little learning to be done. A medical degree is an often brilliant and occasionally terrifying experience.

Yes, you will become a hypochondriac. In the first term you will diagnose yourself with cancer and tropical sprue. But If I can get through it, so can you. Here is what I wish I’d known in those first few weeks.

Don’t be Hermione Granger and buy all the books

It is pointless spending £100 on that laminated encyclopedia of functional histology. It will become a doorstop. Massive expensive books are what libraries are for. Spend your student loan on something better, like a hangover. Do get a library card though, those places are open 24 hours and have amazing wifi.

Medicine is a foreign language

Don’t expect to be fluent from day one, the best you can hope for is knowing how to ask for directions. Doctors like to speak in mumbled acronyms and Victorian surgeons’ surnames. But they can do English too. So if you don’t know what something means, ask. All the other clever looking medical students around you will be extremely pleased you did.

Don’t worry too much about the gore

Some medical schools still use cadavers to teach anatomy. The formaldehyde will make you smell of death. But it is the best way to learn, and you will get used to it. I skipped the odd dissection class and it took days of pouring over textbooks to come close to getting the same knowledge. Try to be there even if it makes you feel a bit queasy.

If it’s all making sense you are doing it wrong

The learning curve is the steepest at the very start, so do not be surprised if you are overwhelmed. Everyone is, some are just better at faking it than others.

Don’t pretend you’re a doctor

You are a medical student, not a junior doctor. You will have plenty of time to be terrified by the responsibility once you qualify. Enjoy your access all areas pass to hospitals. If you’re feeling lost, find the special dark den where radiologists live. It’s calm and quiet, and you can pester them for extra x-ray teaching.

Remember that people who are ill are still people

They are not just lung cancer, appendicitis, or schizophrenia. They are exactly like you. It is often only luck and blind chance that is the difference.

Treat nurses with the utmost respect

A wise registrar told me when I first qualified that it would be years before I know more than someone who has worked on the wards for 30 years. Nurses will save you, feed you, and teach you what it really means to work in the NHS. Our healthcare service could not survive without its nursing staff. Show them the respect they deserve.

Get to know people who are studying something else

Medics are lovely, engaging, obsessive, type A personality know it alls, and sometimes you need a break from intense all night discussions about the phrenic nerve.

Do something that isn’t medicine

Your course will get more and more intense as the years go by. Whether you play ultimate frisbee or chess boxing, find something you can pick up and put down that totally distracts you and is completely different from your degree.

Have fun

Study hard, but not too hard. University is about learning all the things, but it is wasted if you don’t enjoy yourself. Good luck! You’ll be great.

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