Things I wish I knew before residency

Anyone in the medical field is no stranger to the term “lifelong learner.” With countless hours of studying to get into a medical profession in the first place, it might seem like the studying never ends. And really, it doesn’t.

Even endless hours and years of studying could never guarantee a full, encyclopedia-like command of all of the knowledge and skills in any field. Will you have expertise? Absolutely. But no one person will have all the possible knowledge there is.

A medical student moving into residency should rightly feel like an all-star. But this is one good example of a phase of continued study where budding professionals discover many of the new things they had yet to learn. Invariably, there will be some things you’ll specifically wish you’d known before starting your residency.

Let’s assume you’ve made it out alive of med school. You’ve gotten past all of those never-ending textbooks and all-nighters; you’ve passed all of your exams; you’ve consumed more caffeine in the last couple of years than most people do in their lifetime; and you made it out with a degree in one hand and a newly-premiered designer lab coat in the other. You studied every chapter of every textbook tirelessly, you’ve read up on all of the latest articles, you’re at the top of your game. What could have possibly slipped by? What might you end up wishing you had known before starting residency? 

Hindsight is 20/20. Here, we’re going to break down some of the most common answers from seasoned residents.

Ask questions

You’re smart and prepared, and nobody is going to take that away from you. You’re strong, independent, confident, and ready for anything they throw at you. But then you walk in on your first day of residency and…you don’t know where anything it is. You don’t know who anyone is. You’re lost—and it isn’t your fault. 

Two huge tips to take to heart are:

  1. Try not to be arrogant 
  2. And try not to be too shy

In other words, don’t assume you know everything and don’t hesitate to ask questions. In fact, ask as many as you can! Remember, this is still training; now is the time to ask and be corrected if you’re under-informed (or wrong), so take advantage of it. 

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Theory and procedure are very different, especially when you take on your own personal flair in the early days of residency. It’s important that you ask about everything to check for understanding. How do the doctors operate, and how do they handle each situation? Do they prefer a conversational, relaxed relationship, or a more professional one? Do they want detailed responses or quick soundbites? What new procedure do you need to read up on? What new drug? What’s the best food on the block? Where’s the nearest vending machine? 

Frequent questions are a great way to stay alert and engaged in a situation. Not only will they help you stay at the top of your game every day, but they’ll let your superiors know you’ve read up and are well prepared, and that you can be trusted. It strengthens your relationships with those around you and helps you stand out as a good resident. 

Study, study, study

That’s it, you’re done with med school. No more all-nighters studying, no more textbooks with coffee stains, no more, no more, no more! You’re ready to take on residency and leave school behind. You celebrate as any excited graduate would: you burn your books (if only figuratively) in a graduation bonfire. 

Fast forward to your residency, where you live blissfully knowing that studying is a thing of the past. In walks a patient with a condition you’ve never heard of before—yikes. 

Okay, that might be a bit exaggerated, but the point is that you’re never going to escape studying, and it’s for the better. The world of medicine is especially dynamic, constantly changing and ever-evolving. While it certainly isn’t possible to always be completely up-to-date on every new drug and every new procedure, getting left behind is not an option, and it isn’t safe for your patients.

Residency, especially in the first year, is going to be hectic. It might feel like you have no downtime and, honestly, you probably don’t. It’s important to manage your time well, and whenever you catch 10 or 15 minutes of free time, catch up on the newest articles and studies, review your notes, and make sure to stay up-to-date. 

Work on communication and presentation skills

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You passed all of your exams, you wrote some mean essays, and you know your stuff. You can tear apart any prompt and construct a complex analysis with your eyes closed. Nobody can throw you off your game. But suddenly, a patient is rushed in for care and you’re quickly asked how to begin the procedure amidst the chaos. You go to respond but…you realize your voice has been in library mode for that past few years.

Knowing the rights answers and being able to identify the correct procedures for every situation is vital (often literally), but those answers don’t need to be bubbled in on an answer sheet anymore. You may write reports, but essays don’t need to be your strong suit anymore, either. Communication is hugely important and is something you cannot sacrifice or lack in this chapter. 

Being able to communicate clearly and effectively is an invaluable skill in just about every field. In a chaotic situation like those seen daily in the medical field, the correct information needs to be communicated as clearly as possible. In a more relaxed situation, the same is still true. 

Whether it be practicing speaking with a clear voice and enunciation or practicing to be concise without leaving out important information, or even just getting to know the doctors you’ll be working with and what kind of communication works best for them, ensuring your communication skills are sharp can mean the difference between being an average resident and being a rock star. 

Have a life

Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Eat. Sleep. Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Eat. Sleep. Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Eat. Sleep…the monotony can be torturous. 

Residency will be very busy. But that still doesn’t mean your entire life has to revolve around work. In fact, it shouldn’t—at least not completely. It’s very important for your own health and sanity to do something outside of working and studying. Free time might be rare at best, but it’s important to take advantage of it to do something for yourself whenever you can. 

Some simple and enjoyable things to help keep your sanity during residency include:

Working out. Going on a run, going on a bike ride, going to the gym—it all counts. Finding a way to break a sweat is a fantastic way to get your mind off the stress of work. Anyone who has ever worked out regularly can attest that exercise can be extremely therapeutic. And if you’ve never worked out regularly, maybe residency is the perfect time to give it a shot to keep stress under wraps. 

Going to the movies. Taking a few hours out of the week to kick back, snack on some popcorn and get lost in a story on the big screen is a great way to clear your mind. If the box office and your account balance aren’t on speaking terms, Netflix at home can be just as good. 

Hitting the trails. You worked hard to be able to wear that white lab coat with pride, but sometimes a trek away from the stress and patients is all you need to clear your head and wind down. 

Grabbing a drink with a friend. This can be one of the most therapeutic activities you choose to practice, and brings us to our next tip…

Make friends

Nobody is going into residency specifically with the mindset of avoiding making friends. Nonetheless, it inadvertently seems to happen, and the importance of this tip can’t be stressed enough. Maybe you’re so confident in your knowledge and ability that making friends isn’t a priority because you “aren’t going to need any help.” But that’s not true. 

Residency is tough, and it’s busy. It can be hectic and stressful, tiring and challenging, and it isn’t going to slow down just because you want it to. To help make it through alive, it’s important to have a support system. A great way to ensure you have that safety net is to make new friends, especially with other residents that are going to be going through the same thing you’re going through.

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Being able to talk to someone who understands your struggles and understands the things you’re stressing over can be paramount to keeping a level head. Making friends to go out and have fun is important, too, but at some point chances are you’re going to need each other. Knowing someone has your back can make a huge difference. 

Know your patients

Picture it: you check on a patient and their vitals are off. You know what this means for an otherwise healthy person, but does this patient’s medical history tell a different story? Is this patient on any medication that would influence the readings? What do you know about the patient, and what don’t you know?

Giving answers and finding solutions when you know the entire situation is faster and safer than choosing the answer with limited information. Making sure you have as much information as possible can make a lifesaving difference, and this information probably isn’t going to be handed to you. 

Getting to know your patients is accomplished in a big part through detailed questions to make sure you know as much as possible. This, of course, helps you provide better care for them, but it also accomplishes much more. For one, taking a genuine interest in a patient can help them trust you more. And strengthening that trust can make the entire process that much easier, not to mention improve the experience your patient will have in their healthcare experience. 

Don’t forget about your own health

Spending so much time worrying about and focusing on other people’s health can be pretty consuming, to the point where you completely forget to pay attention to your own health. While it might not be as rewarding as helping your patients, keeping your own health in check is equally important. 

Your health doesn’t just affect your own well-being, either—it affects the wellbeing of all of your patients. Not only can an undetected illness be contagious and get your patients sick, but unexpected fatigue or the inability to focus can lead you to provide lower quality care for your patients. Not to mention that if you get unwell enough to not be able to come into work at all, there will really be nothing you can do to help your patients. 

Your own wellbeing is perhaps the single most important thing to keep in shape in order to ensure the care you’re providing your patients is the absolute best it can be. 

Don’t forget to enjoy yourself

We’ve been giving you tips on how to “survive” the stressful, hectic, busy, rigorous and taxing experience that is residency. But remember, residency is so much more than just surviving!

You’re going to stumble on and foster important relationships. You’re going to make lifelong friends. You’re going to learn so much more than ever before and realize that you’re capable of more than you thought possible. You’re going to grow. And, if you let yourself, you might even have a good time. 

There is plenty of time to be stressed during residency, but there’s also plenty of time to enjoy yourself and enjoy the journey as well. Follow these tips, and you’ll be well on your way to making sure you’ll feel happy and excited to put on that white lab coat every day.