How to Survive the Third Year of Medical School: Common Pitfalls

The third year of medical school is a pivotal experience in the lives of training physicians. In some ways, it is one of the most difficult years in training, besides intern year. In this series, I will share lessons I learned as a third year medical student and my experiences teaching third years.

The third year of medical school is the most confusing and disorienting year in the process of training to become a physician. While the first year of residency (intern year) has traditionally been the most exhausting and demanding (emotionally and physically), this year continues to lessen in intensity as the field attends further to the tolls and dangers of sleep-deprived trainees. However, the third year of medical school, if anything, is increasing in difficulty. While the responsibility and activities of interns is centered on patient care activities, the purpose of the third year clerkship is variable and highly dependent on the fickle expectations of residents, attendings, clerkship directors, and medical school curriculum designers. These expectations are unfortunately frequently in conflict with one another and include the following activities:

1. Learning the science of medical management (e.g. pathophysiology, clinical presentations, differential diagnosis, treatment, prevention, etc.) – through lectures, reading, teaching on rounds, the workup of individual patients, and tutorials

2. Learning the art of medicine (e.g. developing relationships with patients and their families, interacting with other physicians and hospital staff)

3. Learning “roundsmanship” and team work (e.g. operating as a member of a physician team)

4. Assisting with patient care (e.g. reevaluating patients, scheduling followup appointments, calling primary care physicians, calling subspecialty consultations, performing minor scut work)

5. Presenting to and teaching the physician team (e.g. learning about a subject and giving a short presentation on attending rounds)

6. Learning a broader standardized curriculum designed by the medical school that encompasses topics that might otherwise be missed between individual rotations (available in some medical schools)

7. Learning how to manage a continuity clinic (available in some medical schools)

Unfortunately, these expectations are often not explicit, or students do not know which expectations to prioritize. Accordingly, it is easy for a reasonably intelligent student with good intentions to fail during this important stage of training due to lack of flexibility, poor insight, and a lack of assertiveness. To guard against this, I offer a brief review of the most common pitfalls that third year students face:

1. Not being present.

The most common and devastating mistake that third year medical students make is to become invisible. In many schools, the clerkship final examination (the Shelf exam) may account for as much as 30% of the final grade. Having spent every year of schooling prior to this learning from books and taking tests on paper, it feels most natural and most safe for medical students to dive into the review books and Up-to-Date in order to desperately try to learn the vast amount of information that they might encounter on their clinical rotations. However, they may fail to account for the remaining 70% of their clerkship grade for which the majority derives from the evaluations written by residents and attendings that work with the students. They also fail to realize that most residents and attendings actually like working with medical students or at least feel some degree of responsibility for their education. This mistake typically manifests as the student venturing out of sight of the residents in order to read a review book in a quiet space. (At the very least, if a clinical service is quiet, the student should ask her residents if it is okay to find a place to read so that the residents know where she is and what she is doing.) Out of sight, out of mind. Once the student removes herself from the vicinity of the residents or attendings, she is no longer is available for the minute-by-minute pearls of wisdom, the observation of how patient care is coordinated and carried out, and the opportunities to engage actively in patient care as new issues and crises arise. Also, the tendency for residents is to write positive evaluations for their students, and being present provides more material to write about while being absent leaves the resident with little to say in favor of the student.

This pitfall is becoming more difficult to avoid as many medical schools redesign their curriculums in such manner that they are spending more time in the classrooms and away from the patient wards and their teams. The most common complaint of residents and attendings is that these new curricular changes result in the students never being around. Accordingly, third year students have to be very careful to cultivate expectations and let their residents and attendings know where they are or where they will be at all times.

2. Being late.

One of the crucial aspects of ensuring one’s attendance is to be on time to all regularly scheduled meetings. This usually isn’t a problem for most students, but again, students who spend more time away from their residents are more likely to be left behind when work rounds, attending rounds, or teaching sessions are shifted from their usual times.

3. Failing to learn something taught with emphasis.

In general, most residents like students and want to see them succeed. Furthermore, on a more self-serving level, students that perform well reflect positively on their residents (as teachers and role models). Residents will use different strategies to help their students perform well in the eyes of their attendings. The most obvious manifestation of this is a resident rehearsing a verbal presentation with a student for attending rounds. The resident will often point out key details for the student to highlight or describe a particular way in which the important information should be conveyed. Unfortunately, some students do not pay enough attention to these explicit rehearsal or teaching sessions. I have too often seen clear evidence of disappointment and disapproval on the faces of senior residents when a student fails to convey important historical details or examination findings or when he botches the presentation structure. While it is not always reasonable for a student to be able to remember everything advised by his residents or to be able to perfectly recite a script handed down by his resident, it would behoove him to be extremely attentive when a resident sits down with him to prepare for a performance. Similarly, when a new skill or concept is taught with emphasis, this becomes a marker for improvement for the student; failure to internalize this new lesson accordingly is detrimental to his subsequent evaluation by that teacher.

4. Being too proud.

Third year medical students are smart: they have clearly achieved excellence in order to make it to this stage, and their proximity to their recent preclinical coursework and Step examinations provides them with a wealth of book knowledge. However, most third year students have minimal amounts of clinical experience and little awareness or knowledge of how medicine is actually delivered. While most third year medical students are aware of this fact and accept it with humility, a select few have difficulty accepting the advice, moulding, and criticism that inevitably comes from residents and attendings. Everyone has room to improve, but not everyone is willing to change. These students unfortunately develop a shell that blocks out criticism and advice, discounting criticism as the product of a resident or attending that “had it out for me.” Unfortunately, these future physicians are also the future recipients of law suits and disciplinary action. Given that most residents and attendings are saddled with excess responsibility, it takes a lot of activation energy to produce constructive criticism, so advice or criticism given is rarely fictitious.

5. Lacking confidence.

While some students fail due to pride and overconfidence, most students trend in the opposite direction: they feel like imposters in a new and alien environment. Bombarded by questions from their residents and attendings, the habitual answer of the overwhelmed is “I don’t know” as it would seem to be the easiest and quickest way of cutting short the torture of feeling helpless and unknowledgeable. Students cope with this in many different ways (some more maturely than others), but typically the best recommendation given to them by residents and attendings is to commit to an answer or decision and yet still remain flexible to learning and changing.

6. Sandbagging or upstaging a fellow student.

At my medical school, showing off and upstaging fellow students or residents was called “sandbagging,” as though one were physically dropping a sandbag from offstage onto an unsuspecting colleague. The most common form of this is when a student answers a question directed at another student. In the stressful environment created by the wards, students all too often feel pressure to perform and look smart in front of their residents and attendings, and this can breed distasteful manifestations of competitiveness. This tendency is unfortunately fostered by some residents and attendings when they don’t direct their questions at individuals. Nonetheless, trying to look good at the expense of others inevitably reflects very poorly on one’s character as few people would want this type of person as a colleague.

7. Being unkind or cruel.

Lastly, students sometimes too easily pick up on the bad habits of residents and attendings. In particular, residents and attendings will occasionally remark unfavorably, joke, or complain about other people (who may be obstructing or causing detriment to patient care) in a private setting when students are present. However, residents and attendings have gained experience and training in tempering their feelings in such manner that it does not affect their interactions with these other parties; these expressions behind closed doors are, in some ways, safety release valves. Many students, however, have not learned or developed these skills and balancing measures. Students then may sometimes actly rudely or unkindly to others as they “side” with their residents and attendings. However, this type of behavior is never acceptable at any level of training or practice and should be guarded against at all times. One of the most important tasks for all physicians is to bridge gaps in understanding with patients, families, and other staff members (e.g. nurses, technicians, therapists) in order to lead and direct the best care possible, and the avenues by which this may occur are obliterated once rudeness and meanness color the interaction.

Fellow residents, what mistakes have you seen students make? What advice would you give to them to avoid common pitfalls as third year medical students? What measures should they take to succeed in becoming excellent physicians?

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3 comments
  1. Asarah said:

    I am a medical student who is having difficulty with presentations…I become so nervous I botch most presentations. Other students have taken to sandbagging me often, and one of my reviewers called my anxiety contagious, which led to the next comment that I am irritating and annoying. I do ok in coursework, but my anxiety is preventing me from doing well on clerkships. Help!

    • Apollo said:

      Hi there – I’m sorry to hear about the difficulties that you have been having. Anxiety can be a major barrier that prevents you from performing your best, whether within the team setting or when managing the stresses and uncertainties of our profession. It is absolutely essential to address this as soon as possible: please speak with your clerkship director, medical school advisor, dean or ombudsman, or whichever faculty member you trust most to see what resources are available within your institution for you to help manage this. It is easy for physicians to develop depression or anxiety, and stigma within the field toward mental health among ourselves can promote unhealthy and maladaptive strategies for dealing with these. Please reach out to one of them and start working on this. Even though the third year of medical school has some artificially built-up stress because of being in a subordinate position and constantly being evaluated, this is not going to change anytime soon: our work is constantly under evaluation, and we must always strive to perform better and under considerable scrutiny from others.

      Good luck!

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