Student life, but not as we know it


Many medical students are shocked by the demands of their course and how far removed they are from typical college life

BEFORE SETTING off from her home in Tuber, Co Clare to begin life as a medical student in NUI Galway some four years ago, Christine Kelly’s aunt (a doctor) let her in on a secret well known to medical school graduates throughout Ireland.

“The people you meet on the first day of college will end up being your best friends for life.”

It is a piece of fortune telling that has rung true for Kelly (21) as she shares with her classmates the experience of travelling what is a long and testing road to becoming a doctor in Ireland.

After selecting the very brightest from each Leaving Certificate year, medical schools demand a type of devotion to study from their students that is a far cry from the perceived “student lifestyle” of late morning sleep-ins, carefree afternoons and a greater familiarity with the route to the local off-licence than the walk to the lecture hall.

“In general, our class would spend a lot of time in the library. If we had a test early in the morning you would nearly have to go in and fight for a seat in the reading room,” says Kelly.

Spending so much time together does have positive benefits as uncommonly strong bonds develop between the students. Kelly, who knew nobody in her class before entering “pre-med”, lists the people she met then as her best friends now.

Part of the reason for this, she says, is the fact that her classes take place away from the main campus in a building attached to the hospital. It is a reality that she blames for being “the main defining factor that makes people think that medical students are different”.

“It is more isolated. Not that we are lonely or anything out there but it means that your options for lunch and stuff is just with your class and you end up spending most of the day with people who are just exclusively medicine.”

Coupled with the extra study demands that are imposed upon them, opportunities to enjoy the typical social life of a student are few and far between.

“I think I am missing out – it is things like commerce ball and when that is on and everyone in the whole college is going and you are the only one who is not.”

For her classmate Alan Griffin (23), who went to secondary school in Galway city, there is also the challenge of balancing demands placed on him by friends who remain close by.

“It is definitely very hard to balance a social life with medicine,” he says.

“I’ll be missing out on time with my Galway friends because we are forced to spend so much time with medicine.

“I try to see the lads in my spare time but it is getting harder I think as we are getting older.”

For Kelly, similar challenges exist for staying in contact with her friends back home.

“They are working at the weekends and stuff and that is when I am free and when they have stuff on we have exams because we have exams the whole time so it is tough.”

As a result, even when the chance to let their hair down arrives, medical students tend to end up doing it together.

Aoife Hurley (23), who will be entering her final year as a medical student in University College Cork in September, cites the large number of social events organised by medical students, for medical students, as one of the reasons why they grow so close.

“I love my class. You end up spending so much time together and we have a lot of class parties and outings and balls and trips and stuff, more so than other courses,” she explains.

Like Griffin and Kelly, Hurley recalls the shock she experienced when she arrived into “first med”.

“To be honest I thought college was going to be really easy. I thought the Leaving Cert was it.

“First year was the hardest. There is no pre-med in UCC,” she says. “We had our first set of exams two months after we started and I think something like 50 per cent of the class failed them.”

In the time since, Hurley and her classmates have learned some of the frank realities of studying medicine and while she has undoubtedly leaned on her classmates throughout her study to this point, she has also made a conscious choice to try to avoid a totally medical-centric life by choosing to live with non-medical students.

“It is a nice break, there is enough of it already in my life,” she laughs.

“Even away on placement when you are living away with medicine people the conversation always just comes back to medicine, it doesn’t matter what night it is.”

Dr Jason Last, associate dean of programmes and educational innovation in UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science, argues that a balanced college experience is very important for the doctors of tomorrow.

“Medical students genuinely have to work extremely hard,” he says.

“It is a course that is challenging and has to be challenging because the end point, the graduate of a medical programme, has a very difficult and responsible role in society.”

To help widen what could be a cloistered educational experience, Last and the medical school in UCD have thrown their full support behind the university’s Horizon programme.

This initiative compels students to undertake a module from an elective course other than their own, meaning that a medical student can find themselves studying architecture or Chinese as well as anatomy and pharmacology.

By sitting and learning with students from other disciplines, Last maintains that the impression of medical students as a group apart can be somewhat dispelled.

“There have been implications in the past that this is clique-ism or an elitist behaviour. I don’t see that. I see that they are very highly focused students, they do tend to lean on each other for support and that does mean that as time goes by they become closer and closer to each other.”

He adds that despite the uniquely lengthy nature of the course (between five and six years) and the difficult challenges it presents throughout, medical students have always been well adept at finding ways to relax when the time came. “I think they party hard as well and that is something that I have noticed has not left,” he says before adding, “nevertheless they probably are one of the few groups of students that would probably skip class to study.”