The general hierarchy of studying goes:
- Undergrad is harder than high school
- And grad school is harder than undergrad
This, on its own, probably isn’t much of a surprise to anyone. But the culture shock that comes with each transition is enough to knock just about anyone off kilter.
This is especially true for men and women entering medicine and science—pre-med, nursing and science students specifically—and perhaps not enough is done to warn students before this shock comes.
Once you’ve made it through undergrad, the shock that comes with grad school is definitely a thing. But with all you’ve already gone through in that white lab coat, you more or less see it coming.
According to many med students, the one that seemed to come out of left field was the transition from high school to undergrad. Getting adjusted to a new program isn’t always the easiest task to undergo—and on the flip side, not adjusting or taking too long to get adjusted can be harmful to your future in grad school and even your well-being. It’s clear, then, how important it is to get a handle on the different ways you can work to get adjusted to your new program…and start rocking in your field.
Here are a few tips that can help this process go a lot more quickly (and a lot more smoothly).
There are lots of reasons why life in high school and life in undergrad clash for students, some of those reasons being less obvious than others. One crucial thing to note here is that pacing of school work will probably need to change drastically, and not just in the ways that you’d think.
Sure, cramming and doing work last-minute work might already seem like a thing of the past, but the truth about work in pre-med or science during undergrad is that you literally cannot tackle everything head-on at once.
In high school, studying for multiple tests at a time while finishing essays and assignments—and then heading to your club meeting or practice—might have been stressful, but it was probably manageable. Moving into a science undergrad, this same approach doesn’t always pan out. In fact, in science and specifically medicine, this behavior often leads to what’s known as “burnout,” which will manifest itself in a quickly diminished motivation and drive—later translating to poor performance academically, professionally, and even socially and emotionally.
To avoid burnout, make sure to take your time and figure things out. Get a good grasp on exactly how much you’re able to handle before you try pushing limits. Finding your limits is easier said than done, and will probably require some trial and error, but don’t feel like you need to do this all yourself—in fact, don’t. Talk to friends and colleagues that have already gone through the process, talk to professors, talk to academic advisors, and couple all that with your own experiences to find what works best for you. Pushing yourself too much out of the gate can hurt you and your academic future in the long run; slow down and figure things out.
Draft a plan
Taking on a completely new lifestyle can leave you feeling out of place and even take away some of that motivation to dedicate yourself to your studies. Another way to center yourself in your new reality is to figure out how everything fits together and see what steps you need to take to get where you want to go—and then craft them into a plan. Nobody really knows at first exactly where they want to end up, and those who do “figure it out” often change their minds somewhere along the journey. That said, there are some more general plans you can set in motion on just about any journey.
For example, if you know or feel like you want to specialize in a specific field or concentration, you can start taking related classes from very early on. Not only will taking related courses help you to figure out whether you really want to specialize in that field or not, but long term interest looks especially good when applying for internships and research opportunities.
You certainly don’t have to lay out your entire life from day one, but having a general idea about what you need to work towards (something a bit more specific than just “graduation” and the white coat ceremony) as well as what path you need to take can really help establish a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.
One thing that you’ll definitely need to get a hang of is scheduling. Unless your high school experience was incredibly busy (and you were responsible for planning every bit of it), chances are you aren’t going to have as much time on your hands as you used to. The same will be true yet again going into grad school from undergrad.
Come time for this transition, chances are you’re going to need to change some habits. Studying and classwork in general are going to take up a lot more time than you’re accustomed to. This is another one of those things that you’ll need to figure out with time—knowing how much time you need to dedicate to studying and working on assignments is useful, because you’ll likely need to build your schedule around this. Studying, after all, is one of the most important parts of your day, week, month and year during undergrad and grad school.
And scheduling study sessions in between classes and transportation isn’t the only thing you need to worry about, either. Knowing when and how you’re going to need to switch in and out of that fitted lab coat is important as you flit around labs, and in another way is as important for your academic and professional career when we talk about keeping a relatively healthy diet and a regular sleep schedule.
A poor diet and a bad sleep schedule will inevitably deprive you of energy that you need to excel in every part of your life. Lacking either of these things can pose academic and health risks that aren’t worth it. This means: schedule study sessions, but also set aside time to sleep well and to eat real, full meals.
Get your core requirements out of the way
Part of adjusting is realizing what you want to do and why you’re where you are in the first place. This tip is more for the long term, but it’s still important to talk about on day one. Many of the courses you’ll need to take are required classes with varying relevance to your interests (but are all collectively necessary for graduation). Especially since some of these classes are ones that you specifically don’t want to take—or that you don’t find necessarily interesting—sitting through them can make you feel like you’re not enjoying your experience in your program whatsoever.
The problem with this is that the classes you do want to take and that you’ll actually enjoy (those that hallmark the reason why you’re studying this in the first place) might be a minority of the classes forming your program. If you take care of all the core requirements you can early on, you open the door to fill your schedule with things that genuinely interest and intrigue you later in your program. Getting these classes out of the way also opens up opportunities to partake in internships and exchange programs earlier on, and even the chance to explore different minors more freely.
While this certainly isn’t something you’ll be able to accomplish in the first couple of semesters in most cases, it’s a good thing to keep in mind if you ever feel out of place in a class that you aren’t particularly enjoying.
Or…don’t do that
Getting all those required courses out of the way is helpful and can lead to very interesting opportunities, but that doesn’t mean that you have to cram your first few semesters full of courses that you might not be able to handle all at once. The recurring theme here is: pace yourself. Taking a lot of challenging math and science courses all at once can compromise your semester or at least hurt your GPA—unless math was one of your big pushes into the sciences in the first place. A more reasonable and manageable approach in general is to balance out your course load by coupling challenging classes with some less challenging ones.
Don’t be afraid to put off a few of those required classes for later. Getting them out of the way is important, but getting through undergrad in one piece is more important. Try to get a good footing and a good scope of the workload for every course before you try to push your limits in this way.
Did you really think your undergrad applications were the last time you would need to worry about extra-curriculars?
There are two important points to make here. First, grad schools absolutely take extra-curricular activities into account. There are loads of options that can beef up your resume to help your chances at getting into your dream grad school.
That being said, your grad school application is definitely not the only reason you should focus on getting some extra-curricular activities into your schedule. Participating in activities that you genuinely enjoy and are passionate about is incredibly important for your personal enjoyment, too. Regularly doing things you enjoy can and will help you be a little more relaxed, a little less stressed, a little less anxious, and a little more ready to sit down and digest everything that you need to the next time you sit down to study.
Sticking to a strict class and study schedule can become isolating and can lead to several auxiliary problems. Make sure to find some time to play your favorite sport, to paint or draw, to make music, to read books, or to do whatever it is you need to do to help you unwind and stay sharp and collected.
Internship and research programs
Real experience and time spent in your lab wear is the most valuable tool and qualification you can have preparing for grad school. Internships and summer research programs are great ways to get some real experience in your field, and the benefits definitely aren’t exclusive to applying for schools.
Again, this tip is a long-term adjustment game but an important one nonetheless. Internships and research projects can absolutely guide you towards (and away) from certain concentrations. If you participate in a summer research program or an internship in a specific concentration, for instance, and end up hating your experience, you’ve managed to obtain some real experience as well as the knowledge that you don’t want to wear your doctor’s coat in that field.
Conversely, if you love your experience, then you might consider specializing in that field more seriously. In either case, the experience will turn out to be useful both in terms of real-world experience and in terms of orienting yourself to your ideal path.
This might be the most important of these tips: find some sort of support group. This can mean a group of friends, a group of classmates you study with, your family, and even professors and advisors. Find a group of people you can talk to and with whom you can figure things out. The weight of this transition is something to be taken seriously, and it’s important to find some help handling it.
Having friends in general who you can talk to is important, especially when you aren’t feeling your best. Conversations where we make ourselves a little vulnerable by sharing how we feel can actually help remind us that you aren’t alone, and that we have support from many places.
Having classmates you can talk to is important, too, because they’ll acutely understand what you’re feeling and what you’re going through. Studying with classmates is helpful for the same reason—the weight of the work seems a little lighter since you’re all sharing it in some way or another. Conversations with professors and advisors are helpful there, too. Many of those folks have already gone through what you’re going through now, and know what they did that helped and what they wish they had done.
Professors and advisors are also a great source of information for more technical adjustments, in other words, talking about what sort of equipment you need to buy and get comfortable with. Maybe you have a general idea about what you want from your undergrad or graduate lab coat, for instance, or maybe you just know that you bought a cool Amazon lab coat online for your high school chemistry lab and you’re not sure if it’s appropriate labwear for your college chemistry lab—in either case, getting this information from the right source is ideal for you professionally and for your own safety.
For example, what kind of material do you need for your lab coat, LABTEX? What should you be looking for specifically in a lab coat for a pharmacist, a lab coat for a nurse practitioner, a nurse’s lab coat, or even just in lab coats for women? Should it be fitted? Can it be fashionable and custom made?
In general, the adjustment process in pre-med and science programs is much easier when you don’t try to handle it all on your own. There are other people who have gone through what you’ve gone through, or at least have gone through similar situations. Their help and suggestions should always be welcome.
Adjusting to your new program is not only something you have to do, it’s something you absolutely can do. Read through these tips one more time, pick out your favorites, and you should be well on your way.