The beginning of December is when it begins. Around winter finals, people already start to ask – What will you do over the summer?
“Should I apply to a summer fellowship?”
It’s reasonable that we want to make the most of the summer. Considering the prevalence of ordered, dutiful personalities in medical school, it’s no surprise that this precious time – the last summer vacation of our lives (at least, in the US school system) – is wrought with indecision.
“Are you doing research over the summer?”
We go to second-years and faculty to ask for advice. We post on Facebook or other social media outlets. We ask career counselors. They all say to take things easy. Second year is hard, so do something that is important to you. Go travel. Spend time with family. They say things like, you only have to do research if you want to go into a competitive specialty. We search Google and find resources about summer fellowships and research opportunities.
“What should I do over the summer?”
I am reminded of the memoir When Breath Becomes Air, written by the neurosurgeon-in-training Paul Kalanithi. In the book, Kalanithi writes about a similar situation during his undergraduate sophomore summer. He had to choose what to do with his summer, because he had been accepted both “as an intern at the highly scientific Yerkes Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, and as a prep chef at Sierra Camp, a family vacation spot for Stanford alumni on the pristine shores of Fallen Leaf Lake [… which] promised, simply, the best summer of your life. […] In other words, I could either study meaning or I could experience it.” Ultimately, he chose the job as the prep chef. And despite the outrage of his biology mentor over the lost research opportunity, Kalanithi still became a neurosurgeon. He said his experience at the camp was meaningful, invigorating, and had lasting effects on his perspective when he returned to school. It’s a little different in medical school, but the principle is the same.
“When you look back on the summer, how will you feel?”
I struggled to decide what to do with my summer. I felt like there were a lot of options, but was unsure of what to pursue – I could conduct research on campus, be a medical volunteer at free clinics, work at a global health mission, spend time with family, travel with friends … there were too many options. I felt like all of the options were possible as long as I submitted an application on time. The most difficult part was that at my school, summer lasts only one and a half months. Ultimately, the time constraints limited me to only one or two activities, and I wanted to choose an activity that would be “the best summer of my life.”
I had started the application for a summer research fellowship, submitted it, and was waiting to hear back. Meanwhile, I heard friends talking about how they were planning to go on trips in-state and
abroad, get married, or just spend time at home. Other friends were awarded fellowships at other academic institutions. I wondered how valuable it would be for me to spend another summer putting in forty or more hours of research a week when I had spent a number of undergraduate summers doing that before. In fact, I realized, my last real break was the summer between high school and undergrad.
In my final year of undergraduate studies, a retiring professor told the class that he was most excited about the opportunity for extended break from academia. He expressed regret that he had not taken more breaks throughout his career. My friend and I had discussed this together; we wondered whether a break from school or work could really be as meaningful as he said. I’m beginning to realize what he meant now, as my classmates and I fight through burnout during our first year in medical school. The importance of self-care cannot be overlooked.
I weighed the pros and cons of each option. When it came down to it, my ideal break consisted of: (1) reconnecting with family and friends, (2) spending time with literature – both reading and writing, and (3) exploring future career options. While important, career-building was not the most important summer activity because I still have the rest of my training and the rest of my life to work on it. For me, time with familiar people and literature are sources of enduring happiness. At the end of the day, I take comfort in cultivating these life experiences. I worked hard to create an opportunity that would incorporate all three of these items. I’m planning to spend the summer at home, relaxing and working on a small project I managed to set up with a mentor nearby.
For those coming up with their own summer goals, I suggest considering the following points:
- What are the pros and cons of the options you have considered so far?
- How much time can you allot to each of your options?
- Is there something you would regret missing out on?
- What will rejuvenate you for the upcoming year?
- If you could do anything, how would you spend an ideal summer?
- There was an actual study published on this. Lievens, et. al. (2002). Medical Education, 36, 1050–1056.
- Interested readers may want to peruse the following pages: “Summer Opportunities for 1st-Year Students” from Indiana University and “Summer Opportunities for Medical Students” from the Medical University of South Carolina.
- Kalanithi, Paul. (2016). When Breath Becomes Air. Random House, New York, NY. 31-32.