A post for anyone sitting any exam in medicine.

I have a dear friend sitting a fellowship exam in a few months.  Said friend is brilliant – we’ve known each other since first year of medical school, and when she’s passed this exam, she’s qualified to be far richer than me.  Her specialty is so safety-critical (there are varying degrees of this depending on what field you choose), that it has an exam when you start training, and an exit-exam at the end.  And like all medical exams, they’re a curious mix of vague multiple choice exams, essay questions on things you know nothing about that you’ve never heard of in your day-to-day job, and face-to-face arrangements where you either stand in front of a bunch of serious looking guys who are all much bigger than you, answering questions on scientific obscurity, or, getting 6 minutes (in front of same bunch of guys), to examine someone and confidently make a diagnosis, usually obscure.  FUN right!

The BEST part, is that there is no real curriculum.  It’s not like university where, for the most part, if you show up to lectures and do your readings you’ll do alright, and if you’re really interested you’ll get HDs.  Or you do the easily-available past papers and your lecturers write questions based on the semester material.  There’s ‘the curriculum’ they provide you, which is really just a list of all medicine. (Hot tip; there are now over 7000 drugs you can prescribe, let alone all the diseases, genetic mutations, crazy new drugs, diagnostic procedures – I could go on!).  There’s also the part of you (especially when you’re a woman, occasionally one of your examiners might be a woman but that’s it), that just isn’t used to the idea of being a specialist doctor.  You think, ‘who, me?’  because ten minutes ago you were playing beer pong in a seedy bar in medical school thinking you were the coolest ever because you’d never been cool until that moment you played beer pong.  But specialists don’t play beer pong, they wear suits and have serious faces and Know Everything.  Their juniors are scared of them and scramble at the slightest hint they’re coming to make sure everything is ready and beat themselves up for a good week if they haven’t gotten to something, longer if the specialist gives them grief about it.  And you’re a junior for so long you don’t know what it is to be a boss.  Does anyone?

One minute you’re in medical school playing beer pong even though you don’t like beer, thinking you’re the coolest ever, hiding up the back of the lecture theatre with your friend hoping no one asks you a question while your friend does the crossword, or standing in the path lab being told about the special tubes in some machine when really you just want a nap – and suddenly you’re sitting fellowship exams?  About to become a boss??  Really?

And yet, here you are my friend.  Yes you, about to become a boss.  And here I am bursting with pride, watching you jump into that black hole of study.

Studying for these exams is like being blindfolded and tied up and straightjacketed and asked to swim in a straight line across a lake.  Nothing you do is every enough.  Everyone is better than you.  Everyone studies better than you, and magically is going to do better than you.  It is mandatory that you beat yourself up for not understanding statistical theory they offer whole degrees in.  If you’re a guy, you grow a long beard and it’s not movember, out of some strange time-marking ritual.  You can’t speak to anyone.  You don’t want to do anything but study but you can’t study because you’re exhausted from your 12 hour shifts that usually go much longer if you’re a caring doctor.  You walk outside and the light blinds your eyes and you see regular people doing regular things and they feel like aliens.  You do really badly on your practice exams.  So badly sometimes, you can’t even talk about it because if anyone found out The Truth, they would know that you don’t deserve this.  You don’t deserve to be a boss, what are you doing here?  You get 35% on a practice exam, how dare you even dream of it?  Most people would give up, surely?

Except you do deserve it.  And here you are.  Dressing up and showing up, in one way or another, at that study desk days in and days out.  Doing good some days, badly on others, not enough on some, too much on others.  Trying to find that balance that can’t be found.  Falling down that rabbit hole that has to be gone down for success.  Entertaining the idea, that subversive, dangerous idea that maybe you can.  Maybe, just maybe, all that learning and forgetting and learning and forgetting, and failing and succeeding is just exactly what you need.  On the day you’re going to see that question you failed a thousand times over and you’re going to remember the answer.  On the day you walk into that room and there are 5 guys in suits, maybe a token woman, you’re going to remember every single guy in a suit who gave you grief over the last 6 years and know that they can’t hurt you.

And because you’ve passed all of your exams with high marks so beautifully before (or maybe you didn’t but regardless, you still got here), you’ll know that you can do this because you’ve done it before.  You know that all those study sessions, the long ones, the short ones, the failed ones, the successful ones are all just coins in a bucket and you’ve filled the bucket up a thousand times over.  On the day, you’re going to walk in there and everything will just kick in, you wont be you anymore, you wont have control over what you say because your training will take over and the fancy, suit wearing specialist will take over and choose the best answers for their patient.  The safe answers, the caring answer, the non-experimental answers, the ethical answers.  And even if the roof caves in and the exam is cancelled you know you’re going to be okay and that the sun will keep rising whether you want it to or not, and all of your friends and family will be cheering on the other side, roof or no roof.

All of this is a process of shedding your skin and growing a new one.  It takes time, and it’s painful and it doesn’t necessarily go smoothly.

Here’s the best part though.  You’re not going to be that specialist.  You’re not going to be the one in the suit with the five other serious looking ones who gave you grief when you were an intern.  You’re going to be the one with the kind smile.  With the twinkle in their eye.  Who tells their intern not to sweat it if they didn’t follow up on something non-critical within 3 hours of being asked to do it.  You’re going to be the new breed, the next generation of specialist.  The dynamic, friendly and brilliant kind who are currently just sprinkled about like little oases of relief in a world of so much stress and anxiety.  That’s who you’re becoming right now.  Try it on.  You’ll probably find that it fits better than you ever imagined.

No matter where you are in medicine – first year, or pre-fellowship, this post is for you.  All the very best of luck.

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One comment

  1. So much truth. This post will be on high rotation as I stumble through study hell.
    Thank you from all of my little heart, my cherished/amazing/perfect friend xxxxx

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