Medical school is a challenging road that requires sacrifice and dedication. However, life outside of medicine does not stop in the course of your training and sometimes will necessitate taking time away for reasons that may be personal, professional, or both. When you decide to take a leave of absence from your curriculum, you may be unsure of how best to utilize your time; while there is no single right answer to this question, this article will outline some suggestions.
3 Tips for Your Med School Leave of Absence
1. Introspection is key
Being honest with yourself about why you are taking a leave of absence is essential. It is important upfront to normalize taking time off for personal reasons including mental health, and if this is the reason why you are opting for the leave, you should not feel compelled to pack your schedule with studying and projects. A better approach is simply to recuperate from the challenges of medical school without having to feel anxious about the future.
Similarly, if family matters or health reasons are requiring you to take time off, you again should focus on taking care of yourself or those important to you. Trying to identify pursuits to make your residency application more competitive while also balancing being a caregiver for yourself or others is not realistic or efficient. Rather, you should simply be there for those who need you or give yourself time to recover.
2. Research year: Find a mentor and broaden your clinical experience
Many people take time out of their curriculum for pursuing a research year, particularly when applying into certain specialties.
If you elect to take time off to do research, the first step is to be proactive in identifying a mentor who will provide you with resources to explore your intellectual interests and guidance about how to adapt these experiences into your residency application and future career. In particular, signs of good mentorship include investing time in meeting with you, providing advice about career planning, and giving guidance about applying for residency.
Because most students conduct their research year between their third and fourth years of medical school, it is worthwhile to begin to identify with whom you would like to work towards the middle of your third year. Research projects can often take time to develop momentum and so being proactive before the year begins will afford you the ability to be more productive.
As you progress, you should look for opportunities to expand your clinical experience or pick up side projects along the way including case reports or small research articles; however, it is important to note that devoting your time to completing one major project well is preferable to spending little time working on many different projects that are not seen through to completion.
3. Pursuing additional degrees
Many students take time out of medical school to pursue additional degrees in public health, biostatistics or epidemiology, and business, among many other disciplines. One of the advantages of this route is that it gives you the opportunity to expand your fund of knowledge beyond what you learn over the medical school curriculum.
For example, if you have an interest in healthcare administration, you may want to consider an MBA to develop skills in finance and operations. Furthermore, many times an otherwise two-year degree can be integrated into your medical school curriculum so that the two can be completed in five years combined.
It is best to focus on doing well in your classes for the additional degree, but if you find that you have additional time in your schedule, it may be advantageous to consider again identifying a mentor and becoming involved in research or shadowing.
You may not be able to have quite as much productivity had you simply done a research year given the additional demands on your time required for the additional degree, but you likely would still be able to get involved in case reports or small research projects.
It is perfectly acceptable to take a break from your curriculum for personal reasons including family, personal wellness, or mental health reasons, and you should not feel pressured to balance different pursuits while you do this. Concurrently, if your goal during your leave is to become involved in research or to obtain an additional degree, you should focus on using your time efficiently by identifying good mentors and being realistic about how much or little you can accomplish with your time.
The bottom line is that if you are taking a leave of absence from medical school, you should be upfront about your goals and what you would like to accomplish with that time, but there is no single thing that everyone should do for precisely the reason that everyone has their own motivations in deciding to take time away from medical school.