A day in the life of a medical student

June 27, 2017 - Mariam Zaidi

My first alarm rings at 6am. As mornings are always a struggle, I always end up pressing the snooze button until I can no longer delay my morning commute. Medical school timetables begin early. To get to a 9am lecture on time is crucial. 5 minutes late and you’re not allowed in by some lecturers. Living at home and 45 minutes away from university though has its perks. Not having to worry about cooking meals, washing clothes or grocery shopping gives me time to fit more activities into my busy schedule.

Lectures and Problem Based Learning

Getting to Barts campus in London by 8:50 gives me plenty of time to grab a drink and snack ahead of my 2-hour lecture. The lecture itself is enriching. As a lecturer explains the anatomy of the liver; it’s easy to switch off for a while but beware – they are quick to notice sleepy students and will pick on you by asking questions on what they just spoke about!

The lecture ends at 11am when we have a short break and move straight onto PBL. PBL stands for problem based learning and during this 2-hour session, we work together in a group of 7-8 students, through a medical scenario. Having just had a lecture on the liver, the scenario is often related to this. For example, we can be told about a patient who comes into Accident and Emergency looking very yellow with a large abdomen. We would have to collate all his symptoms and establish his underlying diagnosis using his lab results and past medical history. Our supervisor is also in the room who often guides us along the right path. Working out that this is likely a case of alcoholic liver disease, we then go away and read up independently on this topic and return to the group later in the week to discuss the case. The PBL course structure is a dynamic and intriguing way to learn about a pathophysiology – the manifestation of disease.

What break-times entail

PBL ends in time for lunch! After such a hectic and brain stimulating morning I’m often starving by midday. If I’m feeling super energetic, I would have prepared a lunch for myself from home, but often lazy mornings call for buying lunch from the university café. There are plenty of options as well as local shops to suit a variety of tastes. I usually have to be quick though as an hour’s lunch break goes by swiftly! Lunch is also a great time to catch up with friends. The medical school year cohort is large - often up to 350 students! The year is split up into 4 groups so it’s often the case that your friends may not be in the same group as you. Every group also has a different timetable – some may have PBL in the afternoon whereas others have it in the morning.

Lunchtime may also involve travelling to another campus for the afternoon sessions. Typically, anatomy teaching happens in small tutorials at another campus, 10 minutes away. So, I typically factor this into account by eating lunch en route. With teaching sessions, attendance and punctuality is monitored strictly, so we must make sure we arrive promptly for a 1pm start. I’ve often had to run to make sure I’m not late! I remember once reaching 5 minutes late and was fortunate that the supervisor was lenient so allowed me in, but if this is a recurrence then be ready to be denied entry. Punctuality and professionalism is paramount for a doctor hence why this quality is instilled as a medical student.

Afternoon sessions

Anatomy teaching typically mirrors the morning lectures. For instance, holding a liver in the anatomy lab helps put the theory we learnt in the morning into perspective. This helps for more in depth learning and we can see first-hand what the diseased liver from the PBL case we had looks like in reality.

Anatomy teaching finishes at 3pm and we are free for the day! By this stage, I’m usually hungry again so would often go for a meal with friends. The student union is great for socialising and hosts a range of snacks with sofas to relax.

Socialising is a strong focus of the day in the life of a medical student. The stressful and intense teaching and learning we do every day balances with the amount of time we spend socialising. Having a strong work/life balance is important to sustain yourself through medical school. The best thing about university is that everyone is going through similar phases in their life. We share our exam stress, revision stress and even our life stresses with friends on our course.

The perfect time to use the library

It’s usually 5pm by the time I’m free from timetabled sessions but this time is peak travel time! Commuting now would be a stressful and tiring hassle. As a result, I often stay back at university in the historic library until evening. Medical school libraries have a huge collection of books – there really is no need to buy your own books! This is something I wish I knew before starting university. The silent study area is great for catching up on the forever building up pile of ‘to do’ lectures as well as studying for PBL. You must be careful as you end up seeing lots of friends whom you haven’t spoken to in a while so this can be distracting to say the least! After a solid few hours of work, I’m usually hungry and tired so retreat home. It’s typically 8pm at this stage and is the best time for going on the London Underground – minimal rush.

As I get home, I reconcile with my family and look forward to a warm, delicious cooked meal and discuss my day with my sister. After a good night’s rest, it starts again at 6am the next day.

A dynamic week

I must comment how every day is different – whilst PBL and anatomy teaching happens twice a week, lecturers are typically daily. One day per week in non-clinical years is dedicated to General Practice teaching where we go into our allocated practice and see first-hand how primary care functions. Often, on the days when we have lectures, we finish early (yay). Wednesday afternoons at most medical schools are dedicated ‘sports and societies’ times. I often use this time to go out with friends as a ‘mid-week break’ – after all, medical school is supposed to be a healthy work/life balance!

Clinical years

Going into my fourth year of medicine, a typical day differs from non-clinical years. PBL is reduced to once a week and this is in our hospital placement settings. Lectures happen in one intense week prior to placements for that term and anatomy teaching is replaced with clinical bedside teaching on the wards with consultants. Earlier starts are expected with a typical day starting at 8am. This means commuting to the hospital and no more snoozes on the alarm clock are allowed!

The day itself as a clinical student is exciting. Going on ward rounds and being asked to take histories from patients and even take blood from them makes you feel one step closer to being a doctor.

I remember during my Respiratory firm; a patient I was clerking (taking a history from) started crying because of how her condition had left her. I had read about her condition during a PBL in second year but seeing this manifest in a real patient, helped me reflect on how being a doctor is more than just prescribing and treating the disease. The empathy, integrity and emotional stability that is required often is hugely important and the day-to-day life on the wards in my clinical years has helped shape me into a more understanding student.

Days spent in surgery are also an interesting part of my student experience. As mentioned, I am expected to be on the surgical ward at 8am for the handover and this is when all the surgeons discuss their patients for the day and if there are any emergencies to operate on first. I would then go with the anaesthetist to see the patients ‘pre-op’. As the anaesthetist explains the procedure and gains consent from the patient, I must listen carefully as the anaesthetist may quiz me about the procedure later on in the day. The surgery procedure itself is as expected: sterile! I remember having fully scrubbed in and accidently touching my hair cap, I was so embarrassed after being caught and told to re-scrub and re-gown.

As a clinical student, we are exposed to countless exciting opportunities and clinical cases; learning something new every day is probably an understatement as I usually learn double than what I learnt in my pre-clinical years per day. It’s a lot more pressure as we are that much closer to being a doctor, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything else in the world.

I would like to end by saying how ‘a day in the life of a medical student’ is gripping and surprising – you never quite know what new case you will learn about and every day you grow one step closer to becoming an excellent doctor and living your dream.


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