There is enough stress in PA school to sink a cargo ship. Everybody buries it as best as they can, but we are all ready to capsize at any moment. We are an elite team of students, and each of us is used to feeling dominant academically. Each of us got here by getting A’s in classes that most students fail or drop out of (looking at you, O-Chem). So it is not easy struggling. And it is a hit to our egos when we start making B’s and C’s. And when we start to feel average among this group of talented students.
Finals week last term, I could see the stress on everybody’s faces. Several of us were not sleeping. Others were not eating. Some had been in the library too long and had not seen their partner or children in days. Some aspect of everybody’s health and wellness was being sacrificed. Nine exams in one week is nothing to balk at. You have to commit every ounce of energy and find strength when you have nothing left. You discover how awful it feels to tap all of your known reserves and then be asked for more.
The worst response you can have is apathy. And, honestly, it comes far too easily under these circumstances. There were days when I made excuses, thick elaborate excuses I could use to pad myself from the onslaught of stress. And there were days when I ran from the stress. I went shopping instead. Or cleaned my room. Or watched an entire season of The League because I didn’t want to think about what else needed to be done that day.
Just remember that all excuses have an expiration date. Eventually you are going to have to face that work load, and if you have ignored it long enough, it will be rather large and heavy to handle.
Probably my biggest lesson moving forward into second term has been to stay on top of the material. I do a little bit each day. I never get as much done as I would like to, but I at least make progress and see some of the material once. This might seem like no-brainer advice, but consider for a second how easy it is to start cramming for everything in PA school.
The way it happens to me is that I put all of my focus into one test (the next test) and ignore the material that is presented to me that day. We are assessed so often that I become fixated on what is due next and block out everything else. Well, the next thing I know I have three tests the next week on Anatomy, Pharmacotheraputics and US Healthcare. I have spent no time reviewing any of this material outside of class, and so I have to cram. And in cramming, I ignore the new material being presented. Well then the next week I have to cram for that. Gradually, as I continually ignore the new material to study what is imminent that week, the workload snowballs. I fall further and further behind. Suddenly we have a week with five tests in Clinical Medicine, Pathophysiology, Pharmacology, History and Physical, and an Anatomy practical. Who can possibly learn that much material in a weekend? I pulled more all-nighters last term than I’d like to admit.
I have already found some relief in this new term. I am putting my focus into learning at least some of the new material each night. And I try to learn it the night before we get lectured on that material. Even if I don’t get through the entire 120 slide powerpoint–say I get through 50 slides–still that is 50 more slides I will have seen twice before I even start studying for the test. The idea is not to memorize every detail as I move through the slides, but at least see the material once beforehand so that the larger concepts start ingraining themselves in my mind.
This helps with the stress. I feel much more comfortable looking at my workweek, knowing that I have been keeping up with lecture. Even if I feel like I haven’t memorized much of the information I’ve looked at, having a general sense of what’s there and what concepts are involved makes me much more confident about my ability to hammer down the details before the test. And perhaps the best part is, I feel more comfortable doing activities outside of schoolwork, such as exercising again and going out with friends.
Yes, you have to step away from it all every once in awhile. But it is much easier to step away feeling in control of the material. Last term I went out with friends and kept up with hobbies in the name of “blowing off stress”, but there was always a sense of guilt attached to it. Like a ticking bomb in the back of my head that I needed to attend to. And that is no way to relieve stress.
Also I am learning to ask for help. The faculty at Penn State are incredibly supportive and have demonstrated time and again that we are in this together. I feel like they actually want to help. When I come to them with an issue or concern, I can see that it becomes their concern also. They are not just here to patronize me and tell me what I need to do. They recognize that every student is different and want to form a plan that will work for me. And it is appreciated.
In the beginning of this post, I called myself and my classmates a “team of students”, I chose that phrase for a reason. Throughout this experience, I have come to rely on all of them for guidance and learning. All of us have different backgrounds. Mine is English and emergency medicine. One of my classmates was an EMT in New Orleans. Another practiced medicine in a foreign country. Another is an acupuncturist. Another worked in cardiology. Another was a respiratory therapist. One has a master’s degree in public health. Two have degrees in sports medicine. The list goes on.
Your classmates are an invaluable resource. Not only for their unique knowledge and perspectives, but also for their support. I believe my class recognized on day-one that we are in this together. It is a challenging program, and as individuals we may falter. But as a team, we are uniquely strong and prepared. We frequently pool resources together and interact while studying. Some find it helpful to study in groups (has never worked for me). Others share flashcards online and post research to our Google Drive. There are always discussions going on Facebook. And during our Team Based Learning classes, we work together to discuss patient cases and determine diagnoses. In addition to teaching us the material, the faculty teach us integrated learning. Since that is exactly what we will be doing in the field: working with other health professionals as a team to treat our patients. That sense of community and teamwork has been a huge part of what has helped me stay afloat during these first few months.
Yesterday, actually, was one of my favorite days in this program. The faculty organized a retreat for both our program and the med students. They drove us out in buses to a beautiful conference center and park in the nearby town of Carlisle. In the morning they had a few guest speakers and some small group discussions. Historically, I have been adverse to these events. I imagine them being filled with sleep-inducing lectures and forced “bonding” activities. But this was actually great. The small group discussions were incredibly informal; they asked us how we felt and what challenges we were facing. It was a nice chance to vent. And I got to hear some of my classmates talk about the same challenges that I was facing. A subtle reminder that we are all on the same ship.
The afternoon activities were entirely unscripted. They basically said “the bus leaves at three, go have fun.” One of my classmates brought a wiffle ball and bat. There was a baseball diamond on the grounds, so we headed there and played at least seven innings of wiffle ball. There was laughter, competition, teamwork, sweat, dirt, and cheering. It was refreshing not to have an agenda for once. Most of us dreaded having to take a day off of studying for forced “play time”. And, as always, a few people skipped. But those of us who went were incredibly grateful at the end of the day. And we have some awesome photos to prove it.