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Balancing work and medical school

Elliott DE

Both work and medical school can be incredibly strenuous on their own, which means pairing them can be a nightmare. Fortunately we can help.

Throughout medical school I worked multiple jobs, always concurrently. I attended medical school from 2011 to 2015, and had to work to pay rent, buy subsistence (food), and meet the costs of the medical program. Balancing work and medical school is one of the greatest problems that medical students will face, particularly for those who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds. Indeed, this is especially relevant in the context of an ongoing reduction in student financial support under successive Australian governments. This has been demonstrated to increase student dropouts and precipitate precarious student mental health, particularly for non-traditional cohorts – a huge concern in an already stressful medical school environment, where rates of depression and suicide are much higher than the general population.

The necessity of paid employment is a constant feature for many contemporary students, especially as government support is at its lowest level yet. Medical school is a difficult environment to find regular work in, due to the unpredictability of the study schedule and the requirement for a huge number of clinical placements. When I tell my non-medical colleagues or peers who can afford to not work, about my schedule there is often shock and astonishment that I am able to work 2-3 casual jobs whilst completing medical school (where you probably study around 6-10hrs a day, including classes/placement). However, I hope, in this article, to relay my experiences in holding down casual jobs in medical school and give you all ideas and inspiration for your own survival!

An initial point to be made is that it is much easier holding down paid employment in the non-clinical years of medical school, when lectures and tutorials are the norm. During my first two years of medical school, the jobs that I had were often associated with day-time work – this included as a research assistant (in the School of Dentistry), anatomy demonstrator, and tutor with the university. Research assistant work is probably one of the best gigs that you can get – it is high paying, often very flexible, and will also enhance your intellectual curiosity. To secure such employment, I literally emailed every single professor in the Schools of Medicine and Dentistry (who occupied the same building) and expressed an interest in their research (which I had individually investigated) and offered my enthusiastic assistance for any research projects they might have at the university. Through this harassment of professors, I achieved a paid job as well as several volunteer research opportunities (also highly important, though for different reasons, which I hope I can discuss in a future article). I also approached the clinical leads for anatomy and physiology at the university, and similarly asked how I could apply for paid employment in their departments as a tutor. I also scoured the university-based job posting online, where I eventually found my tutorial job (in physiology and general student support) with the general university as my ‘department’. Most universities will have their own dedicated employment system for jobs at their institution, and it is well worth a look on these databases for opportunities (importantly, there is often a ‘student’ job online board, where members of the public can employ university students for various tasks).

When you progress into the clinical school, securing a job is much more difficult. These years (often the last two) require students to be in clinical placements full-time, often matching standard business hours (but can also be over-night shifts in the emergency department or maternity ward). Thus, it is vital to find employment that can work around these hours. Through these years, I found employment as a remote research assistant, football coach, and waiter. Again, finding employment as a research assistant was similar to the technique employed above – though this time I contacted law professors (I was concurrently in law school at the time – not a point to delve into here, but it opened up other opportunities for employment!), and was very lucky to find research assistant work where I could analyse conflict (in Myanmar/Sri Lanka, specifically) and report on sexual-based violence. This was completed online, and so I always did this very late at night! I also contacted the local high schools around my university, and asked if they needed tutors – through this, I was very lucky to stumble across a football (soccer) coach opportunity at a local girl’s private school. This was excellent work, and I could conduct training sessions in the morning – though it was problematic that at 3PM every Friday I had to go to the matches on the team bus! I admit, at this point on a Friday afternoon I did leave my clinical placements, though with the consent of the consulting physician. Finally, I was employed as a waiter at a hotel in the city. I had been a waiter for many years before medical school, so I could slip back into this role very nicely, and it was a fun job that could be entirely completed at night time. However, this did make for many late nights dealing with inebriated patrons! These were indeed very tough years as I scraped through with money, whilst also getting through medical school, with a level of sleep that was probably clinically unsafe.

Some of you are probably undergoing a similar struggle, trying to balance work and study and it is not easy. There isn’t really any magical secret or any ‘top tip’ that can deny the reality of that fact. For me, I found that the ability to engage in different things helped keep my brain active – I studied medicine, researched, waited tables, coached football, taught physiology and anatomy, and had private tutoring students. All of this was certainly exhausting at the time, but I think the variety and interest in what I did was the only thing keeping me going. I look back on these times now and see them as incredibly beneficial for my own personal development, and I don’t regret them for a second. As more students struggle to make ends meet, I hope that this article has at least generated some ideas for employment, or maybe it has just given you some solidarity to have a comrade who went through the same trials and tribulations. Until there is enough effective social support for struggling students, we must all keep struggling to survive, and help future generations have a chance to study without the stress we faced!

Elliot DE is a current PhD Candidate, Medical Doctor & Law Graduate. He is also a GAMSAT Humanities Tutor at GradReady GAMSAT Preparation Courses.