A Mote of Dust Suspended in a Sunbeam Tips For Surviving First and Second Year

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Tips For Surviving First and Second Year

By Andrew Simpson

For those coming from non-medical science backgrounds (and perhaps even for those who are coming from such a background) the switch to studying medicine can be quite challenging. From my own perspective, learning pre-clinical medicine was very different to learning undergraduate physics and astronomy. Whilst physics encourages you to work from first principles and to seek understanding, medicine can often be merely a process of memorising lists of things and processes. This is not always the case (which perhaps explains why I like physiology so much) but I would suggest that more often than not you will find yourself trying to cram information into your brain rather than trying to make sense of concepts.

With this in mind, I thought I would offer a few tips to those incoming first (and second) years regarding how to approach the pre-clinical years. This advice is based on my experience at the University of Sydney but I'm sure incoming students at other universities will find it useful as well.

1. Anki

Anki is the single most useful piece of software that I have found for learning pre-clinical medicine. It is a content-agnostic flashcard system (accepting content in the form of text, images, LaTeX, etc) tha makes use of a spaced-repetition system. What that means is that cards are scheduled to be shown to you at increasing time intervals (modified by whether you continue to remember the content of the card) based on a heuristic algorithm that estimates how long it takes to forget information.

Unfortunately I only came across Anki a few months before the end of second year but I still found it an invaluable tool. I now have a database of several thousand flashcards which will only continue to grow as my medical education progresses. There is other spaced repetition software out there (such as SuperMemo) but I found Anki to be the best. As a related aside, the book that got me interested in spaced repetition (and other memory techniques) is also worth a read.

2. Get your Greek/Latin on

It's a great idea to spend a bit of time getting comfortable with the Greek and Latin roots of medical words. When you're trying to remember what, for example, ankylosing spondylitis is, it helps enormously if you can recall that the Greek  ankylos means 'crooked'.

3. Make use of USMLE Step 1 resources

This is another tip that I (unfortunately) discovered late in the piece but it's a good one. Even if you're not planning on sitting the USMLE or ever setting foot in North America, make use of some of the USMLE Step 1 resources that are out there as there is a lot of overlap in terms of the material that you need to know. I found First Aid for the USMLE Step 1 particularly useful and if you start looking at that in Foundation Block you'll be way ahead of the game.

4. Know your assessment schedule and get organised

Easily the most stressful part of the pre-clinical years for me was the time leading up to our summative OSCE in second year. I found myself wishing time and time again that I'd looked earlier at how many different potential stations there were and started practising all these stations much earlier. Learn from my mistake and get organised early!

5. Don't freak out!

In graduate medicine you will come across physios who already know most of the pre-clinical anatomy, pharmacists who already know most of the pre-clinical pharmacology and drugs, and all manner of other people who know a lot of stuff that you don't. Don't freak out! Just remember that there is a big difference between gnostikos and praktikos, that you will catch up eventually, and that everyone who meets the required standard will become a doctor, regardless of their marks or additional knowledge.

Good luck!

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