Lost your identity at medical school? Try doing something differentBMJ 2023; 381 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p1238 (Published 31 May 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;381:p1238
- Florence Wedmore, sustainability fellow 2022-23,
- Charlotte Rose, editorial scholar 2022-23
Being a medical student can feel really isolating. You’re passed from team to team like an unwanted birthday present. No one knows your name, and by the time you’ve found the toilets or a good place to store your backpack, you’re being shipped off to another placement, another team, another hospital.
You went into medicine to make a difference but, five years in, the most helpful thing you’ve ever done was make someone a cup of tea (and even that caused some stress, after you heard the story of a student who brought a nil-by-mouth patient a chocolate bar before surgery). At age 18, when you imagined the next five years, you thought that you’d be learning how to save lives and making friends, all the while knowing exactly where you were headed and who you wanted to be. The reality is a little different: for most of medical school you’re still learning, so contributing to a team in any meaningful way can feel impossible. On the wards you may feel more like a burden than an asset, and when you’re surrounded by high achieving students who all share the same goal it can be easy to lose yourself.
For us, volunteering during university helped us to find some meaning when medical school left us feeling unfulfilled and lost in the crowd. We came into it through slightly different routes. For Charlotte it was a one year university wellbeing support post that she agonised over for weeks, knowing that she wanted to help but feeling concerned about how it would affect her studying. For Florence it was a less well thought through whim from when she was a teenager (inspired by a Holby City storyline) that had somehow stuck, leading her to become a Samaritans listening volunteer throughout medical school.
Identity and belonging
Being part of something bigger than ourselves gave us a sense of purpose and direction that medical school failed to provide. Supporting people who are going through all types of crises was by no means easy, but we both believed in the importance of the work. But was our belief that we were doing good the only motivator? Would that have been enough of a reason for us to stay up into the night, or to wake up early to squeeze in some time volunteering before lectures? We both wish that we were selfless enough for that to be true, but of course not. As much as we thought that we were helping other people, there was a lot we got out of volunteering too.
Volunteering gave us a sense of belonging, outside medical school. You might say that it provided an alternative family, a group of friendly and kind people (of course they were kind—who else signs up to handle calls from people in distress and despair?) who welcomed us into their groups. In the Samaritans there was the benefit of this group being cross generational, which added to the feeling of community. Working with two other students on the wellbeing team brought a feeling of support from peers too.
Being part of such groups, with a shared purpose, can help us find meaning where modern life is often lacking in it. Unlike medicine, we also had regular check-ins—time to speak to supervisors about the decisions we’d made or the things we’d said. Feeling genuinely supported went a long way in developing our confidence and made these roles easier to cope with day to day.
As well as this sense of belonging, volunteering influenced how we saw and developed our identity as university students. A well known trope of medical school is that students arrive at university and find themselves no longer top of their class. This won’t be true of all medical students, but having a purpose outside medical school can ease the pressure to succeed, both academically and socially. We both believed that by doing this work, by having a part of our identity separate from “medical student,” we no longer needed to compare ourselves to others or define our worth completely by how well we succeeded in those parameters. When volunteering, we were free of the expectation to be the perfect medical student. We felt valued, respected, and authentically ourselves among our new communities—again, feelings that are difficult to attain in medicine when you’re bounced from team to team so frequently.
Spending time working with a totally different group of people, no longer in a hospital or a general practice, also helped remind us that, although medical school is important, it can’t teach you everything about the world. Ultimately, students can learn a lot from pursuing the other interests or causes they care about. In our roles we saw a different side to the healthcare system: who it serves and fails.
Neither of us signed up to do voluntary work with the incentive of becoming a better doctor or a better medical student. It probably did help us to cultivate a lot of the skills a doctor needs, but that was just a fortunate side effect. We signed up because we wanted to do something, to feel as though we were actively contributing to something bigger than ourselves. We wanted to work with people who valued similar things and who wanted to fight for positive change in our communities.
It also became a way of recognising our own worth outside medicine and retaining that separate identity. Some people might find this in sports, others in religion, others in art and craft—but whatever it is, it’s vital that we’re all able to find meaning in the world and keep our identity alive as we learn to become doctors.
Competing interests: none declared.
Provenance and peer review: commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.