HealthMarch 17, 2020

Avoid the bummer summer: Making the most of your medical school summer break

By: Michelle A. Finkel, MD

When I was a first-year medical student, several seasoned community physicians told me that the summer before my second year of medical school was the last prolonged respite I would see for a while. Accordingly, they suggested that I take full advantage of my medical school summer break by relaxing and enjoying myself. At the same time, the academic physicians at my institution were telling me the opposite: Because I wouldn't get free time again in medical school, I should dedicate myself to improving my residency application, which would be evaluated by program directors in just two paltry years. They advised that it would be a waste not to use the summer to strengthen my candidacy.

Thus, the summer between the first and second year of medical school started to take on epic proportions in my head. In retrospect, however, I can add two important qualifiers to the guidance I was offered: First, medical students need not abandon all expectations of future downtime. Most schools allow for some flexible periods during the fourth year, and some students wisely choose fun electives in exotic locations. Second, it's possible — and advisable — to feed yourself while you feed your resume during your medical school summer break. Here are some of your best options.

Pursue research

Students with certain goals may have less flexibility than others, but even those who must bolster their candidacies from the first day of medical school can have fun the summer between the first and second year.

If you know you're applying to a competitive specialty — orthopedics, neurosurgery, plastic surgery, dermatology, interventional radiology, otolaryngology — you need to dedicate yourself to bench research. The most recent National Resident Matching Program Charting Outcomes in the Match report suggests that research and publications are critical for these fields: The mean number of abstracts, presentations and publications a successfully matched neurosurgical applicant had was 18.3, for example. Early networking through national specialty organizations or a local faculty member who has a broad professional network can enable you to arrange lab work in a location where you can spend your evenings, weekends and days off enjoying a city and loved ones who bring you joy.

Travel internationally

Those who do not need — or want — to do research the summer between the first and second year of medical school have more flexibility. One way to have a new experience while still supporting a future residency candidacy is with international work. Want to live in Central America for the summer? Look for a Guatemalan clinic that needs help. Want to move to Italy for two months? Search for a Venetian hospital where you would be allowed to regularly participate in rounds.

Of course, having mentors and strong contacts at your home institution can help you find a meaningful but flexible activity internationally. Some medical schools even offer grant money for students' global service or clinical projects.

The advantages of this type of scholarship are multiple: the ability to travel internationally, do good in the world, learn something new and put a selective award on your resume. You'll also have a fantastic experience to discuss with faculty during your residency interview.

Serve your community

Another option for your medical school summer break is to participate in local service opportunities. Whether you want to stay in the area where you attend medical school or head back to your hometown, finding a medical service activity is an opportunity to work on your future residency candidacy while doing some good in the world.

My medical school offered a selective urban health scholars' program that funded several of us to stay in town and work in underserved areas. In the end, this was the path I chose — a way to strengthen my future emergency medicine candidacy, support the community and have some fun with all of my friends who stayed in Boston.

Get creative

Finally, for those who don't need to do research for their future specialties, it's worth searching for opportunities that are slightly unusual, whether in medical administration, health policy or even medical journalism. I took a year off during medical school and spent some of the time as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow. I wrote medically related articles for the lay press so that the public could better understand health and biologic news. Programs like this are hard to find, and the timing doesn't always work, but if you have an interest outside of medicine, they're golden.

Your medical school summer break is not a binary choice between work and fun. With advance planning and a bit of creativity, you can simultaneously enhance your future residency application, contribute meaningfully to the community and replenish your reserves.

Michelle A. Finkel, MD