HealthJuly 16, 2020

The pros and cons of living with a roommate in medical school

By: Julia Michie Bruckner, MD, MPH

The day in the life of a medical student is stressful. Weigh the pros and cons of living with a roommate to stay in budget and still have a relaxing home.

I ran in to find the sink stained with blood, my roommate grasping his hand below the thumb. We had just enjoyed a bottle of wine after long days - mine in hours of lectures and "breaking bad news" patient simulations, his troubleshooting public relations for HIV/AIDs vaccine trials. While he kindly washed our dishes, a soapy wine glass slipped and shattered, cutting his hand deeply. A trip to the emergency department and a hand surgery consult found he had severed his flexor pollicis longus tendon, one I had just learned about in anatomy.

Had his decision to share an apartment with me, a first-year medical student, brought him bad luck? I'm not sure, but months after his hand surgery, he was back in the operating room with appendicitis. I do know that rooming with him, my close friend from college, brought relief from the stresses of medical school (along with a few unexpected anatomy lessons).

Picking a home environment that's calming and supportive is imperative for medical students. For some, this starts with weighing the pros and cons of living with a roommate. While everyone will have different deciding factors and goals, everyone should consider certain issues.

Watch your budget

A day in the life of a medical student leaves little time for a part-time job, and student loans can become a costly long-lasting burden. Sharing your space with a roommate can certainly save money. If you're financially able to buy property, living with roommates can even become a source of income. Some of my classmates saved by rooming with local family members at discounted (or free!) rates.

Consider your schedule

While your first two years of medical school will have a relatively consistent nine-to-five schedule with fewer weekend commitments, your heavy clinical years will leave your schedule erratic and changing monthly with long days and nights in the hospital. Having roommates from your class will align your schedules, but if you room with those in other class years, you may not see each other much. A roommate who isn't in medicine may find your hours stressful - or perhaps enjoy more time alone.

Know your support style

Think about what you prefer: Do you like to decompress with a classmate who shares your day-to-day experience, or do you want the perspective of a roommate outside of medicine? I enjoyed sharing my space with someone who knew me for years prior to my becoming a medical student. Others may like venting to peers who can truly understand a day in the life of a medical student. Rooming with older classmates provides ready access to tips and tricks on navigating medical school. Yet, especially if you don't end up getting along as well as you expected, you may find living with roommates too much after the stress of long days and prefer living alone, despite the costs.

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Think about how you study

By the time we reach medical school, most of us have figured out our ideal study environment, whether it's a bustling coffee shop or a quiet library. Discuss with potential roommates whether each of you wants to do the bulk of studying at home or not. The last thing you want is a noisy or bothersome roommate impeding your learning. If you anticipate spending most of your time studying outside the house, perhaps minimizing your costs by having many roommates or a small space becomes a priority.

Factor in location

Ease of getting to campus may be less an issue in your first two years when hours are more regular, but being close to your rotation hospitals in your third and fourth years can save precious time. So, if having roommates influences your location, treat this as an essential factor. If you're attending medical school in a place totally new to you, finding roommates can help foster friendships and facilitate exploration of your new locale. Gathering a larger group of roommates may also allow for a more spacious or comfortable location, for instance sharing a large house with a yard.

The time you'll spend at home in medical school may be minimal, but find a way to make your space a sanctuary from the intensity of lectures, hospital rounds and long calls. In weighing the pros and cons of living with a roommate, you can find ways to balance comfort with practicality, creating the social environment that works best for you. I was happy to have a roommate during medical school to lend a listening ear and share a laugh. But for their sake, try to keep your roommates from becoming part of your anatomy education.

Julia Michie Bruckner, MD, MPH