What Should I Do Over the Summer?

Thomas E. Robey, MD, PhD

Disclosures

May 27, 2010

Question:

I don't have any firm plans yet for the summer, and I was wondering, what's the best use of my time off from medical school?

Response from Thomas E. Robey, MD, PhD
Resident, Emergency Medicine, Yale-New Haven Hospital, New Haven, Connecticut

With this question, chances are good that you're a preclinical medical student or a premed undergraduate, because the challenge of what to do with a summer will soon be irrelevant. Your scheduled clerkships and residency block schedule will settle any uncertainty! It may seem that this decision could make or break your future; if so, the stress of not lining something up already may be mounting. Fear not. There are still opportunities.

Research

Even if you do not pursue an academic career, a research experience is valuable to have under your belt when applying for medical school and residency, both for the distinction of it and for understanding how medicine is innovated.

So, how do you get into a lab? By this time in the year, it may be too late to apply for research funding, and professors may be hesitant to shell out a summer salary for a student who has no research experience. So you have to focus on selling yourself. Use any connections you have. MD/PhD students in your class may be able to point you to a graduate student or post-doc who needs some extra hands. In many cases, your basic science professors run their own labs; ask if they'd be willing to take on a hard-working student. Don't lose heart if you don't get a job on your first inquiry. You may need to ask 10 professors before you find a position.

Can you afford to work for "free," taking the experience and possibly academic credit in place of payment? Perhaps you could work half-time as a student assistant, washing glassware and stocking the lab. When you ask about the possibility of working in a lab, be sure to clarify (1) that you will have a well-defined project and (2) what the working arrangement and funding situation are. Then, commit yourself to the work. The researchers you work with will want to see your effort more than your results. But if you can become a coauthor on a published manuscript, even better!

Teaching

Universities often run summer enrichment courses for prospective students. Look around campus to see if there are programs or camps in need of teachers. The engineering college may have a science program geared toward prospective high school students, or your medical school may have a summer minority achievement program for premedical students. You'll have to demonstrate some teaching skills to get a position like this, but if it's teaching that you want to do over the summer, chances are good you've already developed an interest in education. Also, remember those great teachers who helped you prep for the MCAT? The services that offer such courses are generally good employers.

Volunteer

The last time I checked, there were numerous opportunities in the healthcare field for volunteers. You may recall this vital element of your medical school application. The importance of volunteering doesn't fade as you become more accomplished, but the frequency of busy students volunteering often does.

Dedicated service can make you stand out. You're getting old enough to qualify as a Big Brother/Big Sister or similar mentor. As a medical student, you are uniquely qualified to be a patient visitor or a health educator. Often, volunteering can cater to your schedule, too. Your summer off may provide you a chance to give back in ways you'd otherwise not have time for.

International Travel

More and more students and residents make international electives part of their training. It's a little late to plan one for this summer, but if you think that international health could be an option for you, there is much learning that comes simply from spending time in the developing world. Chances are good that you'd be "backpacking it," sleeping in hostels, and meeting local residents. An extended stay is an ideal opportunity to learn about a culture or improve your language skills.

You may even identify a location or need for a future long-term medical mission. Obviously, this option costs more than the others, but many students before you have traveled on a shoestring budget; books and Websites are dedicated to helping you do it. You may even be able to find service opportunities that help you with lodging for part of your time.

That Nonmedical Interest

One option overlooked by medical students is to pursue a passion for a few months that they may not be able to devote an extended period to in the future. In the summer, outdoor opportunities abound. One of my colleagues hiked the Appalachian Trail. Another was a whitewater guide. (Both ended up in emergency medicine with interests in wilderness medicine!) Another friend spent a summer painting and sculpting. She now has several gallery shows a year, even while she practices medicine full-time.

Whether you work for your family's business or find a job to pay the bills, it's possible to seek out positions that will bring you enjoyment while opening doors to an enriching future that combines medicine with your personal passion.

Vacation

It's called vacation for a reason. You have worked hard during school, and it's only going to get more difficult! Taking an extended vacation is not a bad idea, especially considering this could be the last time in a while that you will have the chance for a multiple-week trip. Maybe that will include a nonmedical interest, volunteering, or international travel; there is nothing wrong with taking some time off. But I'd recommend choosing from one of the above categories for the rest of your summer. Whether it's your mom or an admissions officer, someone is bound to ask that age-old grade-school question: "What did you do with your summer?" Make sure you have a good answer!

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