What About Student Government in Medical School? Waste of Time or What?
Every medical school has some sort of student government. You will have class officers and the usual student body President, Vice-President and other offices filled by medical students looking for…well…who knows? At the basic level it cannot be denied that the predominant impulse for any sojourn into student governance is one of self-aggrandizement. It looks great on your CV, not to mention that some people just like the illusion of power and control.
I say “illusion” because students are largely powerless at most medical schools and, their pretensions to the contrary, are indulged, tolerated, but never taken seriously by a patronizing administration. The time has not arrived when the crafty academic dinosaurs who have fought and eaten their way to the top of the bureaucratic food chain will take direction from the little proto-mammals scurrying about in the ferns. The faculty will smile pleasantly and praise the dedication of the students but the ragged hanks of rotting flesh clinging to their kitchen knife-sized teeth belie their true outlook. Or, to put it another way, the typical medical student doesn’t know enough about anything to be taken seriously and, even if they did, as they have no control of funding, pay, or policy have absolutely zero influence on the way medical schools are run.
This is a universal truth by the way, that management never really cares what the lower-level employees think. Good managers know that certain allowances have to be made if they are to have happy, productive employees but this almost never involves gaining consensus or acting on input from the employees that will effect how the business is run or the all-important bottom line. That’s the General Manager’s job and he doesn’t seek advice from the janitors. Medical students, in the hierarchy, have less input into the administration of their school than the janitors.
My school, for example, implemented a mandatory attendance policy that was roundly condemned and vociferously protested by the entire student body. Tempers grew hot, meetings were held, but in the end the Board of Governors wanted it and that was that. Value of student input? Exactly zero, especially since medical students don’t have the sense to know that you are not occupying the moral high ground when you agitate for the right to skip class. The input of student government is neither desired nor taken seriously on real issue like this and the best that most of these bodies can do is to rubber-stamp the usual twaddle about celebrating diversity or supporting the rights of the freeloader class to medical care on the taxpayer’s dime. You know, harmless, frothy things. But trying to change real policy? Not a chance. You have to have some influence and, as a medical student, you have exactly none and no recourse but useless protest.
What are the medical students going to do? Quit? Strike? Walk out? Please. Not only are most medical students thankful to have made it into medical school and therefore extremely reluctant to rock the boat but most of them don’t have the time or the energy to get involved even if they wanted to which most don’t. About the only people who care about student government are the ones who run for office. Even their level of caring rapidly diminishes as the months roll by. Typically, the enthusiasm for student government peaks early in first year when egos are at their hottest and it seems like you are going to be in medical school forever. By the end of first year, if not sooner, everybody who is still on board can see what a crock the whole thing is and interest falls off drastically. During third year you are too busy to give a crap and when fourth year rolls around, not only does the whole thing still seem silly but it now becomes pointless as you will be gone in a few short months.
Despite all this, Student government is not completely useless. Within the confines of the possible they can do a few things. You will need a social committee, for example, to organize the occasional party. Student government usually organizes the note-taking service (which is always completely independent from the administration) and ours did a great job getting some money to get our student gym refurbished. We also had a “Challenge Committee” that coordinated challenges to exam questions. (On every exam there are some questions that are either ambiguous or flat-out wrong and you can sometimes get credit for them on a “challenge.” I never really cared because my scores were rarely in the range where a half a point would throw me into the next grade but if you’re jockeying for a Dermatology residency, every little bit counts.)
How About One Piece of Advice For First and Second Year?
If I had one piece of advice it would be to stay healthy. During the first two years there is plenty of time in the day to exercise and it is not necessary to get into the intern mode where you are indeed so busy and tired that you can rationalize not working out and making a meal out of vending machine doughnuts and a Dr. Pepper. I was a runner before medical school and found it easy to continue during first and second year. In fact, although I fell off the running wagon a little during the first few months of medical school, once I got the hang of things I had something of a renaissance and easily put in 30 miles a week. It’s just a question of time management. If you make your own health a priority you can take an hour five times a week for some physical activity. Maybe it will detract from your study time but to my mind, there is nothing worse than sitting in library trying to study while tired and feeling like a disgusting fat body. Sometimes you have to get outside or into the gym to just clear your head. The alternative is to try to study feeling like a sloth.
Now, I’m not waggling my finger at anybody. Although I managed to stay in pretty good shape during the entire four years of medical school, once I hit intern year although I tried to exercise regularly, I eventually gave up even trying. My schedule as an intern was so unpredictable that on the rare day when I got home on time all I wanted to do was rest. And I have always had a crappy diet high in bloody, fatty red meat and fried pastries so you can imagine that in the absence of exercise I put on a little weight. I did two intern years as some of you know and, although I now have a regular schedule and am getting back in shape, I have never been in as poor health as I have been since I graduated medical school. The point is that while maybe you can make an excuse for waddling around the hospital as an intern or even in parts of third year when you will be busy beyond a reasonable doubt, during first and second year your schedule is entirely predictable and there is absolutely no reason not to exercise or eat regular meals.
Hell, one of my motivators for studying was the knowledge that when I was done for the day I could throw a leash on Nora, my my beloved and now long-dead Border Collie and Zoe, my German Shepard (who is fourteen and still with us) and go out for a long run.
You also have to see to your mental health. The best advice I ever got from an upperclassman was to “Be Macho.” By this he meant that no matter what, don’t ever get into the self-pity mode. Medical school, while it has its difficult moments, is not generally that hard. Sure, some of the hours in third year can suck and you will not be treated well by many of those over you but it is important to not let this kind of thing bother you. Bad day? Failed a test? Pick yourself up, laugh, and move on. You can, for example, drive yourself crazy obsessing over a particularly low test score and reap a bumper crop of bitterness or you could just accept it as something that is now ancient history and forget about it.
This is not to say that you have to be a Pollyanna about things. Medical students complain all the time but most of them still manage to have fun, even on the worst rotations. You just have to see the humor in everything and enjoy the ludicrousness of the many strange situations in which you will find yourself.
What About “Gunners?”
A “gunner” is a medical student who is so intent on furthering his own career that he will sabotage other students to ensure that he scores higher on tests or looks better on the wards. Medical student lore is filled with dark tales of gunners sequestering old exam questions on loan in the library to keep them from the rest of the class or not only knowing everything about his own patients but yours as well so he can interject information that you don’t know, making you look bad in the process. I believe these tales to be apocryphal. When you think about it, medical school is not really a team sport and there is not much anybody can do to effect your grade. I cannot, for example, think of a single way anybody in my class could have done anything to effect my grade short of stealing my computer or knocking me over the head, both felonies, and not something that the mythical gunners are known to do. On the wards, if you are an ignoramus your secret will get out without help from anybody else. A gunner calling attention to you is just gilding the lily.