Dec 5, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Do you want to practice as a physician in the United States? If so, a residency program is in your future. Between low pay and demanding schedules, however, this stage in a medical student’s training can be a challenging one. However, it is also a significant opportunity for learning -- if you know how to make the most of it, that is. Read on for a list of tips aimed at helping you successfully navigate the residency years.

1. Know what to expect….and prepare accordingly.

Residency is very different from medical school. For those who aren’t prepared for what to expect, the transition can be rocky. For starters, residents have many responsibilities every day -- from attending rounds or reviewing lab tests. The best way to stay on top of your many duties as a resident? Get organized in advance. While smartphones and apps have revolutionized the way many people stay organized, a written planner works just as well, if that’s your preference.

One tip from residents who have gone before? Don’t try to fake your way through. The best way to make a big impression with attending physicians is to know your stuff. This means reviewing all necessary information -- from patient histories to nursing notes -- in advance. An on-the-fly approach is not only more stressful, but also transparent.

2. Accept that mistakes are part of the process.

As someone who earned a spot in medical school, graduated, and landed a residency, you’re probably used to acing most of your experiences. Expecting more of the same during your residency, however, can be a recipe for disappointment. As a new doctor, you will always have something new to learn. Being open to new things -- and owning when you mess up -- can ultimately help you be a better physician. Plus, lying about something to cover your tracks can be dangerous -- both to patients and to your career.  Perfection is not part of the expectation for residents; honesty is. If you don’t know the answer to something, “I don’t know” is the safest bet.

3. Seek support.

If you’ve ever seen an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, you’re probably already aware that medical residents can be intensely competitive. But the show also demonstrates that close bonds forged during residency, as well. Making friends with your fellow residents can help get you through trying times. At the same time, keeping up with non-medical friends and family can help you feel rooted when feelings of isolation strike.

4. Make self-care a priority.

As a resident, a huge amount of your time is devoted to caring for others. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to lose sight of caring for yourself in the process. Eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep (whenever possible) are all vital to safeguarding both your mental and physical health. Remember: being a doctor is a marathon, not a sprint. Taking care of your health can help prevent resident burnout -- a common and yet troubling phenomenon among medical residents.

5. Tackle the sleep issue.

Sleep is such a monumental self-care issue for residents that it deserves a category of its own. According to an article published in the British Columbia Medical Journal, “Sleep deprivation is a logical consequence of excessive work hours and poses potentially significant problems for physicians and patients. Inadequate sleep may lead to poor health and could adversely affect the medical care physicians deliver. Medical residents typically work shifts between 24 and 36 hours in duration on minimal sleep, and are at heightened risk for motor vehicle collisions, hospital-related injury and infection, and compromised mental health. Indeed, procedural, administrative, and evaluation errors may be linked to physician sleep deprivation, and reducing these could lead to improved patient safety and mortality.”

While choosing a medical specialty because of how much sleep you’ll be able to squeeze in during your residency may sound extreme, it may actually save your life or the life of a patient. Some residencies, such as Ob/Gyn, are notorious for their demanding schedules. If you’re the type of person who knows that you need a set amount of sleep in order to function, this particular pathway may not be right for you.

Regardless, certain strategies can help you maximize sleep, including practicing good sleep habits, such as establishing a consistent bedtime routine and setting up a dark, cool, quiet “sleep zone.”


One last thing to keep in mind about surviving -- and thriving! -- during your residency?  It won’t last forever. While the initial days may be hard, it only gets better from there. Plus, every day that passes brings its own reward: The knowledge that you’re going home a better, more experienced doctor than you were when your shift started. 

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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