“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” – May Sarton

I wanted to write a different post. I tried to write about how the pace of my medical education has changed dramatically since winter vacation. I tried to write a how to survive anatomy guide. I tried to write an upbeat post about Med Prom. I wanted to write a different post but it felt dishonest. Those posts (disorganized drafts on my desktop) seem better fit for another time.

I look back at my expectations for medical school and I cannot help but laugh. The disparity between my expectations and my reality knows no bounds. I had a lot of fanciful ideas prior to matriculation. I imagined that I would attend every lecture; I imagined that I would study in coffee shops; I imagined that I would have more time to engage with the city in which I now live; I imagined that my cohort would be filled with the best people I had ever met. That expectation — that my cohort would be an inseparable collection of 186 individuals — is the one that I talk about most often with my  friends at other medical schools. We have been disappointed by the culture inherent to our respective medical schools. It is probably not appropriate for me to share their personal reflections in this post, but I will share my expectations and in what way reality has fallen short of these expectations.

To preface: my cohort is amazing — I mean that. The other 185 members of my cohort are compassionate and inherently good individuals. It’s a privilege to study with / beside them. Although I truly think that my cohort is amazing, I think it is difficult to forge authentic relationships within the class. Someone once told me that if I leave medical school with 1-2 (new) close friends, I am lucky. At that time, I found that hard to believe. I assumed that he had a less social or less friendly cohort. I assumed that he was socially incompetent. I assumed that he had not tried to make friends within his class. My experience in medical school thus far and those of my friends at other institutions gives credence to his words.

Loneliness in medical school is pervasive but I think we (medical students) are afraid to admit that we are not perfect. So I will admit: I feel lonely. I have felt ‘truly’ lonely once before: I had just moved to New Orleans and I knew zero individuals in the city. Understandably, I felt extremely isolated and withdrawn. What is unique to my current state of loneliness is that I am surrounded by like-minded individuals. Wonderful individuals. We might as well be ships in the night. I attend social events. I engage in small talk. I ‘know’ almost. every. single. person. in. my. class (≥ 95%). Yet, it is difficult (in my opinion) to find members of the class who can provide emotional support. To be more frank: I think it’s hard to find friends who really care but incredibly easy to amass social friends. It’s disheartening. If I had an emergency and I had to call someone in my cohort  to help me, I can think of less than five individuals who would be there for me. And to be fair, there are less than five individuals to whom I would lend my un-begruging assistance.

I have been thinking a lot about this and I’m unsure of the origin of this social dynamic. I don’t think it is because we are a population of competitive human beings. After all, Princeton was a competitive institution. I don’t know if it is because we all share a very similar interest — I spent most of my time with premedical students at Princeton and those were extremely rewarding friendships. Are we too selfish to invest in more legitimate relationships? Are we too stressed? I wonder if we feel a need to perform because we are in professional school. I wonder if that label — professional — pressures us to treat our classmates as colleagues rather than prospective friends. I wonder what steps would have to be made to change (what I will assume is) the general medical school culture. What I do know: the status quo is not working.

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10 thoughts on ““Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” – May Sarton

  1. Thanks for writing this. I think it’s so important to be authentic and honest about our experiences, even if others may not feel the same way. So many of us are worried about the exterior that they forget there is power and strength in acknowledging the truth and facing it. Thank you for being an authentic voice in this community.
    And, I would be lying if I didn’t mention now that I, too, share many of your sentiments.

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  2. Wow Aji, this is so well-put. I think so many med students experience the same thing. To some extent, I still experience that. I’m not really sure what it is. I do think there is an element of selfishness and an element of competition that makes the medical life so lonely. I really hope you can find people that make you feel less lonely ❤

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    • Hi Meg! Thanks so much for reading and commenting! It’s been beneficial to hear that this is not a unique experience and I’m sorry to hear that the culture is the same in your residency program.

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  3. I truly enjoyed your blog post.. this hits home and makes me rethink going to school out of state.. I do believe I will stay in-state and travel on the weekends. As a psychotherapist in training and future MD, your questions and thoughts are a lot of what I hear on a regular basis.. I hope that your situation changes soon, and I hope you keep us updated.. I have found that being professional keeps you from being personal just my opinion and experience in mgmt. I look forward to reading more about you.. I can’t wait till it’s my turn. Go girl!!

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    • Hi Sherita! Thanks for reading and commenting (and sharing the post on twitter)! The decision to pursue education in-state versus out-of-state is a difficult one; I studied outside of my home state for my undergraduate but I definitely appreciate the perks of being in my home state for medical school!

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  4. Hey there,

    This is the first time I come to your blog, and I completely agree. It’s hard to make close friends in med school, but I think that might end up being a good thing. It’ll force us to try and make friends elsewhere. Friends who are not stressed out of their minds with exams and losing touch with reality because all they see are books, all day, every day. At least that’s my goal, to find a group of non-med-school-friends who can keep me and my sanity in check, as I go through this process of becoming a doctor… 🙂

    Also, I just got a kitty. Perfect companion for those long hours studying…

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    • Congratulations on the kitten — definitely a wise decision! I agree that finding a non-medical support group is definitely a game-changer. I definitely appreciate having friends in the city who are not part of the medical school fishbowl — we gotta stop talking about school at some point, right?

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  5. While I’m not in medical school (yet. Here’s hoping!) I am in a post-bacc program in which the social life feels very similar. I think there’s something about knowing who you are, being solid in your personal life that makes medical school (or any high-stress graduate program) so difficult to make really close friends. My best friend’s in law school right now and she’s had an experience similar to yours, where she knows everyone in her cohort– but she’s perhaps made one or two close friends in the process. I feel similarly as well, but that could be due to the fact that I’m in a serious relationship and don’t spend a lot of my time on campus. I also think we’re so stressed out from feeling this pressure for perfection that we manage to alienate ourselves and others in the process.

    I hope you end up acclimating to the loneliness of medical school. Either by making friends outside of the field, or at least adjusting to the cohort and maybe making one or two really close friends eventually. I think it takes some time to trust someone and to really get to know someone. At this point in time, it may be too soon. In my program, I’m probably close to two people at most? And it’s hard for us to hang outside of the program because of where we all live. (I live in the city, one of my friends lives an hour away in the South Bay, and one lives in Oakland.) But I have friends outside of the program that keep me sane.

    I hope you’re at least enjoying what you’re learning 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Christa! Thanks so much for sharing your experience (and those of your law school friend). You make an extremely good point about the pressure to strive for perfection — definitely something to think about.

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