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Studying Medicine in Australia. What are the time commitments of a medical student?

Posted: April 24, 2017

What are the time commitments of a medical student?


You’ve probably heard a thousand different things about life as a medical student. You’ve listened to the opinions of your parents, that cousin you never see, siblings of friends, and the guy who spoke at your careers day. Much is said about the nature of the medical course and the requirements placed on students in that course, but all too often, these views are exaggerated, and don’t accurately reflect the reality of studying medicine. When it comes down to it, your time studying medicine at university will not be too different to the experiences of your friends studying other courses. It may be a little harder and a bit more time consuming, but it is university nonetheless, and is not the deep dark hole of blackness that people may make it out to be.


Myth 1: ‘You will have no time for anything else’


Medicine is probably one of the most time-consuming courses at university – that is beyond question. But what does that actually mean? How much time does an average course occupy per week? How much time does medicine occupy? What about study? These are the specifics that nobody really goes over when they tell you how much work you’ll be doing once you enter the course.

In reality, most university courses are very light in terms of time commitment. Depending on what you study, you can expect to have somewhere between 10-15 contact hours (actual hours of class – tutorials and/or lectures) per week, many of which can be done from home (lectures are often recorded and placed online). During pre-clinical years (the years when you are actually at university – typically the first two years of an undergraduate medical degree), you can expect to have contact hours ranging from 18-22 hours per week. During clinical years (when you are on hospital placements, usually from your third year until you graduate), your commitments will be more intensive, but still less than a standard nine-to-five job.

Is this more than average? Yes. But it is absolutely nowhere near the number of hours you spent at school, or the number of hours you’ll spend when you’re working full time. While you will also have study and assignments to do, the work requirements of medicine are less intensive and more sporadic than what you’d have encountered during your VCE/HSC. This means that while you will have to study, you won’t have to study as much as you have in the past, and your commitments will be more fluctuating depending on when your exams are. You also won’t need to be in the 99th percentile of your medical cohort to get a job as a doctor, unlike ATAR requirements in year twelve.


Myth 2: No holidays


This is one that really scares people. University life is famous for long holidays, and indeed, the standard university year is comprised of two, 12-week semesters, plus probably a month in total for exams. The medical course starts of fairly similar; during your pre-clinical years, most medical courses follow the same academic schedule as every other degree. Your year will include a one week, mid-semester break in each semester, a mid-year break of 4-6 weeks, and a summer break of three and a half months. Yes, it really is that good.

Once you move into clinical years, holidays will get shorter, but they will still be far better than anything you’ll get once you start working. You won’t have mid-semester breaks anymore, any our mid-year break will be a little shorter (around three weeks). You’ll also have longer semesters, which means your summer break will be two and a half months. While this is a little bit disappointing, there are other perks to clinical years. Other than the obvious plus of spending time in hospital, you will likely have far fewer exams. Because students rotate through different wards at different times, many undergraduate courses only hold clinical exams at the end of each year, rather than in the middle of each semester and in the middle of the year. This means fewer exams, and more time to enjoy life.

Myth 3: The study will be endless


This is one that really bugs me. First and foremost, if you’re studying medicine, chances are that you’re a person who is very used to handling intensive study loads. What sounds like a nightmare of work to someone else may actually be a very manageable amount for you.

Think about how much time you spent studying during VCE/HSC; your workload in medicine will almost certainly be less than this. During most of the year, it is usually enough to simply go over the lectures/tutorials of each day, and re-cap on weekends. This amounts to probably 1-2 hours of study on weekdays, and 2-3 hours per day on weekends. Keep in mind that you also have far fewer hours of actual class than you did while at school, so things are a lot easier overall.

Once exams come around, you’ll need to ramp this up. Your study for end of semester (during pre-clinical years) and end of year exams will likely be of similar intensity to your VCE/HSC exam study, however it will be more streamlined, as you are studying one course, instead of 5-6 subjects. It also helps to remember that you will be guaranteed an internship position when you finish medicine, whereas your friends in other courses have no guarantee of any graduate jobs. So while they will feel the pressure of earning incredible marks and boosting their CV with extra-curricular activities, you can feel free to aim as high or low as you like, as long as you pass. Your marks and experience may affect what hospital you work in (depending on which state you study in), but you will definitely have a job, and that is not something to be taken for granted. 


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