How I spend my time in the lab

The strange thing about medicine… You’d think that “prestige” would be tied to how well you care for patients, how few complications you have, or how many people would recommend your services to others. But really, like any other academic field, it’s all about the research. I have to say, until this past January, I never thought that I would be taking a year off to do research. I had always been a “straight-through” kind of girl (there’s probably a dirty joke in there somewhere), and by that I mean, I entered college right out of high school, entered med school right out of college, and didn’t take any breaks in between. Maybe it’s because everyone always calls it a “year off,” as if you’re taking a break from life so you can bum around on your ass for a year, but I always felt like I didn’t have the time. Fast forward the better part of a year, and now I’ve been lab-bound for almost 3 months. Go figure.

Whoever thought that a med student such as myself would be qualified to work in a basic science lab was probably mistaken. Of course, I could have opted for the Excel-monkey route and signed up to do clinical research, but sitting in a cubicle all day was exactly the kind of the work that I was trying to avoid by going to medical school. My “project” so far has felt like one long string of mistakes, set-backs, and dumb moments on my part. I was supposed to get around to animal studies, but so far, I’ve just been muddling my way through cell culture. But I’m learning, right? And what an expert I’ve become at the art of pipetting fluid volumes, small and large! Except that I really hope that I’ll pull it all together in time to have a thesis (and hopefully a few publications) by the end of this thing. And impress my professor somehow. Who happens to be chief of the-amazing-field-of-medicine-that-I-want-to-go-into. Who I’m pretty sure doesn’t even know my name at this point. Who I would really love to get a glowing recommendation letter from in a year’s time. I see her once a week at lab meeting, where my role is usually to say an apologetic sentence or two about how I’m still failing at doing the thing I thought I would have had done by now. She intimidates me (though really, I’ve gotten every indication that she is, in fact, actually very nice).

Anyway, back to what I talking about before. Lab work is quite a change of pace from 3rd year. A few months ago, I was regularly working 60-80 hour weeks. Now, I think 30 hours would be a generous estimate. In theory, I can waltz in whenever I want and leave whenever my work for the day is finished. And my “work for the day” usually takes no more than 3-4 hours. Apparently you can’t prod cells into growing any faster than they want to. I’m enjoying the break. Except for the part where, probably out of residual 3rd year guilt, I feel the need to stay and sit in my office after my “work” is done because, really, 1:00pm is much to early to go home. Of course, I rarely do anything more useful than mindlessly browsing the internet when I do this. But I’m there, so it should count for something, dammit!

So far, I’ve realized two things about myself. The first is that I’d rather work the long hours, as long as I’m not sitting around bored for any length of time. The second is that I never would have made it in grad school. By the way, I never realized how true PhD Comics were until now.

My USMLE study schedule

The road to a career in medicine is paved with standardized testing. There’s the SAT for college admission, the MCAT for medical school admission, a Shelf exam for each 3rd year clerkship, the 3-part USMLE, and then some arbitrary number of specialty Board exams depending on one’s specific career trajectory. As such, I’ve managed to become quite experienced in the matters of paying several-hundred-dollar registration fees, buying dozens of prep books never to be read, and procrastinating away all the study time that I had originally planned for…well… studying. I have enough experience, anyhow, to know my own habits. I’m scheduled to take the USMLE Step 2 CK in November, which means that I’m due for a freak-out session any day now. Hopefully that will motivate me enough to crack open the books that have been sitting idly on my shelf for the past 2 months.


I’ve managed to work myself into a horrible schedule. It goes something like this:

7:03am: This is when my first alarm goes off. I’ve set it for a little over 30 minutes before the time that I actually need to be up (which, you have to admit, is an improvement over the hour’s worth of snooze button presses that I used to require while I was in college). I think I must get some sort of masochistic satisfaction from using the snooze function over and over gain…

7:36am: Officially, I’m supposed get up at 7:35am, but somehow, it always ends up being 7:36am when I actually manage to drag my ass out of bed. I never could figure out where I keep losing that fabled extra minute– maybe somewhere in my half-awake stupor?

8:00am-5:00pm: This is the time I spend working. And by “working,” I mean “staring mindlessly at a computer screen and attempting to stay awake, all the while thinking about how awesome it will be when I can finally go home and take a nap.” I seem to muddle through somehow, though the details are quite mysterious to me.

5:14pm-6:56pm: MY GLORIOUS, BEAUTEOUS, SUBLIME, AND UNSPEAKABLY WONDERFUL NAP! …that is, until I wake up and realize that I’ve wasted the better part of 2 hours. Then I regret having taken it.

6:56-11:00pm: This is usually the time that I have to myself… dinner, work on websites, watch TV, yadda yadda.

11:00pm: This is when I start feeling guilty about not wanting to go to sleep yet.

11:30pm: This is when I really should go to sleep but don’t.

11:57am: This is when I usually finally make it to bed. I generally feel guilty for how late it is, but I console myself with the fact that: “Hey, it’s still before midnight!”

11:57am-2:00am: Tossing and turning and attempting to fall asleep. Of course, this is when I really start to regret having taken that nap earlier. There is also the occasional poking and prodding at Luke, my live-in boyfriend, because if I can’t sleep, he sure as Hell shouldn’t be able to sleep either!

~2:00am: This is about when I finally fall asleep. The cycle starts again.

The internet happens at night

I’m doing research at my school for the summer. It’s a clinical project, and most of my time is consumed in data analysis– generating graphs and muddling through Excel spreadsheets and the like. Anyway, there are 2 other students in my office who are there for the summer as well– one is an undergraduate at another school in the area, and the other is another medical student in my class. It’s an easy-going job, and we’re allowed to keep our own hours as long as we get in our requisite 40 hours each week.

What I find odd about these two other students is that, despite the flexible work schedule, they willingly get up at some unthinkably early hour in order to make it into work at 7:00am. Meanwhile, after having dragged myself out of bed at about 7:30am, I manage to haul my half-conscious self into the office at around 8:00am in an attempt not look like too much of a slacker in comparison. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being an early bird; I just find it incomprehensible.

I’ve always been a night owl and, left to my own devices, it’s not unusual for me to stay up until 4:00 or 5:00am and then to wake up at about 3:00pm the next afternoon. Most of my friends are the same way. We’re dorks, and the internet happens at night. Not that I’ve ever been a particularly social internet user, and I’ve never been able to answer satisfactorily the question: “What do you spend all that time doing?” …but that’s still the best answer I’ve ever been able to come up with.