Avoiding Burnout

4 Tactics to Avoid Burnout While Studying

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Burnout is a real and growing problem in healthcare. In 2021, 63% of physicians reported experiencing burnout, up from 38% in 2020. Unfortunately, the problem starts in medical school. Studies show that up to 50% of medical students experience burnout, and that medical students are more likely to experience burnout compared to their nonmedical peers. Numerous factors contribute to medical student burnout, including school-related stress, financial burden, and the rapidly changing landscape of medical education. One of the most overwhelming stressors for medical students is the vast amount material that they have to learn and master. Here, we present 4 tactics to avoid burnout while studying in medical school. 

1. Keep the big picture in mind.

You are in medical school to learn how to be a physician. Remember? That’s why we all came to medical school in the first place. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re lost in the coagulation cascade or on question 200 of your practice exam, but it is so important to keep the larger goal in mind.

For one, the big picture will help to put your life into perspective. You are studying to be a physician, and at the end of the day, being a physician is a job. It’s a pretty important job, but it is just a job. It’s not your entire life. It’s important to take the job seriously, but nobody should ever take anything so seriously that it diminishes their mental health. By treating medical school as a job, you can hopefully create some boundaries and set aside time that is intentionally devoted to things outside of school – time with family, friends, pets, or even just yourself.

The big picture is also critical for the understanding the material that you’re studying. So much of medical school involves memorization of nitty gritty details. Anytime you’re learning a topic, try to keep in mind the big picture. For example, if you’re studying all the different components of the intrinsic coagulation pathway, take a step back for a minute and think about why the coagulation cascade is important. Anytime there’s injury to our blood vessels, the process of hemostasis involves two steps, right? In primary hemostasis, an unstable platelet plug is formed, and in secondary hemostasis, the coagulation process helps to stabilize that platelet plug. So many times, in medical school, our lectures and test questions ask us to zoom in on super specific details. In the long run, zooming out and viewing the big picture is how we can best make sense of things and remember them for the future. That’s also how we start to see things in the context of real-life patients, reminding ourselves of the ultimate goal – learning how to be a physician so that we can take care of patients.

2. Focus on the learning, not the numbers.

When you’re taking exam after exam in preparation for the boards, the only feedback that’s often offered is numerical—how many questions you answered correctly, and how many you missed. These numbers can sometimes make us feel terrible. We start to judge ourselves, and we let these numbers affect our self-worth. But do these numbers tell us if we’re going to be good physicians or not?

Of course, not. You could score in the highest percentile on all your USMLE exams and still fail to take care of your patients with compassion and humility. It is really the compassion and humility that matter most when you’re taking care of real patients. Nobody knows everything in medicine, and that’s why different specialties exist. When you’re practicing as a physician, it’s less important to know everything, and more important to realize what you don’t know so that you can look it up when you’re going to care for a patient.

When you’re studying for exams, the same concept applies. There’s no way you can know everything. Oftentimes, the exam questions challenge us to use what we do know to try and make an educated guess. We won’t always be right, but that’s okay. Often times the questions we get wrong are the ones we remember for the rest of our lives. When you see a score, try to ignore the number and worry about what it means. Instead, focus on looking at the concepts that were tested in the questions. Do you understand the concept? Does it make sense? Focus on the learning, not the numbers.

3. Make studying fun.

The reality is that studying will take up most of your time in medical school. If you can find a way to enjoy that, you might end up having a good time! So how do we make studying fun?

The answer to this question is different for everyone. Most of the time, the key is to strike a balance between many different forms of studying. Learning in medical school usually starts with a lecture or a reading, and then gets reinforced through space repetition and application. Find out which methods work for you – whether it’s writing or drawing out your notes, talking through topics with a study group, or reviewing material via flashcards and practice questions. If you do any one thing for fourteen hours a day, it will start to get boring. The best way to keep things interesting is to mix it up and use a combined approach. And keep in mind the other elements of studying that help make it fun. Are you visiting a favorite coffee shop, are you making sure you have good brain food, or do you have a calming music playlist to help you focus? Curate your environment and content so that studying is as cozy and enjoyable as it can be.

The other key piece to making studying fun is making things make sense. When we’re trying to learn or review concepts we don’t understand, it’s not fun, because we feel confused and overwhelmed. It’s important to find good resources to review the materials in a way that breaks them down step by step so they make a lot of sense. When you can break down concepts into bite-size pieces of knowledge and apply them to a big-picture understanding, you are much more likely not only to remember things but also to enjoy the process of studying.

4. Establish a support system.

At the end of the day, medical school is incredibly challenging, and most people cannot get through it by themselves. Having a support system is so important for wellness. The more people you can weave into your network, the better.

It helps to have some part of your support system be familiar with medical school, so they can understand and relate to what you’re going through. On the other hand, having people outside of medical school helps a lot too, because these folks can help add unique perspectives and often distract you from medical school when you need a diversion. Keep your friends and family close in medical school, whether it’s through dinner every once in a while, or just a short phone call when you have time. Stay connected with your network. These are the people that will help to lift you when you’re down, and also proudly celebrate your wins.

If you ever feel alone, or that you don’t have any support, or that your support system isn’t helping, it’s important to recognize that and seek help. (For more information on mental health resources, see our previous post on Managing Stress in Medical School.) Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Remember, we have to take medical school seriously, but not to the point that it sacrifices our mental well-being. It’s okay to take a step back and take care of yourself if you need to. In fact, it’s a must. 


Most medical students will enter medical school with a very positive outlook. As they should! It’s an amazingly fulfilling process, and it’s an incredibly humbling and enlightening experience. However, throughout the journey, there are a lot of challenges – academic, emotional, social, and more. It’s usually when one finds themselves caught up in the nitty gritty claws of studying a difficult topic or a low test score that the stressors start to poke at that optimism. If there are too many stressors or they start to seem constant, that’s when burnout can set in.

The best way to deal with burnout is to avoid developing it in the first place! Some simple strategies to achieve this are to (1) keep the big picture in mind, (2) focus on the learning, not the scores, (3) make studying fun, and (4) establish a support system. So much of medical school is about having a balanced mindset. Hopefully, these tactics will help you stay positive!

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