How to Fight the Study Blues


Study Blues

Studying has been on my mind a lot recently, or lack thereof. One of the hardest things about transitioning to dermatology residency was getting back into the mindset of studying after I get home from work. A lot of my friends are surprised when they hear that I still have to study. “Aren’t you already a doctor?!” they ask incredulously. Believe it or not, we don’t actually learn dermatology in medical school, so when I started introducing myself as a dermatologist in clinic this year, I actually knew no more derm than a medical student with a few rotations under her belt. Dermatology residency is the time to fill our head with all this knowledge about skin. Plus, doctors are pretty much studying for the rest of our lives (recertification exams every 10 years…at least!). So since I’ve been struggling with my books, I wanted to share a few things that have personally worked to get me out of my study funk.

1) Don’t psych yourself out. To be honest, I did not study consistently during the first few months of derm residency. The amount of knowledge I needed to know simply overwhelmed me, and I had a mental block around picking up my textbooks because I didn’t know where to start. So…I avoided studying. This obviously is not a good strategy at all. When you feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose, which is what I felt like in medical school, intern year, and residency so far, don’t despair. Stop yourself before you start getting unbelievably stressed. Instead of seeing everything you need to know as one large impossible chunk, set small realistic goals for yourself. For example, instead of looking at the 10+ dermatology textbooks I have to read, I say to myself, “Self, why don’t you try to read one chapter this week.” And if I can do more than that, I feel pretty good about myself. If you were sitting down to a huge feast you wouldn’t try to stuff everything in your mouth at once right? That would be disgusting and would not end well for you or anyone watching! Studying is the same; take in small digestible packets of information at a time. I really wish I hadn’t avoided studying simply because I felt too overwhelmed; I might be much further along today if I had just gotten over my anxiety to begin with!

2) Make some sort of schedule. This used to help me a lot when there was a deadline by which I needed to fill my brain with knowledge ie a test. If I knew I wanted to finish one book by the test date, I took the number of pages divided by number of weeks before the test (give or take 1-2 weeks for review at the end) and then I had a minimum number of pages I needed to read per week in order to be done with this book in a timely manner. I did make a schedule at the beginning of the year and almost immediately fell behind because of #1 above. Playing catch up is so tough! Make a schedule and try to stick to it. Use that discipline!

And if my inspirational talk is not enough, here are some gorgeous planners that will really get you in the mood to organize your studying!

3) Don’t compare yourself to others. This one used to get to me in medical school. Stanford Medical School did not have grades; it was a pass/fail system for the first two years. So I would be happily going along studying from time to time until uh oh! The test is next week! Then inevitably in a time of panic I would look around at my brilliant classmates and feel even more stressed out for 2 reasons: either A) this hardworking classmate lives in the library, only leaves to go to the bathroom, and will definitely set the curve or B) this genius classmate seems to be posting photos to Facebook of him doing everything fun under the sun except study…yet he still knows everything. Who cares about these other people though?*As in life, nothing is as it appears; you never really know how much or little others are studying, and it actually makes no difference in the relationship between you and your books. You need to just do you. Try to not compare yourself with those around you and just do your personal best.

* Unless you really have no motivation and have not picked up a book at all. Then by all means, compare yourself to others if that is the swift kick to your behind that you need to double your efforts!

4) Find out what your learning style is. This also took me a while but I think I finally realized what type of studier I am. I learned through trial and error. Group studying was disastrous for me because I didn’t learn well from the rapid fire quizzing each other technique. Studying with others actually made me feel worse because other people seemed to know so much more than I did. Reading textbooks and taking notes was an ok strategy, but then I realized I forget details days after reading them. Hearing things spoken at me was not helpful because it was in one ear and immediately out of the other. Finally I stumbled upon Anki, which is a downloadable smart flashcard app you can use on your computer, online, or on your cell phone. Anki is unique in that you can choose the difficulty level of a card after reviewing it, so a card you find easy, for example, won’t show up again for 4 days vs. a card you think is hard can be programmed to show up again in 10 minutes, all with the touch of a button. Flashcards have worked for me, and I like how I can do it in my downtime in line for the subway, for Trader Joe’s, for the bus (The amount of time I waste in my day standing in line is just sad actually). I do not work for Anki, nor am I getting paid at ALL for this post (in fact I shelled out $25 for the iphone app, my first and last purchased app EVER!). I simply am sharing this with you because this app has changed my life. OK fine, at least my studying life.

5) Most importantly, remember why you’re studying. At the end of the day, I was studying in college, in medical school, in intern year, and now in dermatology residency because I wanted and still want to be an excellent doctor. And let’s face it, you can’t be an excellent doctor if you don’t know things. When patients ask me questions I don’t know in clinic, I make a mental note to look that up later because I want to be able to answer their questions. Everything I’m learning and memorizing, even what seem to be stupid pointless details at the time, are going to help me become a better doctor one day. And when you put things in perspective like that, studying doesn’t have to be this big task you battle with everyday; it becomes a tool to get you to where you really ultimately want to end up. The thought of helping my patients one day with the information I’m learning now is what really keeps me going, and I hope that you can keep that in mind when you’re stuck in a study funk too. 

Do you have any other tips that break you out of your study blues? I would love to hear your strategies too!

10 Comments on How to Fight the Study Blues

  1. Petiteish
    December 14, 2015 at 3:59 pm (2 years ago)

    Hi Joyce! I enjoyed this post and can empathize with all of the above. I too did terribly with group studying and often felt like I knew the least when I compared myself with others. I’m also a terrible procrastinator, so… basically, it’s a miracle I’ve gotten this far! Anyway, I’m always interested in studying techniques because despite all the practice I’ve had with it, I’ve never felt like I’ve mastered studying. I always seemed to be cramming in one way or another. I tried anki but could never stick to doing them often enough to keep up with their built in schedules (maybe if i’d shelled out for that $25 app and could use it on the go! I remember the good old days when I had an android and the app was free). Personally, I really like the self-testing technique, especially if simulated in a realistic environment. I did this for mcats and all the USMLE test. I love programs like USMLE world. After doing each test, I review all the questions in detail and make notes so everything becomes more organized and easier to remember. I always struggle though with writing down too much (I used to highlight like 75% of my text books haha). I think I had something like 30 pages of notes for step 1… I also need to set schedules, but find that I inevitably get behind so I have to figure out how to be more realistic somehow…

    • Joyce
      December 14, 2015 at 5:42 pm (2 years ago)

      Hey Petiteish, so good to hear from you! Sounds like we’re pretty similar in terms of studying strategies (or sometimes lack thereof). It’s interesting, this year I really have felt like an MS-1 all over again because it has been really tough to establish a framework for studying. There’s a neverending supply of textbooks to memorize (derm = so…much…memorization) but I feel like I’m not understanding all the things I’m memorizing because I don’t even know the underlying pathology well enough. I wonder if rad onc year one will be similar? Anyways, I think what I ultimately realized was that I just needed to start SOMEWHERE and then push on through because eventually after seeing the same things multiple times things finally start to click and I can build knowledge on top of that. I’m still constantly looking for better ways to study though. Seems like a neverending journey…

    • Joyce
      December 14, 2015 at 5:42 pm (2 years ago)

      Thank you!

  2. Elyse
    December 14, 2015 at 6:17 pm (2 years ago)

    Great post! I don’t like group study because I’m very particular about my study conditions, but I studied with the same friend throughout all of medical school. I learn best by teaching, so we’d study separately and then teach the other what we’d just reviewed independently. Hoping for find a derm buddy for this next year, although it’s a little harder because so much of derm is memorization. Alex loves the online notecards too. I’ll have to suggest anki to him!

    • Joyce
      December 17, 2015 at 10:58 pm (2 years ago)

      Hey Elyse! Thanks for your comments. I think the learning by teaching method is great and I’ve heard of other residents meeting up once a week to do teaching sessions with their study buddy. Let me know if Alex finds Anki useful; I know a few of us at NYU are huge fans :)

  3. m0n.appetit
    February 20, 2016 at 8:24 am (2 years ago)

    Hi Joyce!

    I was wondering if you could show a brief tutorial how you use Anki to study? I just matched into derm as well and thought the repetition would be ideal for studying! It’d be really useful :)


    • Joyce
      February 20, 2016 at 8:18 pm (2 years ago)

      Hi Mon! Great idea! I will put that on the list of my “blog to-do’s”!

  4. Christine Kim
    November 4, 2017 at 10:59 pm (1 month ago)

    Hi Joyce,

    Thank you for your great advice. I thought it was super helpful, especially the first part about not psyching yourself out.

    Hope all is well! Keep up the good work!

    • Joyce
      November 4, 2017 at 11:13 pm (1 month ago)

      Glad it was helpful Christine! Good luck!


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