Articles and Case Studies

Balancing Life and Study as a Medical Student

28 Nov 2012

There is no perfect work–life balance. Everyone is different and needs change over time as personal and work commitments evolve. An important part of being a successful doctor is to consider your own health, wellbeing, and safety as well as your patients’. Developing effective habits that help attain balance while you are a student will assist you greatly in the future.

What happens if you aren’t balanced?

You’re unlikely to be effective and productive if you neglect your own health and wellbeing. Imbalance between work and personal life can cause:

  • mental health issues such as depression 2-4
  • stress 2-4
  • burnout 2-4
  • life dissatisfaction 5

What may be stopping you from achieving balance?

  • How easily you attain and maintain balance will change with different stages of your medical career. Medical students face specific pressures, including adapting to a new learning environment,2curricular stress,3 lack of time available for activities outside studying, 2, 3 and sleep deprivation. 5
  • You may want to work more hours and spend less time on personal commitments to get ahead. This is a common barrier because the willingness of doctors to be available over extended hours has been traditionally valued by the medical profession as a sign of commitment and professionalism.6
  • Your personality may cause you to overcommit professionally and stop you from being able to relax.4

A few strategies for attaining balance

Be confident to prioritise your own wellbeing when you get a chance and focus your time and attention on aspects that you can control. 

  • Spend time with friends and family. Good personal relationships act as a buffer when experiencing stress and provide important support during your medical training years.5,7 Plan your week: schedule time with your family and friends, or include a regular social activity.
  • Multi-task. For instance, combine exercise with walking the dog to the shops to pick up small grocery items. Or discover activities you and your friends or family all enjoy and can do together such as exercise, dancing or cooking healthy meals.
  • Take time off during holidays and between rotations.1,2  It may be useful to book a holiday or block out times and dates in your diary in advance. This could also include scheduling lunch breaks, dentist appointments, health check-ups, exercise, and family appointments. Remember to schedule travel time to get yourself to and from these appointments.8
  • If you know you won’t have time to spend on your personal life because of upcoming study commitments, plan time for yourself to recover.8
  • Find a mentor and discover the challenges they experienced during medical school, how they overcame them, and what they wish they’d done differently.2,3,5
  • Know your preferred learning style and use study techniques which will assist you to use your time efficiently when studying.9

During certain stages of life it may be more difficult to find balance. Set realistic and achievable goals by starting small and then building on the strategies that are important and that work for you at your particular stage in life. But always remember that your wellbeing is critical to everything you are trying to achieve.


  1. Rowe L, Kidd M. First Do No Harm: Being a Resilient Doctor in the 21st Century. Sydney: McGraw-Hill; 2009.
  2. Dyrbye L, Thomas M, Shanafelt T. Medical Student Distress: Causes, Consequences, and Proposed Solutions. Mayo Clin Proc. 2005;80(12):1613–22. Available here
  3. Dunn L, Iglewicz A, Moutier C. A Conceptual Model of Medical Student Well-Being: Promoting Resilience and Preventing Burnout. Academic Psychiatry. 2008;32(1):44–53.
  4. Riley G. Understanding the Stresses and Strains of Being a Doctor. Med J Aust. 2004;181(7):350–3. Available here
  5. Ball S, Bax A. Self-care in Medical Education: Effectiveness of Health-habits Interventions For First-year Medical Students. Acad Med. 2002;77(9):911–7. Available here
  6. Tolhurst H, Stewart S. Balancing Work, Family and Other Lifestyle Aspects: A Qualitative Study of Australian Medical Students' Attitudes. Med J Aust. 2004;181(7):361–4. Available here
  7. Markwell A, Wainer Z. The Health and Wellbeing of Junior Doctors: Insights From a National Survey. Med J Aust. 2009;191(8):441–4. Available here
  8. Allan I, Campbell B, Carter T, Doyle M, Goodchild S, Henderson R, et al. Balance: Real Life Strategies for Work/Life Balance. New South Wales: Sea Change Publishing; 2006.Felder R, Soloman B. Learning Styles and Strategies.   [cited 10 October 2012]; Available here


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