Medical Residency: Breaking Down Preconceptions

Medical Residency: Breaking Down Preconceptions

Feb 11, 2023 Published by Kathrin O'Neill

Table of Contents

It’s almost the end of your school year and you’re facing yet another inevitable decision in life – medical residency. You’re almost there and a little bit of a push will go a long way. But first things first. When you prepare for battle, you don’t just sharpen your tools or assemble your gears, you also need to be aware of what’s waiting for you so you can be ready for whatever comes your way. Before you take the first step into the real world of your chosen practice, you ought to know what people have been saying about it – which is true and which will stay as a myth. To better prepare you for medical residency, I’ve talked to medical practitioners who have completed their residency training and who are happy to share some truths and debunk preconceptions about life as a medical resident.

Medical residency is different from what most people expect it to be. It is the period after medical school where you specialize and work under the supervision of a senior doctor. The duration depends on your specialty and the country to which you’re applying, but typically lasts anywhere from one to seven years. If we go by one rule, though, it is that the longer the residency, the better it is for your career as a physician, because along with gaining more experience comes the confidence to handle patients.

The preconceptions about the life of a medical resident depend on one’s perspective. For example, in the eyes of my relatives, I’m already a doctor, instead of a doctor-in-the-making; but in the eyes of my patients, I’m still a medical student who doesn’t know what I’m doing or why I’ve chosen medicine in the first place, especially when I can’t even get find a good vein for a blood sample.

However, the new graduates and inexperienced medical students only have hearsay to base their opinions on. So without further adieu, here are ten preconceptions about residency and the corresponding truths you should know.

Myth 1: Survival of the Fittest

The very first myth that exists about life as a resident is that it’s nothing but endless war with no rules. While it’s true that your life will not be an easy ride and you need to be extremely hardworking and dedicated, you don’t necessarily have to fight for it. Just like any other field, there is a hierarchy in residency – seniors, juniors, and then the toddlers – but unlike other workplaces where seniors tend to be strict and the proteges get the worst of everything, the system in residency training is pretty different. You’ll learn more from your seniors than they can ever learn from you, so it’s a win-win situation.

And if there is any predicament between a senior and a junior resident in your unit, the entire department works together to sort out the issue. No one wants to work in a chaotic, tension-filled environment so people are usually understanding and supportive of each other. That being said, no matter how supportive they are, if you can’t handle yourself and play by the rules then you may not be liked by your seniors, juniors, or other colleagues.


A truth that can be seen through countless examples is that people are always respected for their work and not for their age. When you do good work, the seniors don’t forget about it but if you slack off or give less than your 100% best, everyone will notice. No one cares whether you’re a couple of years junior or senior as long as you can do your job and help the department be a great team. There may be times when you experience power-tripping or discrimination among your colleagues, but it’s not going to last long. If you have proven yourself as a good resident, you will earn the respect of your peers. Conversely, if after their warnings you still don’t make the effort to change or better yourself, then you have to deal with the consequences. Either way, you’ll survive as long as you put your heart and mind to it.

Myth 2: The Hospital is Your New Home

The second most common misconception about life as a resident is that it’s nothing but working long hours and staying in the hospital ad infinitum. People think that because you train in the hospital, it becomes your new home. Indeed, you need to put in the effort to finish all your tasks on time, but these days the hospitals have become smarter and the workload isn’t nearly as bad as it originally seems. Yes, there are places where people work for 24 hours, but this scenario only occurs two or three days a week, depending on your program, nature of work, and the responsibilities assigned to you. As for spending time in the hospital, there are times when you need to stay around for post-call or on weekends but the residents are still entitled to go home to sleep, eat properly, and study the cases of the patients they were handling. Eat. Pray. Love.


Naturally, you learn more in the hospital from the hands-on training of your junior and senior residents. Nevertheless, you don't need to stay in the hospital 24/7 because all your medical practitioners know that you need rest to function well. Besides, there will still be a lot of learning to do at home. While you want to be there for your patients when they need you, you’re also obligated to study and research their cases so it's still necessary that after long hours of duty in the hospital, you make time to go home, refresh your mind, and prepare for the next day.

The main thing to keep in mind is that you need to effectively manage your schedule in a way that you’re able to fulfill all your responsibilities and still have time for rest. If you’re a workaholic and want to spend as much time as possible in the hospital, then go ahead, but make sure you plan your schedule properly. Otherwise, there are chances that you’ll pay for it later, as burnout can come at any point in time if you don’t take care of yourself well enough.

Myth 3: Residency Training is Nothing but Underpaid, Less Skilled Work in the Hospital

The third big myth about medical residency training is that the residents are just hired hands to pull off all the dirty work of running the hospital and get paid peanuts in return. In truth, the most important aspect of any job is that you’re there because of your skill and not simply because of the promised compensation. You may be looking at a humble salary but for all the hard work and years you put in, residency training is more than what they pay you for. For those studying medicine, the goal is to become a well-trained doctor and also to serve as a physician in the future, so it’s not about the money.


Nonetheless, in residency programs, one of the most common goals among residents is not money but rather learning how to be a good doctor, which is why people often choose the field over better-paying professions. No matter how good your degree is, if you can’t get residency training, then you might need to take a difficult path before you can put your knowledge into practice. Therefore, it becomes impossible for you to make money sooner from working as a doctor! So you see, everything in this profession is about gaining knowledge and skills which aren't always motivated by money.

Myth 4: Say Goodbye to Your Personal Life as a Resident

You may be working long hours but that doesn’t mean you’ll never have time for anything else outside the hospital. Residents do the work most of the time but it disproves the thought that they never get any time off. If you’re following a good training program then it means you have an assigned consultant to whom you report your work and studies so your bosses know when you need some free time for yourself. It's also true that life as a resident is demanding and you’ll have to give up on certain things. However, with strategic planning, discipline, and strong will, you'll be able to plot out your schedule in such a way that you can take some time off after long hours of duty.

I even know a lot of residents who love going out by themselves or with their friends and are able to manage their hobbies. Everyone, especially medical practitioners, knows and advocates for leisure time now and then so you don't completely neglect yourself, which is what often causes depression during residency training.


There are times when resident training gets tough and it can feel impossible to take a step back for a while and just relax. However, if you find the discipline and the will to balance your time and keep up with your schedule, you will always be able to take a moment for yourself and enjoy your work as a resident.

MYTH 5: Learning Medicine Means Gallons of Coffee and Less Sleep

You might need copious amounts of coffee during your residency training but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should be learning medicine on a few hours of sleep. That is one of the biggest myths about residency training and I know a lot of people who tried it themselves only to end up feeling burned out. Medical practitioners know that when you’re sleep-deprived, you’re not fit to take care of your patients. Sleep deprivation is also one of the leading causes of depression among residents. It’s going to be challenging to hold the stress of the residency training with the false perception that you’re not supposed to sleep as much.

With regards to the myth about coffee, energy drinks, or any other fillers, they may seem unavoidable because these could help out when you're sleepy but these must be minimized as well because it will keep you away from real food or proper rest.


Remember that this is just a myth! You don't need coffee or anything else to keep you awake to survive residency training. Medical residency is a very fragile experience and you'll need all the energy you can get to accomplish what needs to be done. You must learn how to maximize your waking hours to follow a proper sleeping routine. With this kind of regimen, you'll be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle and balance which means you'll always be in tip-top condition and ready to complete the tasks at hand.

Myth 6: The Doctors are Too Busy To Help You

Another myth that people believe in is that your seniors are always too busy to help you, understand your work, or just go over things with you. Many times, juniors think that they are left alone to fend for themselves and that they don't have anyone who cares about them. Technically, there are so many reasons why you can't expect your seniors to bail you out of trouble every time you need help.

First of all, there’s a probability that they won’t be working with you in the future so spoonfeeding you or helping you too much might not help you make a good call as a doctor. It would also mean they fail their mission to provide training on what must be done when you are on your own. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care because their name is also at stake if something bad happens due to a mistake on your part or lack of supervision.

Again, their “duty” is to provide supervision and training, not just to you but to every single resident that they are leading. They have several obligations, so it's not always easy for them to accommodate your needs if it comes at the expense of how well their team is doing. But they will never be too busy when you need to talk to them about your patients or any other medical matters that will help you out, as these are the kinds of problems they're all too familiar with.


Your seniors may be busy but they will never ignore your needs or questions. Remember that these are also people who have undergone the same challenges in residency training so they understand what you're going through and they can help you if you just ask. They are especially open when you need their opinion on any medical learnings and they'll never hesitate to correct you when necessary.

Myth 7: You Have to Be Book-Smart and the Best in Everything to Succeed

There are a lot of residents who think that they have to be the best in everything if they want to finish residency training, get good evaluations, and make good impressions among their seniors. Unfortunately, these people don’t have their priorities straight because being book-smart is just one characteristic that is important, but it’s not everything. Realize that there are decisions that must be made based on your perspective and gut feeling. People will form their impressions based on the good work that you’ve done instead of what you wrote on a report or how well you memorized everything written in textbooks.

There were times when a resident may be in the spotlight for having excellent grades and being on top of everything during classroom-based learning, but they could still be the worst among all of their peers when it comes to providing postoperative care and patient treatments. You can't always rely on your book knowledge because you'll never know what kind of situation is going to happen at a certain time and how you're supposed to handle it. This is why being book-smart isn’t the only characteristic necessary for success.


The truth is, there are a lot of things in medicine that you can only learn when you cover them yourself. Being book-smart is just one of those prerequisites that will help you get through your training, but there are times when it won't be enough for you to make a good diagnosis and reach the right conclusion. More than that, different patients have different symptoms and if you want to learn everything and become a great doctor, you need to rely on your senses and the little details that people tell you about their health.

Body language shouldn’t be disregarded as it can say a lot of things about a person’s current state, especially if they're experiencing something out of the ordinary or just trying to hide something from you. In this case, being book-smart won't help. Rather, empathy and the ability to read body language will do the trick. This is where your gut feeling comes in so you need to let yourself go and act on what your instinct tells you about the situation rather than just blindly following the number that's written on a file or report.

Yes, it is expected for your seniors to be impressed at how well you can memorize all of their teachings, but they will notice how much compassion you feel for other people as well as how easily you can relate with these individuals based on what they tell you or through their behavior. More than anything else, they will be more impressed when you demonstrate how much effort you put into everything that you do and when they see that you're not afraid to ask for help whenever you need it. These are the things that will be observed by your superiors so practicing these qualities will take you a long way.

Myth 8: Asking Questions is Bad

There are times when the residents believe that if they ask too many questions, they might get on the bad side of their seniors. Some physicians might not be into teaching or some are just not used to doing it, thus, certain residents limit themselves from asking something that is probably bothering them for a while. They'll just pretend like they got everything right and hope that their teachers will not get the picture that they don't understand everything that they're teaching.

No matter how perfect you are, there are moments in medicine when you can only learn by exploring them yourself. There is no way for you to memorize every single thing related to the field, so integrating what your superiors teach you with the things that you learn by yourself will be helpful. If you don’t ask questions, how are you supposed to confirm your understanding? By doing this, your teachers will also notice how serious you are about improving and how patient you are in trying to comprehend everything even if it takes a while to sink into your mind.


The job of a doctor isn’t to just diagnose a disease and find the right treatment for it. In reality, the patient’s recovery is in your hands. Therefore, a resident should know the patient’s condition to provide the suitable care necessary. Hence, asking questions is vital in the field of medicine and if you don't know something, it is expected for a physician to ask. The answers you seek can piece the puzzle together and solve a case or condition you’ve been trying to amend.

Myth 9: You Must Know All About Medicine Before Entering Residency to Survive

This is another popular myth among first-year residents and it's an understandable one. The new residents strive to remember everything they’ve learned from medical school as they want to turn their knowledge into wisdom. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It is very crucial to be aware of the patient’s background to get a better comprehension of his or her condition. This only means that there's the tendency to forget some of the things you learn during medical school. And sorry to burst your bubble, but the time and pressure sometimes don’t allow you to think freely and there's a high chance you even forget a specific medical term. Recalling all your lectures might cause stress. That's why it's best for you to just focus on what your current superiors are teaching because that’s what matters at the moment. They will even help you remember your previous lessons through present demonstrations especially if you're having a hard time understanding them.


One of the most important things that you should know when joining residency is that there are two kinds of people who always make it through: those who are quick learners and those who don't mind trying again just so they can get what they want. The first few weeks can be very challenging especially when you're thrown into the deep end of the pool. If you're willing to learn, everything will go well. Just keep in mind that even your superiors started somewhere and that they know what it feels like to be in your shoes, so before you give up, just try asking for help because that’s primarily the reason why they are ahead of you.

MYTH 10: Residency Is Just an Extension of Medical School

When people think that residency is just an extension of medical school, it naturally seems like everything that was taught at this level must be repeated all over again as there must be no significant changes between the two. This is a myth. Everything in residency training is new and every field has its own set of guidelines. It’s not just about learning how to diagnose and treat different medical conditions anymore. People’s lives are at stake and this is fundamentally one of the reasons why medical residency is not just an extension. It is the application of medical schooling where one could die with one small mistake, such as forgetting to do a skin test or neglecting elementary duties.


The truth is that you're always going to face a new set of challenges every day, especially during your first year. And since this is probably going to be your first time taking on those responsibilities, there is a bigger chance for you to make a lot of mistakes along the way.

Sometimes you'll think you got everything covered because you read about the topic in one of your textbooks, though when you finally experience it firsthand, you'll realize that you're not as prepared as you thought you were. Of course, this is a part of the learning process and it will help you become a better physician in the future. Fortunately, you have your consultants during residency training who have been through the same situation and would love to help you out when you need it. If ever you're having a hard time coping with what's going on around you, ask for assistance, take time to listen to them, and make the most out of their training.

The Bottom Line

Residency training is a whole new experience that comes with a lot of responsibilities that will help you become a more competent physician as time goes by. You will learn all kinds of things that you haven't ever heard of before, such as more complex illnesses or complicated procedures. You will also learn how to mature and grow together with your fellow residents. The sense of fulfillment that you're going to get after all these experiences will be more than enough for you to realize that everything is worth it in the end.

Residency training also gives you the chance to become a well-rounded doctor who is ready to handle different situations. This means that if ever an emergency occurs, you will be one of those people whom patients rely on. This may not happen right away but you'll see its positive effects after some time.

These preconceptions and their corresponding truth are the main focal points of this myth-buster article. There are some misconceptions about residency that need to be clarified or debunked for people to get a better idea of what it is about. Most importantly, you are finally out in the field. Experience it for yourself and you'll understand why so many people have been raving about how their first year of residency is one of the most fulfilling years in their professional career.