COVID-19 Advice for the JCU Community - Last updated: 8 June 2022, 12pm (AEST)

Publish Date

2 March 2022

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Canadian Dr Marishka Shah moved halfway across the world as an 18-year-old to study medicine at James Cook University.

“I initially struggled with medical school and being distant from my family, but over the years I settled in well and now call North Queensland home,” says Marishka, a junior doctor at Mackay Base Hospital and 2021 JCU graduate.

Just after her graduation, her brother, Parth, joined her in Australia to start his Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery, convinced by her five-star reviews of the JCU experience.

Marishka is continuing to follow her passion for mental health advocacy and medical education after serving as JCUMSA International Students’ Representative (2018), JCUMSA Wellbeing Officer (2021) and founding the INSAKA Year 1 Tips & Tricks Night (2017 onwards).

“Be kind to yourself” is the core message of Marishka's comprehensive 10-point guide for new medical students:

Congratulations and welcome! Here are some things I learnt as a first year but wish I knew sooner.

1. Take a few weeks to settle in

Once the race starts, it’s hard to slow down. The first few weeks are great for making friends and learning the layout. In terms of study, try to set up a system early. JCU Medicine has an ‘integrated’ curriculum – this is a very efficient model of learning, so use it to your advantage.

In first year, the week starts with an introductory lecture for each module (four in total), which delivers the bulk of the content. It is followed by a Guided Learning Session (GLS) mid-week, and this helps consolidate your learning through workshops, workbook activities, practicals, and group tutoring. These sessions are an excellent chance for group study and team building. The Synthesising Session (SS) is another lecture near the end of the week, and is designed to summarise and highlight key topics. You have the chance to ask questions and may be quizzed on your understanding. Finally, an Integrative Session will link the topics to problem-based learning (PBL). There are other sessions such as Homegroup (one-hour group-learning session with your appointed mentor) and Clinical Skills Tutorials (where you can learn and practise your applied and procedural skills).

Take the time to set up a system that makes this structure work for you! For example, you could pre-read for your Introductory Lecture and make your own notes that you bring to the GLS. Or maybe quiz yourself before the SS so you’re ready to answer all the GoSoapBox questions that will inevitably be thrown at you. Rinse and repeat!

If you take the time to set up a system, you will be ahead of the curve and won’t need to rely on SwotVac (a.k.a. Revision Week) to relearn everything.

Parth visits Marishka in Mackay before starting his JCU medical degree this year.

Photo: Supplied

2. Make a plan

You will have lots of different commitments – lectures, workshops, study groups, social events, part-time jobs etc. Planning is essential.

A wall calendar may be a good place to start, but a digital schedule is the best resource to ensure you allocate enough time to your study commitments, assignments, and personal wellbeing. I used Google Calendar for the entire six years and I had a folder for everything – including sleep and exercise! Mastering your environment helps alleviate any stress.

3. Stay on top of your content

This may sound logical, but it’s easy to put things off when we’re tired and overwhelmed. Keeping up can be half the battle.

I massively underestimated the amount of content we needed to cover at a relatively fast pace. The content doesn’t slow down, but it does it get easier to cope. Develop a strategy that works for you and stick by it. Avoid cramming at all costs, it is not sustainable and is a straight road to burn-out.

I struggled with retaining old information (as in what I learned three weeks ago). It wasn’t until my clinical years that I learned of the magic of spaced repetition. It is the most evidence-based method for shifting data from short-term to long-term memory. It works best by using flashcards – try Anki or Quizlet.

4. Study smart

Knowing everything is impossible. Learn to prioritise the most important information and start there. You can access the weekly learning goals on Blackboard, and that’s often the best place to start. Medicine is an expansive topic; it can be hard not to get caught up in the trivial details.

Most first-year topics can be covered by lecture slides and GLS content alone. You can always access the prescribed texts to clarify something, but no one expects you to read/know them back to front. If you’re unsure about learning expectations, talk to your lecturers. They are always happy to clarify.

Some more study tricks:

  • Use the Pomodoro Technique! It you’re a procrastinator like me, this is a lifesaver.
  • If you plan to make notes, consider summaries or a Cornell template. This way you can stick to the key points and stress less about the minutiae.
  • Allocate time to study, don’t just study when you have time! Some of my first-year friends would treat it like a job – work hard 8-5, then take the evenings off.
  • Teach back. This is great exercise in group study. Ask each person to teach the rest of the group on a topic. This forces you to identify gaps in your own learning and also feel more confident about the topic.
  • Weigh the utility of study groups. If they work for you, get started early so you form a good group dynamic and study schedule.

5. Embrace imperfection

Most medical students have Type A personalities and struggle with not performing perfectly. There is no denying medical school is challenging.

You are going from a school/program in which you excelled, to a medical college where all of your peers are bright and capable. It can be hard to find your footing and you may struggle with imposter syndrome. It can be hard to not compare yourself to your peers and you may question whether you fit in. Trust me, you do fit in. You made it this far, and if you are struggling, then everyone around you probably is, too. I guarantee every one of you will feel overwhelmed with the amount of content; this is normal. Embrace the challenge and remember why you chose medicine.

JCU Medicine's Class of 2021.

Photo: supplied

6. Get involved and try new things

Keep an open mind and try as many different things as you can! There will be plenty of social events in first year. If you are interested in leadership, many of the medical societies are looking for Year 1 Representatives so sign up early.

JCUMSA offers four seats to first-year students as academic or social Reps. Joining these communities is a great way to incite the change you want to see. Don’t limit yourself to medicine. JCU and Townsville have lots of different societies, too. There is a local theatre in which many students choose to get involved. Townsville is a lively and multicultural place, and there is so much to see. If you feel like being close to nature, there are lots of local parks and Ross River is a great fishing spot. If you are missing Melbourne’s foodscape, visit Palmer Street for some nibbles.

7. Look after yourself

Adopt the lifestyle and preventative health advice that you will be giving your patients.

Sleep is important for memory consolidation, so don’t cut back to keep up with study. Allocate time for sleep, and keep track of it. Use your technology to make your life easier. A good fitness watch or sleep app can plug your sleep data in your calendar automatically. This way you can make sure you’re getting enough Zs.

Don’t be your own doctor. Find a local GP. JCU Health offers bulk billing, and for international students they will send claims directly to Allianz. Medical students have a tendency to become hypochondriacs, and a good GP will reassure and educate you well. Get your annual check-ups (book in now!) and visit them when your mental health is suffering.

8. Build good habits

Snack healthily! For the first few years, my cohort was lucky enough to have Woolworths only two minutes away from our lecture hall. I had enough almond croissants in first year to last a lifetime. Now that Woolworths and IGA are gone, prepare for those long lecture days by bringing a healthy lunch and keep some nutritious snacks in your bag just in case. As tempting as it is to reach for the sugar and carbs, as a med student, you will know the importance of nutrition and a well-balanced diet.

Exercise. Try to move around – even if it’s just going for a 15-minute walk each day. Physical activity will influence your mindset positively and improve your study abilities. Studying doesn’t have to be stationary either – I love listening to medical podcasts (like On The Wards) during my evening walks. JCU has a gym and sport clubs if you like exercising with others. The gym isn’t for everyone so find something that makes you happy. JCUMSA puts together a Bollywood Dance troupe annually. JCU has a hiking and fishing society. Check out the clubs website for more info.

9. Relax

You will be incredibly busy as you begin this new chapter in your life. Medical school is an exciting time, and you should by all means, take advantage of the opportunities. That said, you’re always going to be busy and it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

Carve out time and find a way to relax that’s meaningful to you. Whether it's procasti-baking, reading, watching Netflix, or a trip to Airlie Beach. Townsville and surrounds have great things to offer – the Whitsundays make for a great weekend trip. Some other great relaxation techniques include meditation, mindfulness and conscious breathing.

At med school graduation, my friends and I talked about all the things we had given up on over the past six years. Please don’t let this become you. Whether it be music, dancing, sports or paragliding over volcanoes – stick to it! If you allow it, medical school can take over your whole life. Instead, focus on incorporating medical school into your life and not the other way around.

10. Access your supports

A healthy mind is just as important as a healthy body. Be open and honest with both yourself and others when you find things difficult or are struggling to cope. There are lots of supports out there is you need it, so don’t be afraid to reach out.

JCUMSA, in liaison with JCU College of Medicine and Dentistry, made this flowchart to guide our students in accessing resources within our community. As a first year, often your first point of contact is your Homegroup facilitator. This person may be able to reassure you, help you, or guide you in the right direction.

JCU has trained counsellors whom you can access either by directly contacting their office or by speaking to your academic adviser. JCUMSA also has wellbeing officers who are familiar with these resources and can provide peer support.

Recognising and knowing when to see help can be difficult. If you are having trouble gauging your mental health, you can use a self-assessment tool like DASS-21 to detect low mood, anxiety, or stress; or just visit your GP! This can be the indicator you need to initiate a conversation about your mental health with a trusted professional or loved one.

BeyondBlue has a comprehensive resource library for anyone going through a hard time. Rates of fatigue and burnout are very high in the medical community, so watch out for signs of this in yourself and your peers.

Final words for your first year

Medical school is not easy. And starting your first year in the midst of a pandemic, away from your family and loved ones, in a new city among strangers is incredibly tough. But don’t underestimate your strength and drive. Remember that good self-care is a basic survival instinct, so invest in your wellbeing and practise self-compassion because that will carry you through to the other side.

You got this. All the best!

Thanks to Marishka for sharing her tips and tricks for medical students. Find inspiration in the stories of Marishka and Dr Nickolas Robinson, and fellow 2021 graduates including Dr Joshua Liaw, Dr Alex Russell and Dr Abbey Godwin-Smith, Dr Annabelle Faint and Dr Sachin Joshi.

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