Opportunities for growth

The complexity of transitioning from medical school to residency

Similar to in medical school, residents may have to adjust to new rotations each month and navigate the different types of services within their program.


Transitions are a time for change, when one aspect of life shifts into another. In between the two frames, what the future holds is unknown. For those in the medical field, May through July is a time for the beginning of many transitions. In particular, fourth-year medical students will soon become physician residents.

Although I am delaying residency for another year, I feel prompted to share my reflections from different stages of transitions in my life to connect with you, the reader, in sharing these sentiments together.

As many philosophers and ancient texts have reminded us, change is the only constant in life. We experience the cyclical nature of life in ourselves and the environment. When we inhale, there is a gap and emptiness before the exhale and vice versa. The law of rhythm has taught us that flowers bloom in the spring and leaves lose their grip in the fall; weather changes by the day and we adapt to what we are given.

Yet, we can grasp so tightly onto what is familiar, without allowing life to bring in something new that could potentially provide opportunities for growth in character and resilience. In the moments of transition, there is an opening for renewal, and feelings of anxiety, happiness and uncertainty. As we lean into the unknown, we find opportunities to create a new path toward the marks we hope to make in this world.

What kind of changes to expect

As medical students transition into residency, there can be many changes in expectations, routines and living conditions, among others. Similar to medical school, residents may have to adjust to new rotations each month and navigate the different types of services within their program. With new rotations comes a new language and perhaps a foreign way of being. As medical students, this was the expectation every month when we moved from one rotation to the next. However, what has changed is that residents are directly responsible for the care of their patients. In addition, they may have to exercise leadership in situations where it feels unfamiliar to do so. In these moments, the process of transition reveals itself.

In between these changes, there is an emptiness, like the space between the inhale and exhale. Without knowing what comes next, we are given the opportunity to choose to repeat old patterns or pave new paths. If we create a new path, this allows us to release our tendency of clinging to expectations because our minds have not formulated a pattern of events yet. The next few years may thrust us into situations that ask us to be courageous and creative. Many other circumstances may have inspired this within us before, yet the degree of our responsibility to bring this out in ourselves may be unchartered territory in our personal development. This brings much potential for growth and expansion.

Throughout our lives, we have learned the art of trusting in ourselves in moments of doubt. During our didactic years, we wondered how we could retain the amount of information coming toward us. By way of inner strength and self-belief, we broke the barriers we held against ourselves by meeting higher expectations.

Then came the clinical years. We expanded our skill sets and adaptability by changing rotations each month, relearning different medical terms and specific questions to ask by specialty, all while adjusting to new sleep schedules. We learned to be chameleons, which is quite transferable as students enter residency, learning to play different roles that are asked of the moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about even more changes to many facets of our lives. Residents and medical students who experienced a pandemic amid their education have sharpened unique skills that are invaluable for their future. 

Trusting your ability to overcome

Through our time as medical students, we overcame unique sets of challenges. We learned resilience, teamwork and how to make abstract concepts become tangible. I have absolute faith that despite the vast changes coming for medical students transitioning into residency, the life experiences, knowledge obtained in the medical school curriculum and mentorship throughout the years will help new residents adapt and engage with their environment.

One of my closest friends, Shiva Barforoshi, MD, PGY-2, shares wisdom that was passed on to her: “You will never know your limits if you don’t face challenges and rise to the occasion.” As medical students, we haven’t been tested to the capacity that residents have, and because we haven’t, we also cannot place limits on our skills. I firmly believe that we come closer to our full potential through the obstacles we face. Steel sharpens steel.

My mother will often remind me, “If others can do it, why not you?” These words have spoken to me throughout my life in times of challenges and uncertainty. I pass this on to you knowing that if other residents have done it, so can you.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Weighing your options: Should you pursue a research year?

The top 3 things you can do to prepare for residency applications in the first 2 years of medical school

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