How to Maintain Strong Relationships During PA School
It has been said there is an art and a science to medicine. The same consideration should be said for relationships when one or both individuals are studying medicine. In large part, I attribute the joy of being accepted and graduating from a physician assistant program to my husband’s support. In fact, we celebrated our first wedding anniversary during the first weeks of my PA program!
Throughout the entire process of applying, interviewing, completing didactic and clinical year, passing the PANCE, and securing a position, there were a few key lessons that helped us work together and continue to grow as a couple.
From discussing the requirements of applications to studying for the next big exam or skills test, communication between a PA student and their partner is crucial. I learned that being honest with my husband about my personal needs, how I study, and how I schedule my time set expectations for us both.
Plan out your time together
I liked to look ahead at the syllabus prior to each semester and plan for difficult weeks (number of exams and group projects, difficult material, additional activities beyond a typical work week). This allowed me and my husband to plan menus for the week, determine when we’d need to order takeout, and schedule time to spend together without distractions.
Keep track of your expenses
Espresso pods for our home machine, coffee runs between lectures, and gas to commute to and from clerkship sites adds up quickly. My husband and I kept a monthly tab of expenses, including amounts for my required expenses (gas, tuition) and desired expenses (coffee, eating out, clothing). This gave us an idea of what the bills would be each month so we wouldn’t have any surprises, avoiding potential stress in our relationship.
Clearly define your expectations
Working out (even if it was a 30-minute walk), studying every weekend morning, and practicing skills tests on my favorite patient (my husband) were all activities I recognized were essential for me to destress and perform at my optimal level. My husband wanted to have time without me studying, eat dinner together at a reasonable hour, and have a regular schedule on the weekends. Talking about what each of us needed to continue to function and have a nice life together allowed us to support each other through difficult weeks. Proactive communication allowed us to understand why we each act the way we do.
Along with communication, we used calendars and sticky notes to use our time efficiently. Each Sunday, we planned our menus for the week over breakfast, shopped for what we needed, and listed the meals and upcoming exams/skills tests on a large desk calendar in our kitchen.
Block off study time
Early in your PA program, you will learn the way you study best. While developing a study routine, it helps to block off time to study. This includes time to sit in a quiet room and focus while working through your PA Qbank, reviewing notes while traveling to family events, or asking your significant other to quiz you or be your simulation patient. In turn, all of the available non-study time you have can be spent together going to the movies, going on walks, working out, and going out to dinner.
Spend your time off having fun
Allocating your time also allows you to plan time without distractions. Although coursework and clinical rotations can be unbelievably overwhelming, the time within each is finite. This means you can plan vacations or day trips during breaks. My husband and I used a day to go to the beach, go ice skating, or binge-watch our favorite show. Balancing the time to be productive and time to relax allowed us both to have targets to look forward to and motivate us during the difficult days.
Appreciation for each other
While being a PA student is one part of your experience for a period of time, your relationship will hopefully continue beyond graduation day. It is important to understand that the stress of being a student in a rigorous medical program is shared by your significant other. Whether your partner is cooking dinner while you review or sitting patiently as you complete the neurological skills test, the stress of your program is shared collectively. That’s why it’s important to make a point of celebrating your significant other and how much the relationship means to you.
Make small gestures
Impromptu gestures can be simple, sweet, and show how much you love your partner. My husband traveled often for business, and prior to closing his luggage, I would write a thank you card or special note letting him know how much he means to me, a funny memory, or why I was thankful for his love. He would find the notes and send me a sweet message in return. It made the time spent in lecture or clerkships easier.
Send messages during the day
Disposable time like the break between lectures, time before your clerkship starts, or a study break is all usable time to search for favorite photos, video, or funny images to send with a quick message to your loved one. My husband and I used favorite photos and videos to help lighten stressful days or just send a sweet memory of life before PA school. I still have some of my favorite conversations saved to look back on today. Sometimes a quick “I love you” and sappy photo is more than enough to help smooth out the day.
Your time spent with your significant other sharing the successes and hardships of living through PA school will, hopefully, strengthen and deepen your relationship. Above all else, remember PA school—like other stressful events (a wedding, meeting your partner’s parents, filing your taxes)—is a finite period of time, and once you’re through it you will look back and say, “Remember when…”
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Get a little more clarification
Read tips from a PA about how to tackle didactic year, including these topics:
- How to study the organ systems
- How to study if you're a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner (or any combo of these styles!)
- How to study for skills tests
- Use your Rotation Exam Qbanks to determine your "unknown unknowns," as described in the article How to Boost Your PANCE Score (this tip is perfect for rotation exams, too!)
- Learn about the podcasts, resources, and note-taking strategies four PAs swear by in the Rock Your Rotation Exams blog series
- Pay attention to the topic lists and blueprints for each rotation exam because the content changes for each one