A letter to my younger self: Looking back on residency

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published July 7, 2023

Key Takeaways

Dear Kristen,

You did it! You went after your dreams. You graduated college, were accepted into medical school, and matched into the residency of your choice. You traveled the world, made lifelong friendships, and worked incredibly hard to get where you are. However, you still have a long way to go. 

Focus on the journey ahead

I’m writing to you many years in the future, as a successful physician who worked for years in an ER, survived a global pandemic, nursed many heartbreaks, and made an unanticipated career change. I learned some important lessons throughout my career, and I thought they would be helpful to share as you journey through residency. 

You will encounter heartbreak from both patients and personal relationships. You will encounter success, both professionally and personally. You will make mistakes and learn hard lessons from them. You will experience loss. You will exceed in your residency evaluations and pass your board exams. You will be tired all the time. You will eat more junk food and drink more Red Bull than you could ever imagine. You will be buried in student debt and wonder how you will make it financially, but you will figure it out. I hope you find peace in the early mornings and late nights—your only alone time. 

"Everything will work out how it is supposed to, and you will find your purpose."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Ignore self-doubt

Even after passing endless board exams, graduating from medical school, and securing a residency position, you will still feel inadequate. There will be people who will tell you that you are not good enough—something you will also tell yourself. 

You will doubt your decision-making capacity and life choices. You will feel bad for being successful and creating a big, beautiful life for yourself. 

Remember that you worked for this, you deserve this, and you are good enough. Stop questioning yourself, stop apologizing for your success, and stop listening to that little bully inside your head.

Do not allow people in your life if they do not want to walk beside you with joy and pride. 

Befriend your nurses

Your nurses care deeply about your patients, and although some may be quite snarky with you, understand that they are working incredibly hard and have a wealth of knowledge.

Nurses can help you tremendously or make your life a living hell. They spend the most time at the bedside with your patients, so make sure you let them know how much you appreciate them, and keep them in the loop when establishing your patient care plan. Check in with them before rounds, ask them how they are doing, and then ask about how your patient is doing. They can provide a lot more information than what is documented in the medical records. 

Know that you don’t know everything

Medicine is a never-ending journey on a quest for knowledge. Even when you feel you understand new guidelines, remember that guidelines are constantly, unceasingly, updated, and you will have to familiarize yourself with those, too. 

"There is so much to learn about medicine, and the more you learn along the way, the more you will realize how much you do not know; and that is okay."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Delight in one of the silver linings of medicine: It is never boring, because you are always learning. Embrace this and stay humble. 

Bounce clinical cases off your colleagues, and discuss new treatment strategies and interesting publications. Fall in love with being a lifelong student. 

Remain human

Although you are a doctor (people will even call you a “real-life superhero”), at the end of the day, you are still a human being. Your family, friends, and colleagues will build you up, and it may make you feel invincible, but you are full of emotions, desires, hopes, dreams, and fears. You will make mistakes. Remember to maintain this humanity while interacting with your patients and their family members. 

Never think of yourself as greater than you are, but believe in your abilities and your talents. Show up as a human to your loved ones and colleagues. You are dealing with human beings daily, not textbook cases. 

Approach your patients with humanity, and you will foster greater therapeutic impacts than you could ever imagine. Your patients will remember you for how you made them feel. 

Approach your patients’ family members and loved ones with humanity, and you will give them hope and security during vulnerable times. Approach your colleagues with humanity, and they will work with you as a team to provide the best medical care for your patients. 

Continue to travel

Traveling can allow you to experience truly amazing things. Travel far and wide, learning how people around the world live. Embrace different cultures and experience humanity from strangers in foreign countries; bring these perspectives and life lessons back to the bedside and patient care. 

Allow travel to be your escapism, to fill your soul; collect lifelong memories that you hold close to your heart. Hold eternal gratitude for your privilege to travel, and always treat people you encounter with kindness, equality, and patience (even if you are stuck on a 10-hour bus ride in Africa with a bunch of chickens and goats in your lap). 

Cherish your relationships

At times, you may choose your career over relationships, and you may come to regret those decisions. Learn from these moments. Although your career in medicine is a priority, so are your relationships. Carve out time for people you care about and those who care about you. You are never too busy to spend time with a loved one. 

I believe these are some of the greatest lessons you will need for the long journey ahead; it is a worthwhile one that will change you in unimaginable ways. Keep these lessons in mind, and you will become a better physician and a better person because of it. 

Good luck on this adventure of a lifetime. 

Sincerely yours,

Kristen, from the future

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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