Deakin medical students reveal what it’s like to study online

20 July 2021

Yes, you can start your medical degree online

study medicine in Australia
What’s it like to study medicine online?

COVID has knocked everything for a loop, especially for university students studying medicine. Should you continue studying in person? Online?

Can you even study medicine online?

Meet two medical students, Hannah Julseth and Preshon Pillay, who are in their first year of studies of the Doctor of Medicine program at Deakin University. They have graciously offered to document their online studies experiences, so future MD students know what to expect!

Studying medicine online
As medical students currently living in Canada but studying at an Australian medical school, explaining the complexities of our situation to interested strangers or well-meaning family members and friends can get… confusing!

For that reason, we have put together a short list of frequently asked questions that have come up throughout our first semester of study. We have also included some of our personal impressions of what it has been like for us studying our first year of medical school online and from a distance. We have tried to be as honest as possible, including both the ups and downs of online study, in order to paint the most realistic picture of what it has been like to start medical school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We hope that our perspectives can help to inform the realities of online study for other incoming students, as well as offer some ideas on how to answer questions from your own family and friends!

deakin university medical school student
Hannah Julseth

Overall, what have been your general impressions of studying online at Deakin?
H: Overall, Deakin offers a close-knit community of faculty and peers. Although I do think that the school could have done more initially to support the unique challenges faced by international students regarding their transition to online med school throughout a pandemic, overall I have appreciated the perspectives and attitudes offered by those involved.

P: I have been really pleased and excited about the actual content that we have received at Deakin so far. Our professors and teaching assistants have done as much as they can to ensure the online learning environment is as good as it can be. However, there has been a lack of clarity and some frustration in the support for international students specifically, with regard to the steps being taken to help international students’ return to Australia. As with all universities, this has been especially hard since they are not the ones who have control in these decisions but rather more the state and federal government.

How has the course/program content changed to accommodate online learning?
H: Throughout the first semester, all our lectures, small group sessions, workshops, tutorials, and labs have been conducted entirely online. For the most part, this means that all the content we are receiving now is exactly the same as what we would have received in person, but we are just sitting at home in Canada instead of in a lecture theatre or classroom in Australia. The only things that have been noticeably impacted are exposure to hands-on 3-D lab experiences and in-person clinical skills sessions. Although it is sometimes frustrating to be in medical school without being able to do the fun, hands-on “doctory” aspects of our training, the school is planning on running in-person intensive sessions for us to catch up on specific skills when we are finally able to travel to Australia. In the meantime, we were sent some medical equipment in the mail so that we can practice basic skills from home.

Deakin university medical school student Preshon Pillay
Preshon Pillay

P: In our first semester, the entire first year med cohort was online. This included all domestic and international students, and thus everyone got to experience everything similarly, including our lectures, workshops, and tutorials. This worked pretty well and I felt like I was receiving the same education as everyone else. For the second semester, the domestic students will be having a few more tutorials, workshops, and group sessions in person. Although the school has accommodated for out-of-state-and-country students by still hosting these online for us, there surely will be a bit of a difference in our depth of understanding without the hands-on exposure and visualization of certain things in person. Obviously this is not ideal, but in making this alteration we were able to continue our studies in the second semester without deferral, which was a big win in my books!

How have you found managing time zone differences?
H: I have been living in Ontario throughout my first semester at Deakin and therefore have had to deal with a 14- to 15-hour time difference. Although I was nervous about the time change at first, I found that I was able to structure my schedule in a way that I actually preferred more than traditional schedules. For example, due to the time change, most of my classes began at 6 p.m. and typically ran until 12:30 – 1 a.m. at the latest.

Although the late night classes were difficult to adapt to at first, I began to enjoy having a more traditional 9-to-5 working schedule during the day for personal study. From previous experience, I’ve always hated having to stay up late to study after a full day of class, so the flipping of my schedule worked to my advantage, as I could study in the morning while I was fresh and focused!

P: I have been living in British Columbia during my studies at Deakin and have had a better time zone difference compared to my colleagues out east. For the most part, classes have started in the afternoon, around 2–3 p.m., and have gone to midnight at the latest. Although this change has basically flipped my schedule around, I have quite enjoyed having classes at this time and having time to study and prepare for the day in the morning. There are some days where the 10 p.m. onward classes are a bit hard to concentrate in, and for some of these, I generally just watch the recordings the following morning to ensure that I am fully concentrating. Overall, the time zone differences have not been a major hindrance and it has been manageable.

How has being online influenced your ability to make connections with your colleagues?
H: Throughout our first semester, domestic students had not yet returned to campus and therefore all our classes, small group sessions, workshops, and labs were run online. International students were mixed into groups with domestic students, which provided a great opportunity to meet peers and get to know people academically.  However, because Australia had very reduced COVID restrictions throughout the first semester compared to Canada, domestic students would often self-organize in-person meet-ups and socials outside of class hours, which we (obviously) couldn’t attend. This was very difficult, as it was easy to feel left out from events and opportunities to make new friends. That being said, this challenge taught me the value of not being afraid to put myself out there and initiate conversations, as people are normally very friendly, welcoming, and receptive!

P: As Hannah mentioned, in our first semester, everything was online for everyone so it was a pretty even field for both domestic students and international students abroad. I was able to make close connections with the rest of my international cohort as well as my main PBL (problem-based learning) group which included all domestic students. There have been a few in-person events in Australia that I have been sad to miss out on, but I have felt that most domestic students have been very receptive to having a chat or helping in any way to make our experience similar to students who are in Australia.

Have you been able to get involved in extracurriculars despite being online?
H: Definitely! Although you may have to be strategic about which positions you apply for or events you participate in due to limitations of not being physically present, it has been pretty easy to get involved. For example, I have primarily gotten involved as the Social Media Coordinator for a club at Deakin called Skill-it Kitchen. In this role, I am able to attend meetings, assist with planning of events, help run social media, etc. all from a distance. From my experience, socials are a great way to get involved despite challenges of time change and distance. Extracurricular teams are typically very accommodating of scheduling differences to ensure you are included as much as possible. Just don’t forget to advocate for yourself if you’re interested in getting involved with an extracurricular from a distance, as people won’t know how to include you properly unless you speak up!

P: Yes I have been! I am also actually the Social Media Coordinator for the Emergency Medicine Club at Deakin (I see a trend in roles for international students… ha ha!). But in seriousness, this role has been great because I have been able to get involved while being away from the action per se. Clubs have still been running some events and it’s been a great way to help while not being in the country. I have also been able to help with some mentoring of students looking to begin their medicine journeys in Australia! There are definitely lots of opportunities and it is up to you to take advantage of them—but they are available. One thing I do miss is being involved in recreational sports leagues or more sports types clubs, but I am looking forward to joining these once I get into the country!

How has your overall well-being been impacted by online/remote learning?
H: There is no denying that med school is tough, but with the added pressures of time differences, long days of screen time, and social isolation due to the ongoing lockdowns in Ontario, building the motivation to study can seem even more daunting. Personally, the initial transition to the pace of med school during a pandemic was a challenge, particularly as I adjusted my schedule to having classes at night. However, it’s so important to find balance between time for study and time for yourself. I found that taking time throughout the day to exercise, meditate, speak with a friend/loved one, make a nice meal for myself, or do anything else for fun was very important in maintaining that balance. Also, be patient! It’s okay to not be perfect at doing all of these things all the time, but setting aside a couple of hours a week to prioritize my well-being was really helpful for me in feeling productive later. When you do take breaks, try to get off your screen if you can to give your eyes and brain a well-deserved rest.

P: Personally, I do not think the actual online lectures and learning has had that much of an impact on my well-being; however, the continual uncertainty with not knowing when I might be going to Australia for sure has. To add to that, I think starting med school during a pandemic has been extremely tough. The online portion would not be that detrimental if we were still able to have social interactions and study with our fellow international friends, thus the first semester was not super easy or smooth-going for myself, and it was hard to find that motivation in some cases. However, moving forward with Canada opening up I have been able to begin enjoying some more stress relievers such as team sports, hanging out with friends and family, and also not just being isolated to my living room to study (I forgot how nice it is to study in fun cafés!).

How have you found learning/adjusting to a new culture despite being online?
H: It has definitely been strange trying to learn about Australian culture while still being immersed in what you are used to at home! That being said, I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn about Australian culture from a distance, as this offers more time to reflect on and educate oneself about both the good and bad aspects of settler Australian culture, without being thrown in all at once. Personally, this has been very important, as it has given me time to begin learning about how I as an immigrant (and future doctor) can respect, serve, and uphold the values of traditional land owners and indigenous communities.

P: To be honest, I have not found it very hard to adjust but I also feel like I have not been immersed in Australian culture fully. I’m sure once I am in Australia there will be a lot more nuances and cultural differences that I will have to pick up on. One really awesome thing about Deakin is that it is considered a “rural” medical school, even though it is only 1 hour out of Melbourne, thus there is a big focus on rural and Indigenous medicine. Through our course load so far, we have delved a lot into Indigenous health and it has been great to learn more about the traditional landowners of Australia.

What’s the funniest or most interesting Australian quirk/colloquialism you have heard?
H: This is very difficult, because there are so many! So far my favourite general slang words are “keen,” “reckon,” “brekkie,” “yah nah/nah yah,” “old mate,” and “sweet as.”  The most unusual thing to get used to from a medical perspective is small differences in pronunciation of words or spelling of terms, such as oesophagus and oedema instead of esophagus and edema.

P: Ooooh this is a tough one for sure! I do find it funny when all my classmates complain about the weather in Australia during their winters and I compare it to our summer days and it’s almost the same temperature! To add to Hannah’s list, “arvo” meaning afternoon is one that always catches me out.

When are you going to Australia? What are you looking forward to the most when you arrive?
H: As of writing this, we are still not certain when we will be able to travel to Australia. Changing situations with politics, vaccine status and availability, and COVID-19 lockdowns in Australia make it difficult to know when international students will be given the green light to enter the country. However, we are hoping to get there by the end of 2021, prior to the beginning of second year. I am most looking forward to in-person clinical exposure, the warm weather (comparatively to Ontario), living close to the ocean, and exploring with my partner and new friends!

P: I always joke with people that they know as much as I do about this when I get asked this question. Unfortunately, as of right now things are still very unclear and with more lockdowns taking place in Australia and their low vaccination rates it is unlikely that we will be able to enter before the beginning of second year. There have been some pilot programs approved so I am hoping that med students can be some of the first to head into Australia! I am most looking forward to meeting all of the wonderful people I have been studying with in person as well as getting to have that clinical exposure!

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your study so far?
H: Despite all the challenges with online learning, the most rewarding aspect so far has been enjoying finally being in medical school. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to be grateful for what we have, and I am so incredibly privileged and appreciative for the opportunity to pursue a career that I love. Many students work very hard to get into medical school, and that hard work definitely doesn’t stop once you actually get there. However, as cheesy as it sounds, when things feel tough it’s nice to take little moments to celebrate small wins and think about how far I’ve already come. That perspective is a great driving force to get through the challenges, and I would advise incoming students to also reflect on what will inspire them to stay motivated during the hard times.

P: To me the most rewarding thing that has come from my study so far is the cementing that medicine is what I want to pursue for the rest of my life. Coming from a non-traditional undergrad of mechanical engineering, there has definitely been a sense of imposter syndrome. However, I have been absolutely loving all of the material we have been studying so far as well as learning about all of the different paths medicine can take you (I am still discovering new specialties that I did not even know existed!). I would also have to say that I have some great colleagues so far and am super excited to continue my studies with them and hopefully meet up with them in person soon!

Curious to learn more about the online learning experience? Check out these articles!


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