How to Survive Being an Interstate Medical Student

How to Survive Being an Interstate Medical Student

Feb 9, 2021

Written by Raffaela Skourletos

Raffaela Skourletos is a 4th year medical student at the University of Adelaide.

Starting med school is a big jump, but when you add moving hundreds of kilometres interstate it gets a little more complicated. Leaving family and friends behind, surviving financially,  deciphering Centrelink instructions and creating your own support networks  while pursuing full-time study is hard work at the best of times, let alone in a pandemic when state borders close with a moment’s notice. 

At times it may feel impossible, but as a seasoned interstater (as my peers and I have lovingly coined) I can assure you that you can most certainly do this. When my journey began as an 18-year-old leaving family and friends back home in Melbourne to study medicine in Adelaide, I was completely unaware of what lay ahead. I could never have imagined that within the first few weeks of moving I would be meeting the people I would come to consider family and with whom I share a whole new life. The beauty of such a life-changing transition is the immense possibility for adventure and growth that awaits you - get excited for it!

To make you a little more practically prepared for this epic change, I spoke to some fiercely independent and driven interstate medical students, Noa and Nikita, about how they managed their transition into the beginnings of their medical careers, far away from home. We talked about money, mental health and navigating a global pandemic while studying full time.

Noa Kolkovski 

Noa is a 3rd year medical student at the University of Melbourne who moved from Perth in 2019.

1. Why did you decide to move interstate to pursue your medical degree? What was the toughest part about making this decision? And the best part?

The University of WA was my first preference, but the year that I applied there was a transition from a post-graduate only course to an undergraduate course so they were only taking 20 post grads. I had no chance. My other preference was Melbourne Uni and this is where I ended up. The best part about moving to Melbourne was how I got to be part of a very dynamic city and a very diverse community here, much more than in WA. The toughest part was knowing that I would be leaving my boyfriend. That was a decision I couldn't make by myself because I have a partner that I've decided I'm going to be with long-term. I had to make that decision with him, and it was a lot of, “how much do you prioritise us and how much do you prioritise your career?” That was very difficult. 

2. How do you manage the financial aspect of living interstate? Have you developed any tips or strategies to get by? How does this change as you progress in your medical degree?

When I moved, my parents were both unemployed, so I knew there was going to be no financial input from them. In the first six months after moving, I was living off my savings. Melbourne Uni doesn't grant scholarships until midway through the year and from January to May I had no Centrelink because I was still dependent. That was pretty tough. I started med school in January with $9,000. By May, I had about a hundred dollars in my account. 

To get by, there were lots of overnight oats initially, I can't sugar coat that reality. It was like living below the poverty line, but I got a job six months in. My advice to anyone would be get Centrelink sorted before you leave so that you're not stranded. I also found that Centrelink actually covers your flights twice a year. It's called a travel flight allowance. Now I'm working two jobs, so I'm more relaxed with my finances. The major thing is to prioritise what you want to spend money on. For me going to the gym is important and drinking alcohol is not, so I don't go out for drinks.

READ: How to Hold Down a Job in Med School

3. How do you find managing personal relationships back in your hometown and your adopted home where you’re now studying? 

Let’s attack it in two separate ways. 

Building new relationships was really hard for me here. A lot of people coming from the Melbourne Uni knew each other from undergrad. That was reasonably hard to break through. You end up finding all the other interstate students and banding together. Going to a lot of the MD events and making sure I was in a club helped as well. Ultimately, it was also doing things outside of medicine so that I could meet other people, that made a difference. I joined a yoga class and put myself out there to have these opportunities.

My boyfriend and I had a pretty tough first six months apart. It was a lot of adjusting to the time difference. Going from seeing him every day and having physical contact to absolutely nothing for six months was very brutal and very taxing. It takes a lot of effort to make it work, but it can work, and it did work. We got into a routine of setting date nights, like Netflix party or cooking together over Facetime. I think the most important thing for our relationship was always having an end date when we knew I would be flying back or he would be coming here rather than not knowing when I was going to see him again.

4. Being a medical student already comes with a risk of developing mental health issues, but do you think the added element of being an interstate student has impacted your mental health at times too? How have you dealt with this added stress? 

The first six months in Melbourne was one of the most stressful experiences I’ve ever had as a human being. I was going to foodbanks every week, but I think I’m a very peculiar case because a lot of people coming into medicine come from highly privileged backgrounds where they have more financial support – that just wasn’t an option for me. I was more focused on eating three meals a day than studying. 

You miss the people you love, and you miss important moments in people’s lives like weddings, engagements, babies being born. You feel very isolated and it’s kind of like you’re living two separate lives – your Perth life and your Melbourne life. You’re sacrificing way more of your personal relationships as an interstate student than you are otherwise. 

From a mental health aspect, you need to pick time for yourself to do things you like and continue doing what you did back home. It’s hard to prioritise these things. For me, gym and baking are the hobbies I try to make sure I do. 

It’s really tempting to work over the holidays, but don’t do it. Your relationships are more important and taking opportunities to go back home is so vital to maintaining those relationships.

5. How did the Covid-19 pandemic impact your experience as an interstate student?

I think I might be the lucky one because I saw this coming. I could see this going really, really badly when Uni pulled us out of clinic last March. I got a flight to Perth before anything was announced. I actually spent all of March all the way up until June in Perth. I basically went about my normal life. The only difficult thing was the time difference – when you have an 8:00 AM class in Melbourne, it's actually 5:00 AM in WA. So that was not pleasant sitting exams!

Being home was bittersweet because obviously you want to be on the wards and progressing in your medical course as you should be. There were lots of worries about our grades but getting to do it at home was really nice.

6. What advice would you give your younger self before making this move if you had the chance?

You're going to think it's going to be easier than it is, and it's not. Take that in your stride. 

Get your finances sorted early, that is pivotal.And let go a little bit. Have trust in your loved ones, have trust in your friends, trust that they're doing everything in your best interest and that they love you and are supporting you. 

Nikita Devarajan

Nikita is a 2nd year medical student at the University of Queensland (UQ), originally hailing from Melbourne.

1. Why did you decide to move interstate to pursue your medical degree? What was the toughest part about making this decision? And the best part?

I applied to medical schools all over Australia which was actually quite difficult because I was living overseas at that time with my parents. I was unsure of the process when it came to medicine and applying to get into it in Australia. I was first rejected by every Uni in Victoria. And then when I felt most defeated this offer from UQ came through. I felt like it wasn't going to happen for me, but when the offer came through it felt like an absolute blessing. My parents were really supportive, so I took the offer and moved to Brisbane.

The toughest part was knowing that I'm going to be away from family and the uncertainty of everything. I didn't know anyone in Brisbane. I had never been there. I grew up with a very large extended family in Melbourne who are all still there. I think what made it easier was knowing that it was a postgrad degree, so I had my undergrad to find my feet and make sure this is what I wanted to do. 

The best part has been everything. The adventure of moving away from parents at 18 is just not done in my family. Even though I was a bit older, it was very unusual for me to do this, but I have learnt to live my best independent life. I've learned to look after myself, cook, clean, time-manage and I feel more self-sufficient and accomplished as a person because of it. 

2. How do you manage the financial aspect of living interstate? Have you developed any tips or strategies to get by? How does this change as you progress in your medical degree?

I'm really lucky. I had my parents support for a lot of it, especially when I was living in residential colleges, which are quite expensive. After that, I wanted to be as financially independent as I could. During my undergrad I had a lot of free time, so I worked almost every casual job under the sun from hospitality to retail to writing exam questions, tutoring privately. When I turned 22, I was entitled to Youth Allowance from Centrelink, which helped a lot.

It's mostly about time management and how you organise your day. For example, during exams, you really need to plan everything including how much time you're allocating to study, to classes, to self-care (relaxing, exercising, meal-prepping) which are non-negotiables. Whatever time is left is how much you can allocate to work.

3. How do you find managing personal relationships back in your hometown and your adopted home where you’re now studying? 

It’s a cliche, but we're so lucky to be living in a time where it's easy to FaceTime and video call. I message my parents and extended family whenever I can. I call my parents every day, and it's not because they want me to but because I want to, because I really do miss them. It helps a lot to be able to chat to them after a long, hard day. Planning a time, a week in advance, to call other friends and family is really good. I also fly down to Melbourne whenever I can to see them.

4. Being a medical student already comes with a risk of developing mental health issues, but do you think the added element of being an interstate student has impacted your mental health at times too? How have you dealt with this added stress?

I felt really lonely in the early days and that was very difficult to get through, but slowly as you settle, it does get better. Missing loved ones when you need them most really affects your mental health. It almost feels like the support you used to have is no longer there. 

Managing yourself and how to live and stay healthy is so much harder when you're living away from home, especially if you've had your parents helping you out with everything in the past. When I first moved out of college to a share house and was completely independent, all my free time was going into life admin and chores. I felt like I didn't have that support and time to relax that I used to have,which really affected my mental health. I just had to learn to become better at managing my time more efficiently, so I had some free time to myself to relax and unwind and not be stressed about whether I meal prepped or not. 

I recommend everyone have a therapist. Until recently I was not practicing what I preached, but now I've gone and sought out someone – someone who can actually help you realise how to manage your stress in these moments, especially for medical students when academic stress is already so high. Finding time for yourself in the week is the most important thing – whatever you may be doing, make sure you set aside hours to do what you love doing, like sitting and reading or watching a movie WITHOUT guilt. I learn a classical dance form as my hobby with a few other people. 

5. How did the Covid-19 pandemic impact your experience as an interstate student? 

It was an absolute wild ride. I went home to Melbourne in March last year and was there for the rest of semester one. Then the second wave hit, but I had left Melbourne. Semester two was normal for me, but my family was stuck in lockdown. I was sitting here worried about them every day and I felt terrible when I’d call them and ask about their days. I was so lucky to go back to Melbourne over Christmas though, but I had to change to my flight when the cases popped up in Victoria again. I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase over that summer break in case I needed to pack up and go again.

6. What advice would you give your younger self before making this move if you had the chance?

Be prepared for it to be absolutely wild and for things to happen that you weren't going to ever expect, but take it in your stride. Be okay with things not going to plan. You'll be just fine! See it as an adventure and take every opportunity.  And stop buying coffee every day!  

A bite-size guide to the wisdom that will get you through your interstate journey 

  1. Get your finances in order before you move. Don’t miss out on scholarships or government support. Sign up for Centrelink here: https://www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/individuals/centrelink. And scholarships: https://www.gooduniversitiesguide.com.au/scholarships
  2. Take every opportunity you get to visit home. Fare’s Allowance with Centrelink Youth Allowance/ABSTUDY will PAY for you to travel back to your permanent residence: https://www.servicesaustralia.gov.au/individuals/services/centrelink/fares-allowance  
  3. Get yourself a GP! It is so important to prioritise your health and this is a simple path to getting further mental health support through therapy. Find your nearest one here: https://www.amsa.org.au/gp-map 
  4. Stay connected with loved ones at home. You’ll need to hear their voices after a tough day. If you’re feeling the FaceTime fatigue, hop onto Netflix Party: https://www.netflixparty.com/ 
  5. Get involved in local hobby groups or committees at Uni – your friendly neighbourhood MedSoc or yoga class are some great place to start! 
  6. Homesickness is very real and normal, but when you stop feeling your normal self; it’s time to reach out for help. You are never alone in this. DoctorsHealth have a 24/7 hotline for doctors and medical students to call when they experience mental health distress. https://www.drs4drs.com.au/ 
  7. Stay on top of Covid-19 related travel restrictions as they vary between states. Trust me, you do not want to get on the wrong side of a hard border. 

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