Remember when you were in high school and you were on study leave - fondly recalled as Stuvac, Swotvac or something of the like. Remember how you stayed home from school and had no other job except to focus on getting your essays right, science fact memorised and those mathematics equations understood? Remember how your mum or dad used to bring you sandwiches and glasses of water? You weren't expected to clean, socialise or take responsibility for anything except for your impending exam. In fact, you were actively discouraged from doing so.
But we are not in high school anymore, and the reality is that there are some responsibilities we have as adults which won't go away. We have to feed ourselves, clean up after ourselves and look after our kids if we have them. We have jobs and partners, and overall life is a lot more complex than it was when we were teenagers.
About two months before I sat my radiology part two written exams, my husband pointed out a few things to me. I was burning out, he was burning out and there was a free long weekend in our calendar. We decided to take a trip to one of our favourite resorts which is an hour or so drive away. The clincher - I was instructed to bring my study stuff and I could study by the pool, so that we could mingle our family time with my study time. Over the days of our break I mixed meals with my kids with reading on our balcony which overlooked the ocean. I sipped cocktails by the pool with a highlighter and a textbook in hand - looking on while the other three members of my family splashed in the hotel pool. Essentially, we had removed the stresses of home and my family (and myself) had given me permission to study. I came home feeling refreshed and focused.
This getaway got me thinking, and I proposed a plan to my husband. What did he think about me coming back (on my own) for six days a week before the written exams. Happily, he thought it was a great idea and the 'study-cation' was born.
Leaving behind household responsibilities
One of the great things about Stuvac in high school was that you were exempt from household duties. One of the beautiful things about the study-cation is that you are similarly off the hook. There is someone to clean your room everyday, which conveniently gives you an excuse (and permission) to go for a walk to clear your head, or vacate to study in a different location for a change of perspective and focus. If you are focused or exhausted, there is someone who will bring you meals directly to your room. If you fancy a drink to help relax and recharge, there is a bar only a short walk away to fulfil that need. You immerse yourself in total self care.
I found that choosing a location which was a significant travel distance from home was particularly important when in making this work. If you are (for example) 20 minutes drive from home, you might still feel the pull to come home if there is a minor crisis or inconvenience. If you are a significant distance away, you realistically can't just pop home so you mentally remove the option from your mind. Voila, more space to focus on storing those facts.
Changes of scenery
Studying from hours on end becomes both a mental and physical strain. Removing yourself from your home environment into a hotel environment, in a picturesque location can, however, provide a myriad of study locations and new sources of calm and inspiration. When your mind starts to wander, a change in scenery can snap you back into focus - or allow a break studying something a little less challenging.
I would wake in the morning and start studying at the desk in the room - pen and highlighter in hand as I filled the gaps in my knowledge. After a few hours of this I would grab some breakfast and perhaps a short walk, taking a case book or iPad with me to keep running through. From there I might head back to the room to read a textbook on the balcony overlooking the water, or settle pool side with some notes and a highlighter to sit by the pool. Over the course of my six days I reviewed practice cases in the hotel lounge over WatsApp with my study group, sat on the beach with a textbook and sipped the occasional cocktail while I read.
Mostly, I would finish my day the same with past papers in bed, FaceTiming my family before I gave myself permission to have an early night's sleep. I'm a morning studier, so this suited me just fine.
For trainees with children
One of the hardest challenges that trainees sitting exams face is how to best balance time with their children against time spent studying and preparing. There are no right answers here, and it is hard not to sound callous at times. One thing I did ask my daughter was "Please - let mummy do this. If I can do this well, you get me back sooner." While the concept of delayed gratification won't work for all kids, I was lucky that it worked for her. Occasionally, she would sit quietly with me while I ran cases and drew me pictures to keep me going.
The reality is, however, if you are in a house with these tiny people who mean the world to you - you are going to have divided focus. Especially in the immediate lead-up to the written exams, I found it easier to completely remove myself from home. Mentally, my family gave me permission to do so which was phenomenally helpful. The emotional load of arguments, stress of the school week and even the drain which comes from school pick-ups and drop offs were off my plate for the week so I could concentrate my reserves elsewhere.
Did this work?
I walked into my written exams nervous, but prepared. I felt that I had done all that I could, and a large part of that came from the focused study I gained from my week away. I called it a success.
When my husband came up to his fellowship exams last year, we gave him the option for a study-cation before both written and viva exams. Since his exams were in a different state, he flew up five days early and set himself up in a hotel room which overlooked the beautiful Brisbane botanical gardens. He had room service brought to him and crammed for five days straight - punctuated by visits to the infinity pool. His verdict? That week gave him what he needed to get through.
I did the Study-cation again this year for my nuclear medicine science exam, however the mistake was that I didn't give myself enough time. That said, two days of study-cation was certainly better than nothing, and I think it gave me a significant edge in my preparation (I passed, all good). I think the mental sweet spot may be 4-7 days.
Some final tips for getting the most out of it
If there is something you definitely need in your study space, make sure it is in your room. I do my best study with a pen in hand, so it was very important that I had a room with a good desk. This came back to bite me with my accomodation for my viva exam, as the airbnb didn't even have a dining table I could write at. Cue meltdown which wasn't helpful at that stage. (ProTip: the Victorian State Library is four blocks from the exam venue and has free internet).
If there is something special about the location or a reason you chose it, make sure you have access to it. Since I was studying near the beach, I ensured I booked an ocean view room.
Balancing the travel requirements may be a little tricky. You need somewhere far enough away to offer the mental space, but close enough that the travel is relatively stress free. You also want to be able to take any notes and books you may need, so travelling by car rather than air may be more practical.
Ensure that you have a plan for internet access, whether that be through the hotel (check the rates and deals beforehand) or data to your mobile (make sure that your plan carries it). You will no doubt find many holes in the knowledge which need plugging over the days that ensue and you don't want to add stress by adding issues of connectivity.
If you study with pens or highlighters, remember to take extra as you won't have access to your regular stationary shop (if this is something that is important for you). I had a jar for dead pens and highlighters on my desk during the week, as a small reminder of the work which had been done.
Remember that everyone studies differently, but this may work for you. Give yourself permission to be focused and to allow things to be done for you. You have worked hard and deserve it!