Studying medicine in Europe isn’t like studying in your home country. There’s a lot to think about. Things like learning a new language, adjusting to a new culture and leaving family and friends behind.
In this article I’ll talk through some of the bigger challenges involved in being a foreigner going to school abroad. Based on my own perspective as a British mature medical student.
Hopefully this might help give you broader insight. As well as explain more about what life as an international medical student can really be like.
Challenges of Studying Medicine in Europe: What You Need to Know Before You Start
This is a subjective list. Not all the things here will apply to your situation. But maybe they can help show you particular things worth thinking about. Remember also that challenges are where real personal growth comes from. They should be welcomed rather than resisted!
I’ve also included a bunch of stories from other students choosing to study medicine in Europe too – just for some extra context. Please note that what they say isn’t always positive either. So recognise you’ll get a warts-an-all picture here. One that isn’t trying to sell you on anything!
Language is the first real challenge you’ll face as medical student abroad. Studying in Europe though, for the most part, means there’ll probably be a whole lot of English spoken in most of the places you go. And I don’t mean just the English-speaking course you’re on either.
Take Bulgaria (where I study) as an example. Outside of the medical school and in the major cities, you’ll likely find a good amount of locals that have some knowledge of English. But while this can certainly help in getting things done (renting houses, shopping, getting things fixed etc), it brings certain difficulties too. 😢
Standard of English
The standard of English where you study will probably vary greatly. Certain tasks – especially the commercially-minded ones – will be easier to do than others. Outside of those? Some things can be very hard to get done. Especially if your knowledge of the local language is poor. So you’ll need patience.
In the first few months of your experience frustration will be normal. It takes a good amount of time to get going with most European languages. Even more so if you have to get used to learning different alphabetic scripts (i.e. with Bulgarian, Serbian, Georgian etc) too.
Then there’s the time factor. You’ll be short of time enough, given your full time status studying medicine. So finding the extra amount of hours to invest into a language on top of all the science stuff you’re expected to know also? Can sometimes feel a little unnecessary. Even it does help! 👍
Chances are you’ll have compulsory language lessons slotted into your normal timetable. That’s at least how it works for us in Bulgaria. Where we have classes for the first three years of study.
Later you’ll then be expected to use what you’ve learned in communication with hospital patients. This also has its own set of challenges also. Especially as many of the patients you see will be in a nervous or agitated state. Making understanding them all the more difficult.
Challenging but important.
Learning the local language then, given some of the challenges outlined, often becomes a low priority.
For many of us studying in Europe, our language classes simply fade into the background. And we sit in class passively. Dedicating and diverting our attention to the more serious subjects. Classes like anatomy, physiology and pharmacology.
These challenges are further compounded by the fact we know we’re unlikely to stay and practice medicine in our country of study. Leaving as soon as we pick up our degrees.
As a result? We put in even less effort. Closing down opportunities to learn more (from both patients and doctors) in the process.
Culture can be a big challenge for people new to studying medicine in Europe. Oftentimes it will be quite different from your home culture. And it can take months to adjust.
Don’t be fooled into thinking most European cultures are similar. That’s simply not the case. Eastern Europe, for example, is very different to the West. And not just in terms of climate either. Although it can get very cold!
One of the biggest challenges I’ve personally had to face adjusting to student life in Bulgaria? Dealing with local people. Sometimes I don’t get what I expect I’m going to get when it comes down to local behaviour.
That’s not to say Bulgarian people behave badly. They’re just different (at least by my British standards). And because of that a little unpredictable.
Sometimes coming across as cold or uncaring, I feel they’re misunderstood. In reality that’s just how things are. A cultural artifact.
The same could be said for us Brits too – always apologising. 🤦♂️
The greater point? Every culture has its differences. And people inside of these cultures act differently still. So having expectations that people should act this way or that, is a waste of your own time in the long-run.
Especially if most of the opinions you hold are negative too!
But still it can take some getting used to. And can be an additional stress piled on top of an already hectic time.
Culture and food go hand in hand. And they’re often hard to separate.
Getting used to new food, especially if you’re studying medicine elsewhere, can be quite the adventure. Depending which country you study in and where you come from; it could either be good or bad too.
Coming from anywhere to the UK? Given our culinary track record; probably going to be depressing. 😉
But I can’t say I’m particularly a big fan of Bulgarian food though either. Although it has some nice things.
Learning what’s good and bad to eat though, where to go and where not to go etc, can be a bit of a drag when it comes to down to it. Adding time to an already busy schedule, it can sometimes be a bit of an annoyance. Especially when you just want something quick, easy and healthy on the run. And not have to hunt around for tips and recommendations for hours beforehand.
Of course there are some ways to overcome not eating. A lot of foreign students (those looking to eat halal, for example) even bring suitcases of their own food over. While others find good local restaurants catering to their own tastes.
But to say it’s not a potential challenge – depending who you are and what you’re looking for – just wouldn’t be right.
Studying medicine, given the technicality of the training, can be expensive. European medical schools? All charge differently too. Meaning there’s no standardised cost of education across the board.
Study in a state school though – like you’ll be able to do in places like Germany, UK, Italy, France and Spain – and you’ll find course fees have a set price. That makes it easier for you in the planning. Even if access to these schools is typically more complicated and competitive in the long-run.
Usually you’ll have to do your research when it comes to private medical schools. So double check with the admissions offices too. Especially in countries where there’s a strong mix between both systems; the private and the public.
Some other ways in which money can sometimes present a problem; international travel and foreign currency.
Studying in Europe will mean you constantly have to think about when, where and how you’ll get home. As well as having to compete for the cheapest airline tickets.
Around the holiday seasons this can sometimes turn into a nightmare. It’s also a heck of a lot more difficult to get home than simply jumping on a bus or train!
Dealing with an unfamiliar currency too – with its ever changing exchange rates – can also prove annoying. Not to mention having to set up and operate a local bank account. Necessary if you ever want to get anything bureaucratic (i.e.visas – another annoyance) done.
I’ve known students unable to leave the country for months on end due to visa problems too. So it’s definitely something else to factor in if you’re planning on coming from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).
Oh, and now if you’re British. 😒
Europe, as you well know, is predominantly secular. That said, certain countries have their own religious communities. And their own sub-cultures too.
Although this isn’t a significant challenge – not to me at least – I can appreciate it can be difficult for others. Especially if they’ve grown up or become educated in different systems. Where religion is more at the centre of things.
The plus side is Europe is quite tolerant too (although I’m sure some might disagree). So you’ll generally be able to find a place to worship your faith – or at least be able to join a community of people who do.
So don’t let that hold you back. But recognise you’ll most likely be a minority too.
Another clear challenge you’ll face when choosing to study medicine in Europe? Understanding each country’s education system. As well as where each one stands in terms of the quality of the education delivered.
Coming into a new educational system takes some time to get used to. Bulgaria, for example, does University very differently to the UK (where I previously completed a degree). Splitting their years into two fifteen-week long semesters instead of terms of three.
For arranging summer jobs back home then – that work on different scheduling – this can pose a problem. Just make sure you familiarise yourself with your University’s course outlines and structure beforehand however. Then you’ll be better organised in the long run.
Something else you’ll likely find quite different is testing and examinations. Each university does their own thing in this regard.
In Bulgaria we have courses divided up into midterms (colloquiums) and finals. Final exam periods will be added on to the end of the academic schedule too. Meaning sometimes you’ll have to stay in the country longer than planned. Especially if you fail something and then have to retake.
The way exams are delivered might be different than what you’re used to too. You’ll do a lot of multiple choice-style tests (MCQ’s), oral examinations and open-ended writing. Sometimes these will be well invigilated, other times not.
The way other students approach their own education might also be something of a surprise. Effective study techniques you might have developed and fine-tuned? Might be completely unknown to them (and vice versa).
The trick is to stay open-minded. As well as helping out where you can.
Different European universities have varying standards and quality. That’s something I’m sure you’ll probably be aware of.
The challenge here, when judging, is to look for real sources. People inside these programs themselves – who can deliver honest insight and real perspective. Not the agencies who are seeking to profit from you by arranging your application.
At the end of the day, of course, you’ll get a European-standard education. But while this will enable you to practice in almost any country in the world – provided you meet their licencing/visa requirements etc – you absolutely have to check with the medical boards of the place you plan on working in.
Some European medical schools, specifically those in Eastern Europe, bounce on and off these lists all the time. Meaning your degree from one institution can be valid one year (in India, for example) but invalid the next.
That’s why it pays to do a deeper level of research beforehand. And try to find some real world graduates who are actively working as doctors having graduated from these schools beforehand.
Hard sometimes given the relatively short history of some of the programs out there!
Following on from quality is the topic of teaching. Again this might be very different to what you’re used to.
Studying medicine in Europe often involves being on an international course with a hundred-plus nationalities. To cater for all those people the teaching has to be quite plain and direct.
Given cultural and language differences then (professors having to teach in second-languages and explain some fairly complicated stuff), some students can get quite frustrated with particular teaching approaches. Especially if they themselves struggle to communicate at a high-level of English. Or don’t like a teachers style or tone.
Being a native speaker myself, this isn’t something that’s ever been too much of a problem. There has, on occasion however, obviously been things lost in translation. So I’m sympathetic to other students struggles too!
One final thing worth mentioning in terms of challenges? Lack of standardisation. Most courses give free reign to directors to shape and build their curriculums as they see fit.
As a result, the resources you use to learn a specific subject can differ from one university to the next. And are sometimes entirely University-specific (written by a particular professor etc). Meaning there can be some confusion.
As a student, depending on where you plan to work as a doctor, this can sometimes be a challenge. Especially if you are planning on working somewhere specific. Somewhere that requires board examinations for medical licencing (USA, future UK etc) for example.
One way to overcome this is to pay less attention to your university’s internal grading systems (as long as you do enough to pass). And more attention on board-specific or exam-specific study materials.
A medicine curriculum is a medicine curriculum. Studying for both will certainly help, but keep an eye on what you may have to know for the future.
I thought this deserved a section of its own. Because sometimes agencies add to the noise rather than help it.
I’ve listed them as a challenge for studying medicine in Europe because sometimes I feel they make things more confusing than they should. For those that don’t understand their role; agencies help students with their applications. As well as settling into student life abroad.
The problem with using agencies – of course there are exceptions – is that the service they provide generally isn’t worth the cost. Given the lack of information though, they are easily able to convince you otherwise.
What students interested in studying in Europe need to realise? Most of what these agencies offer can usually be done directly by students themselves. Provided they use a little of their own initiative.
A quick reach out to a University’s Admissions Office is a good first place to start. And from there most European schools will direct you what to do next. A process that is actually quite straightforward when it comes down to it.
Agencies also suggest they’ll help you find accommodation and settle in too. But my experience is they’re largely useless in this regard. And you’ll probably find something anyway using the University groups on Facebook.
One way they might add value however? Bringing you together with others at the start initially. This is something that can help you overcome the initial loneliness and thoughts from being far from home.
But even this you could ultimately do yourself. Just with a smartphone and a friendly personality.
To conclude this article it’s important to mention that studying medicine in Europe is, I imagine, just like studying anywhere else. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Foreign students however, in comparison to those studying at home, definitely don’t have it easy. Especially considering how quickly it is to get overwhelmed as a medical student in the first place!
So here is an honest perspective on some real challenges you might face. Should you decide to go down, what I still feel, is an excellent route.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in digital marketing and journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.