Work life balance is an important issue for anyone and everyone (with the obvious exception of those who don't have to work to afford a living...or conversely, those who are dead). However, the general impression that most of society has about med students is that the balance is tipped heavily towards the "work" side.
Before I share my thoughts on work life balance as a med student, I want to make a disclaimer: this is my perspective only...an obvious disclaimer maybe, but a very important one. I say this because for most of my post high-school life I have been warned about the horrible work life disbalance associated with the decisions that I was making. In high school, my teachers warned me that university, particularly engineering, involves consistent all nighters and long days hunched over books in the library. These teachers were clearly unaware of the digital revolution that would allow me to be hunched over a monitor in my home instead. Regardless, they were very wrong as I had an amazing time at university. The balance was tipped far to the life side, I did not study that much and I only ever pulled one all nighter (building a robot that would seek magnetic sources) while still being very successful. This was similar for most of the people I met in university. Sure, there were different periods where we didn't go out as much, particularly during exam season, but for the most part, most of us had a great time through university. I say most because there were certainly some individuals who had to work harder to understand the material taught in lecture, which resulted in them spending more time studying. I certainly respect these people for their dedication and perseverance, but they were definitely in the minority.
Next, when I finished my undergraduate training and I was offered a job at Microsoft, people were quick to tell me stories they heard about their friend's uncle's dog-walker's brother who was worked hard at Microsoft and never saw natural sunlight, much less his family. This was a particularly terrifying prospect for me because I am fairly opposed to developing osteomalacia. However, during my time at Microsoft, I had an amazing work life balance. I worked hard for 8-10 hours a day, but I had my weekends and evenings free and I was well compensated. I was able to manage this balance while still being successful at work and even being promoted at the end of my year there. Of course, in this situation again, there were individuals who were working much harder that I was...hacking away in front of their monitor all day, but they were the minority from what I saw. Keep in mind that I was only really exposed to one team at Microsoft, other divisions may have been run differently. Also, I was a junior employee and only there for a year. If I wanted to work my way up the ranks, I may have later had to work longer hours, I have no idea.
If you got anything from the above stories, I hope it was that you shouldn't whole heartedly take anyone's opinion about the work life balance of anything. My experience through med school thus far is my experience and every other med student has a slightly or very different set of experiences.
I have been able to strike an excellent balance between school and life throughout the first two years of med school. I go out at least twice a week with friends/family; I play soccer competitively and I can make it to two practices and two game per week; and I'm interested in research so I do that on the side, in moderation, throughout the year. I also have an awesome girlfriend, which I normally wouldn't mention, but I think it is relevant here because relationships do require a reasonable time commitment. I'm able to do this and still stay on top of the material being taught. However, in order to maintain this balance, I have to be more disciplined than I ever have been before. I barely ever procrastinate and I have made some sacrifices. I didn't think I could manage playing both soccer and hockey competitively, so I gave up hockey. I also don't program at all during the school year, which is a skill that I want to maintain, but I realize that it isn't necessary for my immediate needs so it has been put on hold. Again, my experience is not unique, I have many classmates that would say the same about their work life balance. However, with regards to life in med school, I'm not sure if I would say that the outright majority of students share this kind of balance. There are a fair number of my classmates that spend a significant amount of time at the library throughout the year and they are constantly studying. I personally believe that for the most part, they do not have to study that hard, but exam anxiety is driving them to study hard from the very beginning.
However, during the month before exams, work life balance is out the window. A month before the exams begin, I'm either in classes or studying. I'll go out once a week and go to 2 soccer practices and 1 game a week, but that is it. I'm basically working 14 hours, 7 days a week. There are times when I really do feel like a prisoner in my room. Unfortunately, we have so much material to learn that we have no other choice. Despite what I said earlier, I feel comfortable saying that all med students will agree about this kind of work life imbalance during exams.
Now that I'm done 2nd year, I'm hearing horror stories about how busy I'll be in 3rd year. Should I believe them?