What it's like to be medical student in Tartu, Estonia

This blog post was written by Iina Gylden, about international medical studies at University of Tartu.

“I’m Iina from Finland. I’m a Tartu University medical student and a poet.”

This is how I’ve been introducing myself for years now, with two simple sentences describing who I am, what I do and where. Most of that introduction is reserved for implying that I’m a foreign medical student in Tartu, and for a good reason as it has become a massive part of my identity. Soon it is time for me to leave Tartu and Estonia for a while to finish my degree, which means now is the perfect moment for me to write you about the experience of medical studies in English at the University of Tartu.

Iina Gylden (photo credit: Azizah Bello)

Photo of Iina (photo credit: Azizah Bello)

The decision to apply was an easy one 

I arrived in Tartu fresh out of high school (or “lukio”) in Finland. I was a small-town girl and wanted nothing more than to leave my sleepy country town and go somewhere with interesting people from all over the world, lively culture, academic atmosphere, and the opportunity to study medicine in English.

I already knew some Estonians and had spent some time with the locals in Pärnu. Estonian language and culture felt like something I could definitely get used to, I had people who could help me with any problems in adapting to Estonia, Tartu was just far enough from home and the university offered the perfect curriculum for me, prestigious and in English, thus – the decision to apply to Tartu first was an easy one for me.

In a nutshell the curriculum of medicine in English consists of six years of studying. First two and a half years or preclinical studies (for example chemistry, anatomy, microbiology, pharmacology, pathology, Estonian language), then two and a half years of clinical studies at Tartu University Clinics (wearing the white coat and spending your days at the hospital studying for example surgery, internal medicine, paediatrics, psychiatry…) and finally one year of practice that you can do either in Estonia or for example in your home country, like I will.

Medical studies at the University of Tartu

Photo: Our practical lessons at the  University of Tartu hospital

Studies are in English, but you will learn Estonian to help you communicate better with the patients during the clinical studies – and to get the best Estonian experience during your time here, of course. The curriculum matches most medical curricula in EU. When I finish my sixth year of practice and write the final exam I will be recognized as a medical doctor not only in Estonia, but also elsewhere in the European union.

Medicine in Tartu is no joke

I won’t lie - medicine in Tartu is no joke. It’s hard work with much less freedom than most university students have, and the first years especially can be really difficult. All those long days at the Biomeedikum and weeks full of studying, deadlines and stress will be worth it however once you get to the good stuff of clinical studies and can start applying all your hard-earned knowledge. Those first years will also teach you how to study efficiently and effectively, tolerate the stress and thrive under pressure – all invaluable skills to master for your future life in medicine.

And even more important is taking the chance to learn to relax, to keep enjoying life even if the going gets tough, and to really find yourself in the process. For all this there can hardly be a better place to start than Tartu. The university and the student body are organizing more and more events and opportunities to learn to study in a healthy way, manage stress and take care of your wellbeing as a student.

Medical studies at the University of Tartu

Photo: My classmates from the medical studies at the University of Tartu 

If you run into trouble, there are resources available to help you. The community is starting to embrace a more realistic and healthy idea of studying and hopefully the days of glorifying overworking and burnout in medicine will soon be over for good. I bet the legendary spirit of Tartu (“Tartu vaim”) is helping students live their lives more and more to the fullest!

Foreign-friendly Tartu 

Tartu is a human-sized town where everything needed for a good life is available, yet there’s little to no excess muddying the waters. There are strong student organizations among which everyone can find a suitable one for themselves, a plenty of different opportunities for hobbies and a good selection of communities and collectives gathering people with similar interests or ideologies. It’s also a very foreigner-friendly place, dearly loved among its rather large population of international students from all around the world. The locals are welcoming and helpful making it easy to cure homesickness with your compatriots while still getting the real authentic Estonian experience.

For me Tartu has offered great classmates, an active community of my fellow Finnish medical students and plenty of friends I’ve met through events, hobbies and common friends, or friends of friends and so on. My main tribe however was found among the writers, poets, and other people active in the cultural scene. The shy small-town girl I was I had no idea such a great and active literature scene could ever exist in a town I get to call home and for a while I didn’t quite dare to take part in it. But when I did it was life changing!

I found people so similar to me, my Estonian language skills improved incredibly fast, I got the perfect hobbies to balance the stress of medical studies and somehow a bit of a side career too. I found myself playing in a rock band, on poetry stages around Estonia, doing a radio interview for ERR – the opportunities were endless all thanks to the liveliness of the community, my new friends from Estonia and abroad and the typical Estonian go-get-it approach to life that seems to have rubbed off on me too.

And this is the great thing about Tartu! It is a small town that might seem a little peculiar and insular at first, but it pulls you in and will very soon reveal its true face. Tartu is academic, creative, active, and welcoming. A place where anyone from anywhere can arrive without knowing the language, without knowing a single person and end up finding a real home, true friends, new passions and maybe even a whole other side of themselves all while obtaining world class education.

Who enjoys studying in Tartu? 

Now having said all this about the studies and the town, who do I recommend this experience for?  Who would enjoy becoming an international medical student at the University of Tartu the most?

I would recommend this the most for anyone who is ambitious and ready to work hard, adventurous or looking for some new flavour to their life, wanting to explore and get to know more about this hidden gem of a town, country, and people. You might enjoy it even more if you are not afraid of your studies and your hometown becoming big parts of your identity, if you want to find your tribe, and if you too are studious, creative, active, and open – just like Tartu.

Iina Gylden



Read more about the medical studies in University of Tartu.

Find out which other international degree programmes are available for you. 


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