Should I do a medical degree?

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Find out about different kinds of medicine degree and the career options open to you afterwards, both in medicine and healthcare and other professions such as law.

To study medicine, you will need to be a committed, self-motivated individual with a strong desire to help others. The majority of applicants wish to become doctors; however, it is also possible to pursue a number of other careers once you have graduated.

Medicine entry requirements

A level requirements for medicine

To get onto a medicine degree, you generally need to have an A level, Advanced Higher or an equivalent qualification in:

  • chemistry
  • at least one other science from biology, physics or maths
  • a third subject.

Some universities require biology rather than chemistry, and some call for both.

What grades do you need to study medicine?

Entry is competitive, so typical offers range from AAA–A*A*A. A fourth AS level and/or a set number of GCSEs at a certain grade or above may also be required.

For those studying in Scotland, typical offers range from AAAAB to AAAAA at Higher level. You will also need two or three As at Advanced Higher level.

Admissions tests – the UKCAT and BMAT

Most UK medical schools require their applicants to take the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT), and many set a minimum score; the others ask their applicants to sit the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) instead.

What medical work experience do I need?

You should aim to gain experience in a caring role.

  • Work experience in a hospital or GP surgery may offer useful insight into the working environment of healthcare professionals; however, it is often difficult to obtain and you will mostly be learning from observation. Such placements typically last for one or two weeks.
  • Volunteering in a care home or hospice may offer more a hands-on, interactive experience, and is usually easier to arrange. Helping out for a few hours every week for a year can help to demonstrate the commitment and compassion that medical schools are looking for.

What topics will I study on a medicine degree?

Typical topics include:

  • applied life sciences such as anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology
  • body systems such as the alimentary system, the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system and the musculoskeletal system
  • health and society issues such as epidemiology (the distribution and control of diseases), health economics and medical law
  • medical ethics and professionalism
  • clinical skills and placement – physical examination, how to conduct consultations and practising these skills on patients in hospital or in a GP surgery.

Medicine course teaching styles and structures

All medical schools have to follow a similar syllabus because they are controlled by the General Medical Council (GMC). However, the way in which topics are arranged and taught will vary according to the type of course you apply for.

Traditional medical degrees

Traditional medical degrees are split into two phases: the pre-clinical stage and the clinical stage.

  • During the pre-clinical stage, students focus on the science behind medicine and learn mainly from lectures, small-group tutorials and lab work.
  • This phase lasts two or three years. During the three-year clinical stage, students are trained on hospital wards and supervised by consultants. They also continue to attend lectures to support their learning.

Traditional medical schools include the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge.

Problem-based learning medical degrees

Problem-based learning (PBL) involves a more interactive approach. A typical week at a PBL medical school may include:

  • Around five lectures.
  • Two PBL sessions – in the first, students are introduced to fictional patient cases, discuss their existing knowledge related to them, and set learning objectives by deciding what more they need to know. They then complete these objectives in time for the second session.
  • Clinical skills sessions – physical examination practice or interviewing actors playing the role of patients.
  • Biopracticals – practical applications of medicine, eg use of electrocardiograms (ECG) and other medical equipment.
  • Anatomy sessions – students are given pre-dissected bodies, which they use to identify and study the organs they have learned about.
  • One day of clinical placement, either in a hospital or GP surgery. This is spent interviewing and discussing patients with a tutor.

PBL medical schools include Hull York Medical School, Keele University and the University of Manchester.

Integrated medical degrees

Integrated courses tend to take a systems-based approach. Rather than learning anatomy, biochemistry, pathology and other areas of medical science as separate topics, students are taught to consider them all at once in the context of a body system (eg the cardiovascular system). Much of the teaching is delivered through lectures and tutorials, but there may be some PBL and clinical skills sessions. Students might also spend some time on placement in a clinical setting.

Integrated medical schools include Brighton and Sussex Medical School, the University of Glasgow and the University of Leeds.

What is an intercalated medical degree?

Some universities will give you the option to intercalate (earn an extra degree within your medical degree). At many medical schools, this will add an extra year to your studies. You could choose to study an area of medicine in more depth, or you may opt for an area of medical law or a humanities subject. In some cases, intercalation will allow you to graduate with a degree in a relevant subject (eg biomedical science or natural sciences) without finishing your medicine degree.

Universities offering intercalated degrees include the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, the University of Manchester and the University of Nottingham.

How many contact hours will I have on a medicine degree?

Contact time is when you are being taught by university staff. On average, medical students have 20–25 contact hours per week. The rest of the time is spent completing PBL objectives (for those on a PBL course) and reading around the subjects brought up in lectures.

When on placement, students generally work from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm. Some late shifts and weekend working may be required.

How difficult is a medicine degree?

Medical students need the ability and motivation to grasp complex scientific concepts and apply them in a healthcare setting. Therefore, if you struggled with A level sciences or are deterred by a heavy workload, medicine may not be for you.

Lizzie Shaw is a third year medical student at Hull York Medical School. She explains: ‘Medicine is definitely a step up from A levels, but if you were smart enough to meet the entry requirements, then you’re smart enough to pass the course as long as you put the effort in. I think the main thing that people struggle with when starting medical school is not the step up in terms of content, but the step up in terms of learning style. You no longer have a textbook full of all the information you need to learn and you don’t have a teacher telling you what you need to know. That takes a while to get used to!’

Dan Jacyna is a fourth year medical student at the University of Nottingham. He comments: ‘Medical school presents a different way of learning. At A level, you have a precise syllabus and access to a lot of past papers, so you know what to expect. At medical school, you’re still given a syllabus but it’s not as defined. We get a very limited amount of past questions because the university have a big question bank online, so they don’t want to give too many of them away. In my first year, I thought I knew my stuff but it was difficult to tell what position I was in before an exam. That can be a bit daunting at first!’

Would a career as a doctor suit me?

In your first few years as a doctor, you will be moving around different departments and probably transferring between hospitals. Doctors at all levels are expected to do shift work, which typically involves long, irregular hours. They may also be called into hospital at short notice if they are working on call. You need to consider whether you are happy to do this – if not, this profession isn’t for you.

What careers could a medicine degree lead to?

Many medical students go on to become doctors, either working as a general practitioner (GP) or specialising in a particular area of medicine or surgery. However, many other career paths are also open to graduates.

Medical career options

For doctors, options in medicine include:

  • Working as a GP. GPs don’t specialise in any particular area of medicine, but have knowledge of a variety of illnesses and conditions in patients of all ages. They typically work in a community surgery.
  • Working as an emergency doctor in a hospital’s accident and emergency department.
  • Specialising in any area of medicine found in a hospital, such as surgery, radiology, anaesthesia and oncology. There is also opportunity to specialise in almost any organ system; disciplines include cardiology, hepatology, urology and neurology.
  • Working as a psychiatrist in an outpatient clinic, hospital ward or GP surgery.
  • Specialising in pathology – this involves studying human cells, fluid and tissue samples to see whether a disease is present. Pathologists also perform autopsies to determine patients’ cause of death.

Careers related to medicine

Medicine graduates can also go into medical science or communications. Relevant areas include:

  • medical research
  • medical journalism or publishing
  • health economics – an area concerned with maintaining the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of healthcare provision
  • lecturing (either in medicine or a related healthcare science)

Careers outside medicine

Many jobs are open to graduates with a degree in any subject. However, a medicine degree may be particularly impressive to some employers due to the intense study and people skills that are required. If you decide against a career in healthcare or medical science, you could consider the following areas:

  • law
  • accountancy
  • the public sector
  • teaching
  • the media.

What skills will I gain from studying medicine at university?

If you choose to study medicine, you will develop a range of field-specific and general skills, all of which are valued by employers. These include confident communication, the ability to empathise, analytical skills and stamina. You will also be able to learn, understand and apply complex information.

Other degrees to consider if you’re not sure about becoming a doctor

If you wish to enter a healthcare profession, the following degrees are worth considering.

  • Pharmacy – hospital and community pharmacy involves substantial patient contact but focuses more on drug prescription. The course is more chemistry-oriented.
  • Nursing – this still requires a broad scientific knowledge and involves a lot of patient contact. Entry requirements are usually not quite as high.
  • Dentistry – dentists prevent, diagnose and treat oral diseases and conditions.
  • Midwifery – midwives specialise in pregnancy, childbirth, postnatal care and women’s reproductive health.
  • Radiography – radiographers use X-rays, ultrasound machines and other technology to take images of the inside of patients’ bodies. They also treat people with cancer.
  • Orthoptics – this specialism involves investigating and treating vision disorders and defects of eye movement.
  • Physiotherapy – this area focuses on restoring movement, function and comfort to those affected by injury, illness or disability.

If you’re more interested in medical science, the following degrees may suit you.

  • Pharmacology – this area focuses on developing and testing new medicines.
  • Biomedical sciences – this area involves studying human cells, organs and systems to aid the understanding and treatment of diseases.
  • Neuroscience – the study of the brain and nervous system.
  • Genetics – the study of genetic inheritance, variation and disease.

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