Written by Dr Rebekah Grassby
What is it like to study medicine in the United Kingdom?
The experience of studying medicine in the United Kingdom is one which varies by course and university, but there are some common themes. This article aims to summarise that experience, as well as give a personal perspective on my time at medical school; with the caveat that each student has their own journey of studying medicine.
Some background information
Medicine is predominantly an undergraduate course, with the standard degree being five years long. There are also accelerated post-graduate entry programmes for applicants with eligible undergraduate degrees, which comprise four years. The article will not discuss the application process – which in short, involves a personal statement, standardised aptitude tests, and formal interviews.
Most people apply for medicine whilst still at school and begin university as a school leaver. However, many students take a less direct route – having taken a gap year, having re-applied following unsuccessful applications, or having decided to change careers. Graduate students may also choose to apply for an undergraduate course. Medical schools are becoming increasingly diverse in the UK and although my experience was that people of an affluent background form a plurality, you will meet people from all walks of life studying medicine. Cohorts (combined intakes of students) are typically multi-cultural and multi-national, with a notable proportion of international students.
All of these factors mean that a typical lecture theatre will be filled with people of various ages, experience and background. There is room for lots of different types of people at medical school – there is no one right type of person. With cohorts ranging from 150 to 300 students per year group, there is plentiful opportunity to find your own people and niche.
An explanation about the course structure
Medicine in the UK is generally an ‘integrated’ course, where clinical experience is provided alongside academic study from the first year. The balance shifts greatly towards the clinical side in the latter years. This early clinical experience helps to contextualise the lectures and seminars that dominate earlier years and is valued highly by students as a taste of the placement years to come.
The early year’s curriculum is also integrated, with basic medical sciences being studied alongside relevant clinical knowledge. Most courses apply a ‘systems-based’ approach – students learn about causes, clinical features, diagnosis, and management of diseases relevant to each body system. Courses also involve practical work – such as dissection, laboratory work, and clinical skills teaching. The clinical context helps make the academic study of the early years more interesting and motivating – it helps you to appreciate the value of the theory.
Generally, the more intensive clinical years begin following the second year. Consisting of clinical placements, supported by occasional short blocks of lectures and regular seminars. Students are expected to become self-directed learners, with much of the academic work being independent. The transition from early years to placement years is when theory becomes practice, and you become responsible for your own learning. This is a different sort of education to the one most are used to and can be a challenge, but it makes you a better student.
Clinical placements vary depending on the specialty and hospital. You are given opportunities to experience a wide variety of settings – including wards, theatres, the emergency department, and community healthcare. For most students, placement is a highlight, giving you the chance to begin learning the knowledge and skills to be a doctor – and to spend time helping the people you’ve always wanted to help (as described in your application!)
Placement is not a full-time job, and most medical schools in the UK do not have set time requirements. You are expected to show initiative, seek out learning opportunities, and use your time on placement efficiently. Assessments during placement focus on progress above attainment; taking histories and examining patients under the gaze of a senior doctor can be nerve-wracking, but feedback is highly valuable, and these opportunities should be actively sought.
The frequency of formal exams varies based on the university. At a minimum, there are annual end-of-year exams, which must be passed in order to progress to the next year. There is a relatively high pass rate, with most students navigating exams successfully, obtaining a pass is very achievable with a reasonable commitment to studying. It is generally recognised that it is harder to get into medical school than to get out of it – you will be supported at every stage in order to progress.
Exams are a mixture of written and practical exams. Practical exams include assessment in simulation of clinical skills such as venepuncture, and OSCEs (Objective Structured Clinical Examination). OSCEs are multi-station exams in which a student is tested on history-taking, examination skills, and communication skills with patient actors or volunteers. These exams take on greater importance in the later years, as they most directly assess your competency to practice as a doctor.
OSCEs are a different challenge to written exams, and students who excel in the latter may not necessarily excel in OSCEs – but students are well supported with clinical teaching and mock exams, so most will successfully meet this challenge.
What about extracurricular life?
When compared to countries such as the US, it is arguable that UK courses are not as academically or time intense. This is evident in that the experience of medical students in the UK is of a healthy work-life balance. Being a well-rounded individual with interests outside of medicine is valued in the application process. UK medical schools continue to encourage this, as time outside of studying is crucial to managing the workload and stresses of the course.
The general society for medical students at each university is called the Medical Society, known as MedSoc. MedSocs organise social events alongside academic and careers support, and within a typical MedSoc, there are many associated sports teams and sub-societies. There are societies for hobbies such as music, drama, journalism or baking – alongside societies focusing on specialist interests such as surgery, orthopaedics, cardiology or paediatrics. Specialty societies give the opportunity for students with particular interests to begin career planning. There tends to be a society for any interest and if not, then one can always be established.
The commitments of the course may make it more difficult for medical students to participate in the main university sports teams, bringing added importance to medics sports teams. However, medical students are also free to join the university clubs and any other university society and many do both.
Although medical students generally have more course commitments than other students, there is still time to become fully immersed in and enjoy the general university experience. Medics are known to “work hard, play hard”, so time management becomes a crucial skill to facilitate having the best of these two worlds.
Alongside studying, I captained our women’s football team before becoming club president. These friends and memories are the ones that have stayed with me the longest, following graduation. There is definitely ample opportunity to experience more than just studying and placement, and every student should aim to commit to their extracurricular and social life alongside their academic one.
The student experience
Medical schools can be perceived as highly competitive environments. However, my experience was predominantly of a supportive peer group, which helped each other towards a common goal. Group study at UK medical schools is common, either informally or organised, and there is a strong peer teaching culture. There is a great sense of camaraderie and mutual understanding, as your peers are best placed to recognise the expectations of the course.
Medicine is a well-regarded subject in the UK. Doctors are generally well-respected within society and medical students seen as studious and diligent. The reality is that medical students are probably not as hard-working as perceived, as there is more time for fun than people realise. However, the esteem by which medicine is held confers a perception and an expectation that students conduct themselves well when representing the profession and their institutions.
Intercalation, or an intercalated year, refers to the additional year of study undertaken by most medical students in the UK. This study is in an area outside of medicine course, although generally in a related subject. This can include Bachelors or Masters degrees course in topics including but not limited to Anatomy, Neuroscience, Tropical Medicine, and Public Health. Bachelor of Medical Sciences (BMedSci) degrees are also popular – this is a research-focused degree, comprising either a clinical or laboratory research project.
Intercalating provides the opportunity to undertake extra study in an area of interest and gain a further qualification that proves helpful when applying for jobs after graduation. Studying medicine is a lengthy pursuit and many people appreciate taking a break to pursue a different area of study to gain additional skills and knowledge to those offered by a medical degree.
My intercalated year consisted of a BMedSci spent in a molecular biology laboratory, studying the genetics of Parkinson’s disease. The year took me out of my comfort zone to a field I had little experience of. In return, I gained a wealth of new knowledge and skills. These greatly benefitted me once I returned to medicine and in my career since. I was grateful to have had the chance to intercalate; and the opportunities offered are seen as one advantage of studying medicine in the UK. However, intercalation is not mandatory, and many students become successful and highly competent doctors without this additional year.
Electives, the options
Medical schools in the UK offer the chance to individualise your education through student selected components (SSCs) and electives. SSCs are modules in which a specific placement or area of study can be chosen and may even include travelling to different areas or countries.
As is the case worldwide, elective placements are a core aspect of medical education in the UK, typically taking place in the penultimate or final year. Similar to SSCs, students can organise their own placement, and this often involves travelling abroad. Electives are seen as a rite of passage, they are a valuable opportunity to experience healthcare and diversify learning in a setting distinct from the rest of your medical education. Electives are generally a highlight of the course and one of the most rewarding and valuable medical school experiences.
Completing an elective is mandatory, but it is not essential to travel. Many students undertake enjoyable and highly fulfilling electives in the UK. Medical schools may also offer financial support in the form of grants and bursaries to help fund placements.
Studying medicine is a unique experience for each individual and can never be wholly conveyed in one article or by one author.
I define the years I spent at medical school as a time of learning, growth, and friendship. I applied myself diligently, graduating amongst the top of my class; but also fully committed to sports teams and societies, travelled with friends, became involved in peer teaching and fundraising for charity, and had the experience of a lifetime on my elective abroad.
My time was rich and diverse, and I met an amazing variety of people, from tutors to peers to patients. There were times of stress but in the context of a supportive and understanding environment. I felt I lived the university experience, and I would do it again, even now knowing the rigours of practicing as a junior doctor. It has been worth it.
Crucial were the regular reminders through patient contact of why you work so hard to be accepted into medical school and overcome each exam hurdle. To one day be able to practice medicine and bring meaningful benefit to patients.
Alongside the experiences of lectures, placements and exams, there are other experiences not so easily defined. Be it the nervous anticipation ahead of your first dissection session, the excitement of your first day on placement (with your brand new stethoscope), the small moment of pride when you first successfully cannulate a patient, or the “Eureka!” moment when a patient describes their symptoms to you, and you realise what a condition you once read about in textbooks really means. These moments and milestones form the heart of the experience and keep your motivation fresh and ambition intact.
A bit about the Author
A massive thank you to Dr Rebekah Grassby for this insightful look at what it is like to study medicine in the United Kingdom.
“I am a junior doctor, working in South Yorkshire. I am the youngest of five children, originally from the South of England, and I am the only member of my family to have studied medicine. I graduated from the University of Sheffield in 2019 with first-class honours and distinction. I also graduated with an intercalated BMedSci degree from the University of Sheffield – involving a laboratory research project studying the genetics of Parkinson’s disease in a zebrafish model, completed in 2017. I am an avid football (soccer) fan, and captained the Sheffield Medics Women’s football team whilst at university, before becoming club president and coaching the team. I was also a member of the Sheffield Neurology Society and Oncology Society whilst at university, an active participant in various peer teaching schemes, and worked as a mentor in a university outreach project to help disadvantaged young people improve access to medicine.
Since graduation I have worked in Care of the Elderly, Emergency Medicine, Oncology and Palliative Care. I continue to play and coach football (soccer) – as well as enjoying cooking, running, cycling, walking in the Peak District, and watching films at Sheffield’s many cinemas! I have continued my interest in medical education, having contributed to medibuddy and medistudents for medical students on a variety of exam topics, and published an article online on DNACPR discussions, aimed at junior doctors. I hope to continue medical training in Sheffield, with the aim to specialise in palliative care.”
If you’re considering studying Medicine and would like to apply in the UK, head over to Medibuddy for more resources and advice.
For students looking at pathways to Medicine in Australia, potentially as a pre-cursor to further studies in the UK, the Entry to Medicine Handbook for 2022 applicants is out now.