How Long Does It Take To Become A Doctor?

I get asked all the time, especially by friends and family - just how long are you going to be at medical school? It’s something all us medical students need to think about before we start, but even having done a lot of research before I applied, there was still left to learn that I’ve picked up since getting here. I’ve put together an infographic that illustrates the broader guidelines.

infographic.jpg

Right then, standard entry to medicine. You go when you’re 18 after completing your A levels, entering into first year, and these courses are usually 5 years long. That means you’ll enter at 18 and finish at 23. Some UK schools have an optional or compulsory intercalated degree year for a Bachelor’s or Masters, which would add another year for a total of 6. This would be the same if you completed a Foundation or Access to Medicine course too. Then there’s graduate entry medicine, which requires at the very least an undergraduate degree to complete, which is a 3 year investment. However the tradeoff here is that you essentially get to skip a year of the course due to the content being compressed, which makes it 7 years long.

Congratulations, you’ve finished medical school and passed your final exams. You are now able to call yourself Doctor with some letters after your name such as MBBS or MBChB - they’re all equivalent, don’t worry. This is the point at which you start earning money. You then have to complete 2 years of Foundation Training as a junior doctor - in the first year you have a provisional license to practise medicine, with the full license for unsupervised practice being obtained after that first year and then you complete the second year of training with that license. During each of these years you’ll rotate between various specialties and gain a basic set of core competencies.

You can also apply for the Academic Foundation Programme instead, which takes the same amount of time but gives you some protected research time you can spend working on an academic research project or in an educational setting, for example. Some people also choose to take an extra year out here as F3, either to have a break from training or pursue other projects, teach or maybe to get themselves ready for specialty training.

At this point you then need to decide what specialty you want to do and things get a bit more complex! Let’s start simple and say you want to become a General Practitioner - this is currently the shortest training pathway and takes 3 years after completing foundation training, meaning your total medical school journey, assuming you started at 18 in the conventional pathway is 10 years long.

Let’s say you want to be a cardiologist - you’ll need to spend another two years in Core Medical Training, CT1 and CT2, which almost all medical doctors will do. After that, you then apply to go into specialty training specific to cardiology and enter at the ST3 level, or Specialty Training 3, your 3rd year after foundation. You then stay on this programme and go through four more years to ST7, with the option of a final ST8 year to subspecialise and then become a full, bona fide consultant. While you’re in specialty training you are known as a specialty registrar, which is still technically a junior doctor.

Let’s now give a surgical example - you now want to be a orthopedic surgeon. Similar to medical programmes, you need 2 years of core surgical training, CST1 and CST2, which almost all surgeons will do. After that it’s 6 years of specialty training, agains starting at ST3 and ending at ST8 as a consultant surgeon. The other major pathway after foundation training is run-through specialty training programmes. This means that instead of having to do core training and learning the basics that overlap with other specialties, you focus on the end goal right from the start and only do training relevant to that job. A good example is neurosurgery, where instead of CST1 and 2, you begin right away at ST1 and go right through to ST8. There are advantages and disadvantages to this - there is only competitive step, entry to ST1, so once you’ve got your foot in the door you’re sorted until the end. Obviously if you change your mind it’s a lot more difficult to change direction because you have not done the core training which would allow you to enter a different specialty later.

The last pathway we’re going to discuss here is ACCS - the acute care common stem training programme. This pathway focuses as the name suggests on four acute care parent specialties - intensive care, emergency medicine, acute internal medicine and anaesthetics. This pathway takes 3 years to complete, and allows you to undertake higher training in those parent specialties. Anaesthetics for example also has its own core medical training programme, so be sure to look more at CMT and ACCS if that’s something you’re interested in.

So that’s a very quick overview of higher medical training through junior and senior ranks. We said earlier for a GP you’re looking at 10 years minimum investment. For most others it’s another 5 years on top of that - you could go in at 18 and be 33 as a consultant. Of course that assumes you don’t do anything else, like Masters Degrees, PhDs/MDs, research fellowships, teaching placements etc which would extend it further.

Top 5 Tips for Medical Interview Success

1. Knowledge Base

Medicine is a career that encompasses a very large number of skills, including but not limited to ethical reasoning and strict adherence to protocol. Doctors and other healthcare practitioners are often in positions of power relative to their patients due to the nature of the occupation, and are therefore expected to act in certain ways and follow certain behaviours. Understanding their ethical and logical guidelines is therefore a fantastic place to start - I recommend reading ‘Tomorrow’s Doctors’ and ‘Good Medical Practice’, as well as getting to grips with the four pillars of medical ethics. Understanding these core elements will help you approach most questions from first principles instead of having to rely on learned answers.

Alongside this, be able to talk about a couple of medical cases from research papers or the news that interest you - that will demonstrate your initiative and willingness to further your own knowledge.

2. Practice Answering Questions

Just like the UKCAT, BMAT, GAMSAT or any other exam, the best form of revision is to practice doing questions. There are a ton of free resources out there in this area, look at places like The Medic Portal, my own website (postgradmedic.com) or (dare I say it) The Student Room. Have your friends or family members ask you random questions so you’re forced to think on your feet - even if you don’t think they’re likely to come up. Sometimes being put on the defensive and into an uncomfortable scenario is the best way to get used to thinking and answering in a more structured way.

3. Practice Under Pressure

Of course the other element of medical interviews (as with most assessments) is the aspect of time pressure. This is particularly true in MMI format interviews where you may have no more than a few minutes to answer a particular question, particularly if it’s a probing question rather than the stem of a discussion. With this in mind, when practicing with family or friends make sure to have them time you for 2-3 minutes per individual question - this will make it very hard in some cases, but if you can achieve that then on the day it should be easy.

4. Reflective Thinking

Doctors (and medical students) are required to perform reflections throughout their careers to consolidate what they have learned and set action plans for self-improvement. Furthermore, most medical schools (particularly at graduate-entry level) demand some level of work experience or exposure to a healthcare setting. The reason for this is to give you a chance to evaluate if medicine is truly the right career for you. Based on your experiences at school or university, at work, while volunteering - why do you think you would make a good doctor? What have you observed? What do healthcare professionals do every day? What did you like about what you saw, or conversely what was shocking or disappointing?

Gaining insight into your own thought processes will be enormously helpful for your interview and for your time at medical school and beyond.

5. Relax

Probably the last thing any of you wanted to hear, but it’s vitally important. Remember, you’ve made it to interview now, so there’s a very good chance that you are completely suitable for medicine. The role of the interviewer is not to grill you so you can be eliminated, but instead to allow you to demonstrate your competence and allow them to get a feel for ‘the real you’. Let your personality come out and answer everything honestly. A medical interview is fundamentally a discussion and that’s how you should approach it.

Make sure to get a good night's sleep the night before (stay overnight close by if necessary) and have something to eat. I'm sure you'll do great - good luck!

The Pros and Cons of Graduate Entry Medicine

While undergraduate courses are seen as the 'standard' entry route into medicine, graduate-focused programmes are responsible for producing a huge number of doctors, and may offer a better deal for applicants who already hold degrees.

Pro: Saving a Year

Let’s start with an obvious one. Graduate entry programmes allow you to complete a medical degree in four years rather than five, which is obviously a good thing if you’re eager to get into practicing as a doctor. If you didn’t make the grades first time around for example, you could complete an undergraduate degree by 21, and then graduate as a doctor at 25, only two years behind those that started at 18, with all the extra experience and opportunities to boot.

Con: Losing a Year

Of course, this also has its downsides. Medicine has a reputation for being an incredibly challenging degree, and graduate schemes cram the already huge amounts of material into a shortened time frame. If you’ve been out of education for a while or are worried about finding the academic transition difficult, it might be worth considering five year courses to make your life just that little bit easier.

Pro: More maturity

On a similar note, because of the increased average age, your cohort should (at least in theory) be a bit more mature than a comparable cohort at 18 years old. Of course that’s not to suggest that undergrad-entry medical students are immature at all, but simply by virtue of being older people are more likely to be more collected and capable of managing their lives and social relationships properly.

Con: Money

This is probably more noticeable to those that have been employed in a real-world job, in that you absolutely will not be able to work while studying and your income will suffer as a result. In a similar vein to before, your friends will start to become established in their careers sooner than you, and basically you will be on low-income posts for a while even after graduation.

Pro: Funding is available!

Given the recent removal of the nursing bursary, I’m not sure how much longer this point will remain true, but for now at least a graduate-entry medical programme can be funded through Student Finance England. There’s a not-tiny sum that must be paid upfront (approximately £3375), after which a standard student loan is available to cover the rest.

Con: Qualifying Older

It seems like a stupidly obvious thing to say, but it’s worth thinking about. As of right now I’m 21 years old, so this won’t be as large a problem, but let’s take a reasonable guess and say that the average age on my course is around 25. It takes 4 years to complete the degree, which will make most people around 29/30 when starting work as an F1, a notoriously stressful and time-intensive role. By that point most people’s friends will be settled down and may have children, and if you have significant responsibilities or relationships of your own, a medical degree could be very disruptive. These things can definitely be managed properly, but it will make some elements of more life more difficult.

Pro: Wider Range of Backgrounds

Because graduate-entry courses demand a first degree as part of the application process, by necessity every single person on the course will have at least an undergraduate degree under their respective belts. While some schools will only accept science graduates, there a few (including Warwick where I go) that happily take arts and humanities students too. This leads to a fantastic array of knowledge and unique perspectives that serve the year very well as a whole, particularly when it comes to group work.

Con: Competition

Getting a place on a graduate entry scheme is rough. Competition is comparatively more fierce because everyone has more experience and knowledge than the typical school leaver. This leads to either the use of the GAMSAT (a 6 hour slog of an exam that tests your reasoning across humanities and natural sciences) or higher cutoffs in the UKCAT and BMAT. In 2013, for example, Warwick (one of the two grad-only medical schools) had close to 3000 applications for about 170 places. I did the maths, and for 2017 entry (considering only home applicants for undergraduate and postgraduate courses) at undergraduate level there were 9.2 applicants per place, with 25.8 applicants per place for graduate-entry courses.

You’ll get to be a doctor

But of course, the ultimate positive from a graduate-entry scheme is that at the end of it, you’ll get to be a doctor. That’s the ultimate reason why any of us that applied to study medicine did so, and regardless of whether you choose a four year or five year scheme, we’ll all be in it together doing what we set out to do.

5 Tips for UKCAT Test Day

Okay, this will be a simple one. You’ve read through all my resources, studied hard, practiced as much as you can and it’s the night before UKCAT test day. Put the books away, unwind and check out these final tips to make the experience go more smoothly.

1. Get a good night’s sleep

It’s simple but good advice - as much as some of us (myself very much included) don’t like to admit it, you won’t perform at your very best if you’re tired and irritable. The stress of taking the exam is enough, and you don’t want to add to it by making silly mistakes and losing focus. Eliminate all light and noise from your room, and if that means using a sleep mask, earplugs and the like, so be it.
 

Get plenty of shuteye the night before so you can perform at your best

Get plenty of shuteye the night before so you can perform at your best

2. Get there early

Ideally, go to the test centre a few days (or more) before your test to make sure you know exactly where it is and how to get inside. I assumed that I’d be able to rely on GPS to get me there, which turned out not to be the case as my mobile data promptly ran out more than 10 minutes away from the centre. Thankfully the strangers of Newcastle-upon-Tyne were friendly and accommodating as they so often are to bleary-eyed students in the mornings, but the added anxiety of having to find the damned place was not something I needed.

3. Don’t cram in the morning

Some of you will be very tempted to do this, but I really wouldn’t bother. The UKCAT measures attributes that are much better honed over weeks than days or hours, as it’s more about being used to the type of question you might be asked rather than the content. To reiterate, it’s about HOW you approach the test rather than short-term memory games for the most part, where elements such as time management and triage become much more important. Cramming in the morning is very unlikely to help you, go in with a clear head and just do your best.
 

No cramming! - it won't help you and you might as well be relaxing

No cramming! - it won't help you and you might as well be relaxing

4. Do not panic during the test

Again, this might seem obvious but it’s worth thinking about. The UKCAT, as with the BMAT is very time-intensive by design, so getting worked up during the test could cost the few precious seconds it takes to answer another question. I strongly recommend reading up on a few breathing exercises, such as the 4-7-8 method (in for four seconds, hold for seven and exhale for eight). I found myself with a tiny smidgeon of time to spare after the first section during my test, and getting my heart rate under control before the next started made me feel much calmer and more in control.


5. When it’s over, it’s over

One of the small reprieves of the UKCAT is that you get your result immediately upon finishing it, which removes the trepidation of a marking period. You may only take the UKCAT once during each application cycle, so take your mark and be proud of it, knowing that you did your best. Instead of fretting over small mistakes you think you might have made, now you should be looking ahead, thinking of the best places to apply with that score - research average cutoff scores for different schools, as well as graduate entry courses if applicable to you.

With all that said, just try to do your best. Everyone is just as stressed as you are about this, but remember what it’s all about - just one of the many hoops you’ll need to jump through to achieve that goal of becoming one of the UK’s best and brightest young doctors.

Be sure, if you haven’t already, to look at my other UKCAT preparation articles and I’m always happy to answer any questions you might have via the contact form.

Good luck!

Introduction to Applying to Medical School

Medical schools in the UK can vary greatly in their admissions processes, but there are several elements that hold true for the majority. This article is intended for those completely new to the process and who are considering their applications in the future.

1. Grades & Academic Achievement

For undergraduate entry, the minimum requirements to be attained are three A grades at A2. Biology is required virtually everywhere, and most schools demand a second science subject (Maths, Physics or Chemistry). If you wish to only take two sciences, Chemistry is currently the options sought by most schools. The third A level choice does not appear to be of any consequence for most places, so my advice would be simply to take something you will score well in.

If you are applying as a graduate who already holds a degree (or will graduate in the coming summer) usually a 2.1 (Upper Second Class Honours) in a science subject is optimal, although many schools will take graduates of any disciplines.

Note: It is vitally important to check the individual requirements of each university you apply to. This guide is intended as a rough primer only and cannot encompass the individual preferences of the schools.

Medicine offers a dynamic career with a range of opportunities (Image: RAF Lakenheath)

Medicine offers a dynamic career with a range of opportunities (Image: RAF Lakenheath)

2. Entrance Exams

Of course, many students will achieve the grades as detailed above. The next criterion to tackle is the entrance exams required by the universities you’re applying to (these will be listed on the university website under Admissions/Applications). In most cases this will be the UKCAT (United Kingdom Clinical Aptitude Test) which must be booked at the UKCAT registration website and sat between July 3 and October 3. Alternatively some schools ask for the BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test), which is similar and booked separately.

Note: The UKCAT is sat before the UCAS deadline for medicine (October 15), whereas the BMAT is usually sat afterwards in early November. This means that should your UKCAT exam not go as well as you’d hope, there might still be time to take the BMAT and apply to different schools.

3. UCAS Applications - Personal Statement & Reference

Whether you are applying as a school-leaver or as a graduate, all medical school applications are sent through the UCAS system (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) - medicine is an undergraduate course, no matter the entry route. You’ll need to provide personal information, including previous academic attainment (GCSEs or similar) and any grades you have.

You will write a personal statement, no longer than 4000 characters. In brief, it should sum up your motivation for studying medicine, give an indication as to why you think you would be a suitable candidate and give some evidence that you’ve properly considered the reality of the career ahead of you. We’ll explore this in more depth another time.

You will also need to find someone willing to give you a reference - usually this will be someone from your college or sixth form, and potentially a university tutor if you’re a graduate. It would be best if they had previous experience of writing references for medicine, but if this is not feasible there is plenty of guidance online. Whether they share the details of this with you is entirely up to them, and it is sent separately through UCAS by your administrator.

"It is vitally important to check the individual requirements of
each university you apply to"

4. Work Experience / Volunteering

In keeping with the previous point, medicine is often idealised and glamourised by the media, which might not offer the best representation of the career. It is more than worth the time and effort to gain some healthcare-relevant work or volunteering experience, be it working in a nursing home, employment in a pharmacy or similar.

Once again the advice of each institution is highly variable, both in terms of the types of experience they consider suitable and whether it is required at all. This is particularly of concern for graduate applicants to medicine, and is more frequently used as a minimum threshold exercise at this level than for school leavers.

I worked with the Nightline group at Newcastle University, an anonymous support phoneline. Picture: I was Neville The Bear for a recruitment day, the mascot of the service.

I worked with the Nightline group at Newcastle University, an anonymous support phoneline.
Picture: I was Neville The Bear for a recruitment day, the mascot of the service.

5. The Interview

If you’ve satisfied all the previous criteria and impressed the right person at the right time, you might find yourself the lucky recipient of an invitation to interview. You’ll be elated, as well you should be, as this is the final hurdle (beyond achieving your grades of course) to overcome before beginning your passage to medical school.

There are several types of interview employed by medical schools to pick the best candidates from the ones who have made it this far. Once more there will be another article to come detailing their differences, but essentially you will go to the university and speak to one or more people about why you deserve the place.

"Don’t be nervous and understand that interviewers are simply to trying to learn more about you"

Depending on the school you might be asked academic questions, about the contents of your reference/personal statement, aspects of the NHS, and other such markers that illustrate your suitability for medicine. Don’t be nervous and understand that interviewers are simply to trying to learn more about you, as you’ve previously only been a piece of paper and some ink up to that point. Medicine requires a large range of skills, including communication, which is one of the main ones being tested although it certainly won’t be the only one. If it goes well (fingers crossed!) you’ll hear back with an email offering you a place, and the real journey will begin.

So there is your primer to the medical admissions process, I hope you’ve found it useful and as usual I encourage you to ask me any questions if there’s something you’d like to know. I know all too well how stressful and mystifying it can seem at times, which is of course why this website exists at all. Good luck, and I’m sure you’ll make a great doctor one day.