So you want to be a doctor? Have you thought about the alternatives?
Rochester Independent College specialises in helping aspiring doctors realise their dreams. This year we have a record nine students, including some retaking A levels, holding conditional offers from UK medical schools such as UCL, Nottingham, KCL, Sheffield and Exeter. In this article Georgina Winney, a former RIC student who now works in our admissions team, discusses the attraction of medicine as a career option and explores some of the related alternatives.
Often during the summer recruitment period we hear the same line from parents calling in regards to prospective A-Level retake students, or those looking to transfer directly into our year 13; ‘Well they were aiming to study Medicine.’ It is gut wrenching to hear stories of students who were not offered interviews, or have just missed the grades required to secure their place. In those days following results the emotions of students and parents are often extremely raw and for a student it can feel crushing to have lost out on something you may have been dreaming of since you first grasped the concept of what having a career meant. However quite often students who wish to apply for Medicine are at a loss when it comes to explaining what drives them to pursue this option as a degree course. There seems to be a universal draw to Medicine as something that suggests the ultimate success. Perhaps we as educators should consider whether these students have been given the best advice on how to pursue a degree that is right for them. Have they had conversations about the fascinating breadth of degrees available to students that wish to study a medically related degree? Stopping to consider their options may open up a world of new possibilities that the drive to achieve a place at Medical school may have never allowed them to consider.
Many a personal statement for those applying for Medicine will probably include some form of the statement ‘I realised that I wanted to help people.’ This statement does not just apply to Medicine and is relevant to many related degrees. Take for example Midwifery or Nursing, both include aspects of helping people within a medical setting but do not require Medicine as the base degree. For students who have a drive to assist people then Nursing may be the way forward for them as nurses are often at the front line of healthcare and are some of the first people you see when attending a healthcare facility. If a student wants to help people but feels drawn towards children then maybe midwifery or pursuing a specialisation in paediatric nursing would be correct for them. Nursing itself has so many options to specialise that students would find that they could pursue an area that is a particular passion to them, whether it be diabetes or perhaps mental health.
Maybe that statement of ‘I want to help people’ does not necessarily apply to a hospital or a healthcare setting. Would the student be just as fulfilled working a laboratory as a research scientist would, working out new cures for diseases or discovering more about the way in which the body works. Perhaps for some students this would be more rewarding than seeing patients in a consultation, depending on their own strengths and weaknesses. When a student presents with the idea of becoming a medic we should ask them to dissect this further, to break this wish down into its component parts and then rebuild working out what the true driving force is behind their decision. That is not to say to dissuade them from pursuing this course, but to rather, allow them to make choices with a greater knowledge of the courses available to them.
Say you have a student who mentions in discussion that their passion and choice to study Medicine is due to their curiosity about how the human body works. In this case, it may be that they should consider Physiology as an option. Physiology satisfies students’ curiosities about how animals and humans function and its study is of importance to Medicine and related health sciences. It is the study of how the human body functions or quite simply how and why we work as we do. Physiology includes aspects of other medically related courses such as pharmacology, neuroscience and anatomy. The course itself involves the chance to undertake experiments within a laboratory setting where the experiments are conducted on the peer group. These can include designing ways to reduce hear rate in stressful situations, how exercise affects basic body functions or determining how excess liquid intake affects urine output. Many students will also experience anatomical sessions with real specimens, which gives you a better understanding of how the body works than looking at textbook diagrams. In some cases, this part of the course can also include dissections of various organs. It is a wide ranging and engaging degree choice and can lead to interesting career options. For example, Physiologists can opt to work in hospitals as clinical scientists, taking ECGs, blood pressure and being involved in phlebotomy. Alternatively, if their interest lies within the research field they could choose to pursue this further. One example of this would be a student who develops an interest in cardiac function during their final year options and dissertation project, pursuing a career as a cardiology researcher.
What about those students with a real passion for Chemistry. They may wish to consider the alternatives such as Biochemistry, which combines aspects of Chemistry with Biological principles, or maybe they would be interested in a course such as Pharmacology. Pharmacology or rather the study of drugs from their design through to their interactions in the human body is an interesting route for those who might wish to pursue careers in Pharma or Clinical Trials. Pharmacologists are responsible for discovering new Medicines, improving the effectiveness of current drugs and understanding how individuals respond to drugs and the causes of addiction. Having a basis in Pharmacology would give a good grounding for those wishing to research new drugs to prevent disease or improve upon current medications used in Medicine. The degree itself incorporates elements of Biomedicine, Physiology and Pathology. In the final year of their studies, students can focus more on the forefront of current research in drug action. Laboratory classes look at the effects of drugs as well as their toxicology using both tissue samples and computer programs. In some laboratory sessions students can conduct research amongst themselves such as observing the effects of different quantities of alcohol/ or a placebo on reaction speeds.
Maybe you have a student who is also taking Psychology as one of their A-Level subjects; a natural progression here would be for them to consider this as a degree course. This is one option available however, the breadth of psychology is large and there are different areas to explore, whether this be educational, developmental or social, or perhaps another branch entirely. Perhaps when talking about their passion for psychology the student mentions the biological aspect, if they are also taking Biology as an A level then Neuroscience may be an option for them instead of pursuing Medicine. The course, which studies the development, structure and function of the nervous system, also includes how the brain makes sense of the world around us. It combines aspects of physiology, pharmacology and anatomy to give a wider understanding of the workings of the brain. Topics can include memory, pain, brain development in the embryo and gross brain anatomy. Neuroscience will also bring in elements of anatomy, with the study of brain and spinal specimens. In some dissertation projects, will include dissection and preparation of brain specimens and analysis of these through staining techniques. Neuroscience gives options to students to pursue careers in healthcare or research. Research roles include such areas as neurodegenerative disease, child development or mental health in both children and adults. For those who are looking for a degree that combines more elements of Psychology with Neuroscience then they should be searching for degree courses that include elements of Cognitive Neuroscience. These courses look at the cognitive basis for behaviour in humans and students may study the techniques used in Psychology and Physiology such as EEG, fMRI and PET scans.
These are just a snapshot of the courses available as alternatives to Medicine. Other options that to consider, and this is only a selection, include Applied Anatomy, Molecular Genetic, Pathology, Biomedicine and Forensic Science. Students all have unique passions and interests and therefore the wide variety of degree courses available should be discussed fully with them when university applications are approached by schools. Preferably, these discussions should begin well in advance of the UCAS application, to give students time to consider courses they may not have heard of before and to investigate further, determining if an alternative to Medicine piques their interest. Many students may not be aware that these options are available to them and may have been metaphorically ‘blinkered’ by the aspiration to achieve a place at Medical School without seeing the breadth of the Medical and related science spectrum. Perhaps these courses, for those set on their ambition could take that 5th place on the UCAS application, giving students a secondary option that they still feel enthusiastic about.
It is important to remind students that by choosing to take a medically related degree it does not stop them from working in a hospital or healthcare setting should this be something they wish to do. For those who may want to study a further degree it would be worth mentioning the Scientist Training Program as offered by the NHS. This teaches graduates about the clinical side of medicine and gives them the ability to assist in clinics, whilst they study for a Masters degree.
These medically related undergraduate courses give students a good basis and many transferable skills that they can take on into the work place. They will have the opportunity to improve their analytical skills, work with manipulating data, use various computer programs, determine correct statistical techniques and further develop their written communication. Having options available to students may give many an alternative and could possibly prevent those heart-breaking conversations post results when students miss out on places at their desired universities.
It is always worth bearing in mind that doing an undergraduate degree in a medically related science will also, should they still wish to pursue their dreams of becoming a medic, give them a good basis for embarking on that career, as they will always have a fantastic knowledge base. There is also the option for students who do go on to study Medicine to intercalate onto one of these related degrees, giving them an additional qualification alongside becoming a doctor. As always the more we prepare the students by giving them the best advice on options available, the better prepared they will be to make informed decisions about their futures.