It’s that time of year again. The time of year when friends of friends of friends find me on Facebook, when I see a small surge in the number of Twitter followers I regularly broadcast to, and people I haven’t seen for ages organise a catch up over drinks and drop in “I’ve always wondered about medicine as a career…”.
So, I exaggerate. Just a wee bit. But I do get about 5 enquiries a year from friends, family friends, friends of friends, or even occasionally, total strangers (hello, Twitter!), asking how I reached the Medical Mecca that they so longed for since that day they received their “My First Stethoscope” set. And that’s fair enough, because once that was me.
I keep wanting to tell these people that to be honest, I’m not sure how I can help. Unless you really want 10 years of impoverished student-life (with one year out actually working for the NHS, because, y’know, who else could you give a spare year of your life to?!), more letters after your name than there are IN it (I double-barrelled for a reason, people), and an uncanny ability to live off pasta and sweet potatoes, there are more sensible ways to do this.
But partly to save myself repeating the story to anyone else who asks (now I can just send them a link!), here’s my version. Some of it may be out of date (my beloved St George’s doesn’t have as many Graduate spaces any more. If you want to discuss that, buy me whisky and a box of tissues so I can get suitably emotional about it. It hurts so bad.) and some of it is very personal to me (and isn’t a route that any sane person would take). So here goes. My frustrating, ludicrously circuitous route through the muddle that is applications and the rest.
There’s a great Avenue Q song; What Do You Do With A BA In English? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CK6ksA0QyE4) – it turns out that adding Theology and Arabic to that doesn’t help much, and my mother swiftly vetoed the War Correspondent plan. So the NHS seemed the next best plan… I’d been in and out of hospitals with various family members for nearly a decade, and had I not been FAR better at English Lit than anything scientific at school, I’d have wanted to do medicine, but it just never seemed to be an option for me. I had no Science A Levels, no family members or close friends who had ever done it, and I’d never really had to work particularly hard, which seemed quite a big part of the whole learning-to-save-lives thing. Also, the few doctors I did know, seemed to be superhuman. So here comes tip one:
1) Being a medic will not automatically make you a better person, superhuman or even nice. You have to do that as you go. Some never do. I have met medics I’ve hated, and many who’ve probably hated me. If you’re doing it for this reason, DON’T. Go on retreat, ‘find yourself’, hell, learn to wrestle lions, IT WILL BE EASIER. And probably cheaper. And did I mention easier?! Medicine will also not mean that your parents love you more than they already do, that you’ll be great at dinner parties, or that you’ll automatically know how to dress for ‘smart/casual’. No one will ever know that.
I wanted to be a doctor, but I had no idea how. I certainly didn’t know I could have done a graduate course at THAT stage, and I needed to be with my family in sunny Newcastle, to help look after my gorgeous baby bro Theo, who put the Up into Down’s Syndrome. So I did the logical thing, and my go-to back up plan throughout life: I got myself another degree. A BSc Hons in Nursing (Child), to be precise. Was it easy? No. Was it fun? On the whole, no. Did it make life easier going forward? HELLS YES. I still use skills from nursing every day, and probably still get through my exams using bits I picked up along the way. So tip two:
2) GET EXPERIENCE. You really don’t need to slog at a degree for three years (I, as ever, went over the top on this one), but get some hands-on time. Work as a Healthcare Assistant, or go and read to elderly patients (hospitals have great voluntary schemes, and work experience programmes if you ask). Go and sit in with your GP if you like, but bear in mind you might not see masses or even get to talk to patients if they aren’t really enthusiastic; they’re busy people and depending on where you are, may be a tad overwhelmed by keen beans needing work experience! Some medical schools will insist you have a certain amount of experience, and it isn’t JUST to reduce numbers. You don’t want to be the medical student who has never seen a sick person before, or who nearly gets run down by a trolley in the middle of a ward because standing to one side just hadn’t occurred to you (that’s a personal bugbear). If you know how to clean up a patient in the middle of a busy ward round, you will make friends VERY quickly.
Eventually, you will need to write an application, and possibly do an entrance exam. I can only apologise. See what your ideal medical schools want (check that you’ve got the qualifications for them first, obviously – apparently 2 2.2’s does NOT = 2.1. That was upsetting.), and get it done. YOU MAY NEED MORE THAN ONE ATTEMPT. Tip three coming up:
3) Find an exam, and get a good guide book to it. This is something you can legitimately ask someone who’s been there. Actual questions are FAR less annoying! I did GAMSAT (a graduate test), and somehow scraped through first time. I read a good book about it by a guy called Griffiths, (which may still be available!), and figured that the three parts of the exam ranked from ‘Yeah, sure, I can give that a shot’ to ‘I’m sorry, you want me to do WHAT now?!’, so I focussed the two weeks of manic “I should really have booked this test before” on that last part. Hello A Level Sciences, you caught me in the end. Exam technique matters (hence the guidebook), so have a plan when you get in there. Don’t be the person who turns up to a test completed entirely in pencil with only a biro. Because running to the nearest Tesco will leave you with only a CBeebies pencil case set, and you may get funny looks *ahem*. Some people do courses for these exams. I wasn’t organised enough, so can’t really comment on them, but if you want to, then go for it. They’re apparently great for meeting other people going through the same process, which I would have SERIOUSLY appreciated.
Straight onto tip four:
4) Get a FABULOUS referee. Ideally, someone medical/nursing who gets what they may be looking for. Someone who also actually likes you would help. I had a lovely supervisor from my nursing degree, who knew I’d had a less than easy time during my degree, and wrote a reference that made me cry in a good way.
If all of this bit goes well, you may get an interview. Different schools do them differently, so again, my experience may be limited, but just be sensible. Dress appropriately. Shouldn’t be hard, apparently really is for some. Don’t rush to answer – take a breath, speak slowly, consider your responses. DO NOT BRAG ABOUT YOUR MEDICAL RELATIVES/FRIENDS/BFF. It ain’t genetic, kids (even if it is, they don’t care.). Most of all, and I know it’s easy to say: try to enjoy yourself. If you’re more relaxed, it helps. Give them a smile (maybe practice that gurn first), and go.
If you get into medicine, you are heading for the most incredible, terrifying, exhausting, stressful, tear-inducing, joyful, mind-blowing, bloody crazy ride of your life. You will make incredible friends (and meet some people you’d rather never meet again). You will be sleep-deprived and your loved ones will hate you at least once a month. And Nurses; it’s not like nursing. It’s not better or worse, it’s just very very different. So the final tip?
5) Don’t ask me how to get in. ASK WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS. Do I regret it? Only very occasionally. Do I wish I’d known what would happen once I’d got in and that I’d properly prepared for that bit? OH YES. Maybe that’s another blog, but either way, ASK. It feels like getting in is the end, the battle is through, you’ve made it.
YOU HAVE NO IDEA.
Good luck! And please, don’t ask me how to get into medical school…