What is it Like to Study Medicine?

Just what is it like to study Medicine at university? We caught up with a couple of real medical students to find out!

Click on the names to skip to their story, or simply scroll through.

Nick – Birmingham

Nick Coffin

Nick was in his final year of a medicine degree at the University of Birmingham when we caught up with him. Despite a lack of medical background, Nick was drawn to a career as a doctor from a young age. He shares his experiences of studying in the great city of Birmingham.

What inspired you to study medicine?

I was really interested in Biology at school – particularly the physiology and function of the human body – and so knew I’d enjoy learning about and studying this further.

I knew that I wanted a career in a field that is dynamic: constantly changing and evolving in terms of its knowledge and capabilities, seeking to question more, discover more, and deliver more, one which requires you to think, be active and on your feet, and to solve problems.

I also love meeting and interacting with other people and so all of this led me to the conclusion that a career as a doctor was exactly what I was looking for.

Why did you choose to study at your university?

When I came to an open day, I was hugely impressed with Birmingham as a university – mainly for its course structure, its pastoral care and the way in which it supports its students.

The exceptional hospitals and NHS trusts that the university partners with for our clinical placements were also a huge pull. I realised that many of the country’s finest centres for different medical and surgical specialities are based in Birmingham and the West Midlands, and I therefore felt that the clinical exposure and experience that I would get during my training would be unparalleled.

Tell us a bit about the application process. How did you ensure yours was successful?        

When I submitted my application form back in 2008 I applied with a personal statement and UCAS form to 4 universities out of the 8 or so that I’d visited. I chose these based on whether I liked what I’d seen at open days, how I felt I’d fit in to the way each medical school’s course was designed and run, and whether that style of learning appealed to me.

I wanted a school which offered great opportunities in terms of clinical experience, academic research, teaching opportunities, and extra-curricular activities in terms of medical societies and the opportunity to socialise.

I picked schools only after carefully studying their entry criteria, to make sure that I had balance in my selection – in terms of knowing my academic and extra-curricular background was compatible with their admissions requirements, and the opportunities they offered matched what I hoped for in a medical school.

I think the sum of all of that is that your chances of success (at the time you send your application) are greatest when you’ve really taken the time to consider why you are applying to those particular medical schools, and whether you’ve really selected the best mix for you to maximise your chances.

What do you like about the course?

For me, right now, the highlight is the clinical training that I'm getting every day, in what I feel are some of the best hospitals in the country.

The things I really enjoyed during the first few years include the way in which your pre-clinical studies (which focus on anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, genetics, and other areas) are complemented by early clinical exposure in General Practice placements. This gives you early clinical experience, and the opportunity to start to develop skills vital to being a doctor such as communicating with patients, professionalism and responsibilities, and delivering care.

Birmingham also gives you opportunities to pursue your interests – whether that be through intercalating and exploring research, or teaching; through the innovative way first year students are taught basic life support skills, in their first few weeks and months at university, by older students in a peer-led model, or by providing a wide variety of opportunities to explore different specialities when it comes to the student selected components of the course.

What learning methods does your department employ?

The initial 2 pre-clinical years are predominantly based around lectures, small group tutorials, student-directed problem based learning, and your first clinical attachments in General Practice. In years 3–5 learning is mostly clinical based placements, with supportive lectures and seminars and regular in-hospital tutorials.

What aspects of the course are you finding difficult?

I think most people at this point would say that the number of hours and stamina that is required is quite significant when you compare yourselves to friends who aren’t studying medicine. This is something that you do get used to fairly quickly, alongside the inevitable increase in the pace of learning from sixth form or college.

The pastoral care and support system at Birmingham medical school is one of the college’s greatest strengths. So if you’re finding aspects of the course difficult, help, care and support really is readily there, both academically and pastorally.

Tell us about your elective; where did you go, what did you do?

I was attached to one of the trauma teams at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore – one of the world’s leading trauma centres.

It was an amazing opportunity to witness first-hand the work that this centre does both at the patient level, all the way from immediate trauma resuscitation through to discharge, and internationally in spearheading the development of trauma care around the world.

What about the social side of things at university. Does a medical student find much time for it?

Whilst the timetable can be fairly full at times, there’s always time for medical students to socialise, and I think getting this balance right is so important to having an enjoyable and successful time at university.

Birmingham’s MedSoc has a huge membership and always works to provide sports teams, societies based on hobbies from drama to mountaineering, and clinical speciality interest societies, all designed to allow you to socialise and do something you enjoy at times that medics are free – important as a lot of university based societies will meet during working hours. This means that over the years I’ve been able to get involved in sports, musicals, orchestras, emergency and critical care medicine interests, teaching, and attend a whole load of social events.

Liam – Birmingham

Liam Cato

Medical student Liam hails from Cheshire. His excellent academic credentials and desire to help others inspired his choice to study medicine at uni. He tells us about his experiences so far.

What inspired you to study medicine?

I really want to help other people – I’ve always enjoyed helping people. I also enjoy a challenge and problem solving.

Through volunteer work at a care home and with a charity helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds, I was further challenged and enjoyed the interaction and satisfaction of helping people.

This experience inspired me to follow a career involving these things and medicine fitted perfectly. It’s a privilege, as a doctor, to be there for people when they really need someone’s help and to hopefully – but not always – make them better.

Why did you choose to study at your university?

I enjoyed the atmosphere at Birmingham when I visited. I liked the campus layout and everyone was welcoming and friendly. I also liked that it was outside of the city, but close enough to hop on a train and be there in less than 10 minutes.

I chose Birmingham for its consistently good academic and student satisfaction performance for Medicine and was impressed with the layout of the medical school and the continual investment going into it. The medical school also has one of the biggest medical societies in the country, so I knew there would be plenty of opportunities for extra-curricular activities, sports and events. Something I’ve also found useful since starting is its good location in the middle of the country, useful for travelling to and from home in the inter-term breaks.

Tell us a bit about the application process. How did you ensure yours was successful?

The application process involves the usual UCAS stuff. A well-written personal statement showing your skills relating to medicine and evidencing them against things you’ve done in the past is essential. If your application is shortlisted you will be invited for interview. At the moment Birmingham doesn’t use any selection tests, so you are chosen on your previous academic performance (both GCSE and A level) and on many other key skills tested in your multiple mini interview.

The multiple mini interview is becoming more popular with medical schools now, and it involves a series of stations which each focus on a particular skill or quality deemed as important to be a good doctor. These might include communication, ethics, data interpretation, and so on.

One of the things being increasingly asked for is some work experience. This is difficult for some of us because of age problems and lack of opportunity in the surrounding area. I worked hard to get work experience in my local hospital (for 2 weeks) which turned out to be really interesting. But what I found most useful was the volunteer work that I did in a residential care home. This was really useful in improving my interaction with people and also my confidence.

I also made sure to do some extracurricular activities, such as playing hockey and guitar, to show I was well balanced. I took opportunities at college and secondary school such as head boy, school council, and science tutoring system to evidence various qualities and skills that I have.

What do you like about the course?

Everything! (Well, nearly everything.) Studying Medicine at Birmingham is really enjoyable and rewarding. Small Group Teaching sessions (SGT) are enjoyable because you get to apply knowledge to a clinical scenario and ask questions to knowledgeable experts in their field.

Anatomy is also one of my favourite topics here. It’s very engaging and the specimens are expertly dissected to help you understand 3D structures. I also enjoy General Practice days which happen fortnightly at the end of your pre-clinical years (1 and 2). I get to see and speak to real patients, and put some of the medical theory from the lectures into action.

The medical student culture is something else I enjoy. Everyone is very friendly and respectful to one another, and supportive when needed. It’s a very close knit group here (but that doesn’t mean you don’t make friends outside of Medicine too).

You’re not just a face in a crowd. Something Birmingham medical school does particularly well is to make you feel welcome and supported. We have a great 'family' system composed of older years, younger years and a personal tutor so that you have contact with people at different stages in medicine, and someone always checking up on how you’re doing.

I think my favourite thing about Birmingham is the opportunities available to you – the countless opportunities to learn new skills and get involved in different societies and organisations.

What learning methods does your department employ?

The medical department employs a number of learning methods to teach us. Most material is delivered through lectures. This gives us the knowledge that is required to later apply it and understand it – rather than just rote learning the material.

Then there are SGTs (Small Group Teaching sessions). Your M-group (or medicine group) consists of around 15 students, and attends a session where a facilitator (usually a clinical specialist or a specialist researcher) will help you to apply your knowledge in a given context and teach you new information. This is also a great opportunity to ask the questions that you don't have the answers to.

We also occasionally have GLs (Group Learning sessions), particularly for pharmacology topics, where our M-group will work through a case and put our responses on a discussion board. The lecturer will than give feedback. Again, occasionally we also have SDLs (Self-Directed Learning sessions). During these we are expected to work individually (or in a study group of your choosing!) to read the material given, and any information you source yourself, and then answer questions relating to it.

One thing I am pleased about at Birmingham is the opportunity to receive feedback for work, keeping me on the right track.

What aspects of the course are you finding difficult?

Keeping up with the volume of work is difficult and there is always the occasional problem or question whenever you’re doing a module. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the medical school has a fantastic family system where you can talk to your personal tutor about any problems you’re having.

There are also many other sources of help available for specific instances. If it’s a specific question you’re struggling with, lecturers or the head of component are always more than happy to answer your query and get back to you (sometimes with shocking speed). There are also discussion boards where students can post questions and ideas for each component.

I’m also not a born wordsmith, so I sometimes find it difficult to write good quality essays. I used the support of the university – I attended writing, grammar and essay planning classes, and arranged a one-to-one with a trained expert to help. There are also many other arms of support available for those with learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyscalculia.

How are you funding your studies?

I do some part-time work with a company called MyTutorWeb, who run tutoring for A level and GCSE students over the internet, using virtual classrooms. It’s rewarding and very flexible as you can choose how many students to have and when to run tutorials.

What about the social side of things at university. Does a medical student find much time for it?

It’s certainly difficult to find time, but, when you do, you seem to enjoy it that bit more. There are loads of social activities going on at Birmingham and the nightlife is excellent. The university’s Guild of Students run a number of events throughout the year to help people unwind and meet new people!

There is an assumption that (especially during freshers week) only alcohol-fuelled nights out are organised, but there are plenty of non-alcoholic events that are equally as fun. I also socialise through the many university sports clubs and other societies which put on their own events.

Any other comments?

If you’re wondering if Medicine is right for you:

  • Consider the long hours, hard work and emotional demand.
  • But also consider the strong friendships you gain, the difference you make, the skills you build, and the type of person you will become because of it.
  • Put these things on the scales and see where you weigh in. If you think Medicine is right for you, apply to Birmingham and it’s likely to be one of the best decisions that you make.