'Do I really need another degree?' It's a question many medical students ask themselves when considering intercalation - a qualification in a related subject, usually between the pre-clinical and clinical studies.
Intercalation can also open up the chance for some students to progress onto doing a PhD before then heading off to their clinical studies. But how many letters do you really need after your name? Will it actually make you a better doctor, or more likely to secure that dream job everyone's after? And can you afford it? Answering these questions is, in short, not simple.
How many letters do you really need after your name?
But for many, myself included, the chance to spend a year doing more university studying is very attractive. The traditional pre-clinical medical study can be fact-heavy, and there's inevitably and necessarily a focus on learning rather than on questioning or researching.
I attended a university where all medical students did another degree in addition to their medical one, so the decision by that stage was already made for me. But I relished the opportunity to specialise in weird and wonderful nichés of physiology which I would never have had the chance to do otherwise.
Ups and downs
During my intercalated year, I found that I spent more time in the library and the laboratory. I also spent less time in lectures than I anticipated, and certainly less than I had experienced in the preceding two years. I could choose what to focus on for my dissertation and I learnt how to critique research papers.
I must admit that I felt like a 'proper' student for a year too, with a bit more flexibility over my day and a chance to get involved with more extra-curricular activities. Despite the degree adding a year to an already long medical course, I relished the opportunity to have another year as a student.
And the down sides? Without doubt, cost has to come into it. I feel incredibly lucky that I was a student before the days of tuition fees, and although there was a cost implication for me it was a fraction of what students face now.
Learn as much as you can and remember that some opportunities only come around once.
One other issue is that if only a handful of students out of your year do an intercalated degree, you may find that you're left behind as your friends head off to enter the exciting world of clinical medicine. You'll then join the cohort from the year below when you start your clinical studies - but there is an upside in that you get to make more friends.
Ultimately you have to want to do an intercalated degree. It's not for everyone, but if you do take the chance, enjoy it. Learn as much as you can and remember that some opportunities only come around once.
A student's perspective
Alexander Bulcock is a fifth year medical student currently studying at the University of Manchester. He intercalated in 2013/14.
What did you study and why?
I remember initially applying for medicine because I was interested in aid work and wanted to work for agencies such as MSF and the ICRC when I became fully qualified. With this interest in mind, I took an intercalated year studying for an MA in Humanitarianism and Conflict Response, which was run by the head of the UK's Emergency Medical Response team, as well as the former president of MSF.
What were the pros and cons?
The course was quite far removed from my traditional comfort zone. It was primarily a humanities based subject, which was something I had never studied before at a higher education level. The fact that I was expected to perform to the same standards as people who had studied this for years was a daunting prospect.
Luckily for me my tutors were very supportive. I think being honest about my shortcomings early on allowed me to be pointed towards the help I need to succeed. This I'm sure is true for any subject that students are thinking of intercalating in, no matter how different they may be from medicine.
Was it worth it?
I'm really glad that I did intercalate. The experience exposed me to a new subject that I would never have experienced within a traditional medical curriculum. The time away from medicine also made me see the other life options available to me, and actually galvanised my passion for becoming a doctor again. It was a choice I would advise every medical student to make.