When I walk onto the wards for placements, people often assume I’m just like the other 21-year old medical students, fresh out of A-levels. I think it’s an easy assumption to make. But the truth is I am not like most of my peers. I started studying medicine as I entered my 30s. However, this did not make me the oldest person studying on my course.
Being an older student brings an interesting dynamic to clinical placement. When clinicians realise I am the same age or even older than them, we start talking about life’s challenges. But we quickly slip back into the traditional ‘teacher - student’ roles when the time comes.
Studying as a mature student in healthcare subjects is becoming more common in the UK. In 2020, UCAS reported that the number of mature students (21-year old or over) in higher education had significantly increased with over 7,000 students in a single year. My course reflected this with several students older than me.
Why I went back to medical school
My story starts back as an undergraduate student studying maths. I loved the subject but simply wasn’t interested in any of the potential career options. Then, I discovered you can study medicine as a graduate. It wasn’t quite a straight road from there though. I had also already met my husband-to-be and we decided to have children before I embarked on a second degree. But here I am now, three children and ten years later and I am qualified as a doctor.
Attending medical school as an older student has been both interesting and rewarding. Before starting I had so many doubts running through my mind:
Over the course I have met many people who are in the same boat, and these are the questions that soon-to-be mature students often ask too. So, I am going to answer them for you today.
Photo credit: Zoe Blofeld
Will you fit in?
We ask this question because we worry that our older age will make us an outsider and leave little in common with our fellow students. But the nature of a medical degree, as a time consuming and vocational course, means you will automatically have a great deal in common with your course mates. To start with, you have medicine in common.
I would even go as far to say that once you are unleashed into the hospital environment, being older can be an advantage in terms of fitting in. You will find that many of your supervising doctors are often your age or younger and will look to you with a certain respect, sometimes even asking you for advice, such as the best childcare to work around shift patterns.
Yes, you will fit in.
Will you be too ‘past it’ to learn?
It’s natural to worry that our brains are somehow passed their best and that we will be unable to keep up. I’ve found that the opposite is true. Having studied a previous degree and working as a healthcare assistant prior to starting medicine gave me an excellent foundation to build on.
It’s natural to worry that our brains are somehow passed their best and that we will be unable to keep up. I’ve found that the opposite is true.
I may have had a more limited knowledge of chemistry than some of my peers but I had a far greater level of experience speaking with people, building up a rapport quickly and understanding some of the medical terminology. We sometimes underestimate these soft skills but good communication plays a huge part in the study of medicine. Whatever your background, you may have picked up more relevant skills than you realise.
No, you’re not past it yet!
How will you manage the heavy workload alongside your real life responsibilities?
This one was my biggest worry. Living further away from the university, with a husband and children already in my life, how would I manage the workload?
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Because I worried about it so much, I got organised. I planned how I would get there and back. I planned which days I would study and which days I would take as family time. I even planned what style of notes I was going to take and how I would file them. Being organised didn’t stop the initial tiredness in the first few weeks of the course. I was starting a new lifestyle.
But being prepared, we soon settled into our new normal.
This is how I would describe the last four years. It was the next step in our journey that became our normal.
If you’re thinking about studying medicine as an older student, I am sure you have things on your mind that give you doubts. But just like me, I am certain you can overcome them too.