Friday, 23 September 2011

1 year into medschool...

one year ago, i put my scientific career on hold to start an adventure... med school in cambridge.
i took this leap in order to work more closely with people rather than proteins, to do something more applicable that may perhaps lead me to a new direction of (potentially more fundable) research in the future. even though i loved my job, the science and academic life, i wanted to do something more tangible and be able to approach science with a much broader perspective.

so i moved from oxford to cambridge in september 2010, ultra-keen and excited about what was to come. so now, after my first year in medschool, what are the conclusions i can draw?

it has definitely been a year of adjustments... it started off with my initial expectations meeting reality (see this previous post), and then getting on with things and studying for the exams. now that i've passed the 1st year exams and gained some more experience, i can look back and evaluate:

would i choose cambridge again?

* cambridge's special focus on science
the cambridge graduate course is one of the few in the country that does NOT compress two years of pre-clinical teaching into one year, but keeps two full years of pre-clinical science on the curriculum. these two years are accompanied by an accelerated version of the first clinical year of the standard course, taught during the term "holidays". after these initial two years, one enters straight into the 2nd clinical year of the standard course, i.e. the penultimate year of medical school, making it a 4-year course in total.
since obtaining a broad and in-depth foundation of the science involved in medicine was one of my reasons for starting medschool in the first place, i have definitely enjoyed this aspect of the course.
working through the material my own way, i definitely got a lot out of it and am full of ideas for the future. in that way i can only recommend it to anyone interested in science.
but contrasting the amount of cambridge's scientific teaching with the required working knowledge of a physician, one can perhaps understand why other medical schools choose to define their focus differently. given that this is a graduate course and there is also a lot of medicine to learn, the two years of intense science are perhaps a bit of an indulgence. that's why i recommend choosing any particular medical course carefully based on one's preferences of how much science one wishes to encounter... :-)

* tailoring of the course to graduate students
the course organisation i described in the previous paragraph means that the graduate students work alongside the undergrads during termtime of years one and two, and have their own separate clinical teaching during the term "holidays". after pre-clinical finals in the 2nd year, the graduates join a more advanced cohort of undergrads for the full-time clinical training for another 2 years.
so apart from the few weeks of clinical teaching in the first two years, very little course content has actually been specifically designed for graduates. the grads do almost everything the undergrads do, only in less time and with much less time off.
in my opinion, the course hardly takes into consideration or even exploits the different starting points and skill sets of graduates and professionals compared to younger undergrads. while this is a pity, it would be much less of a shortcoming if it wasn't for the relatively ineffective timetabling and execution of the course. the time constraints of the graduate course (and without wanting to sound snobbish: perhaps also the higher degree of university and life-experience??) definitely highlight any redundancy or inefficiency of teaching. while it was definitely painful to sit through practicals teaching you how to hold a pipette, no matter how many times you have done it before, it was worse to suffer through full schedules of compulsory attendance, leaving you little freedom to organise your time in a way that makes learning most efficient for you, something that a mature student could definitely be entrusted with.
finally, with only very few weeks off during the year (in total ~5, of which at least 2 have to be used for studying), there just isn't much flexibility for any unforeseen events that life throws at you (such as parents falling ill etc... sadly more likely to happen as you get older), or to simply coordinate your life with that of your family or partner.
i wonder if other medical schools offering accelerated courses have incorporated more obvious strategies for teaching older students. at least the titles of some other courses (e.g. "graduate/professional entry" at king's college london) suggests some awareness in that direction.

considering these aspects, the course has definitely been quite disappointing. but then again, there is no guarantee that it will be better anywhere else... ;-)

* to sum up...
given that cambridge is a beautiful and convenient place to study, i'd probably still choose cambridge again. but if i could start over, i would equip myself with thick skin and various coping mechanisms right away:
- keep your expectations low and your humor high
- keep up as much of an outside life as you can
- keep some aspect of your previous career going to give you some affirmation
- never loose sight of the big picture.

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