Medicine can be a rewarding career, but the path isn’t always easy.
If it’s the career path you want to take, Dr Laura Gray of Deakin’s School of Medicine says you’ll need some key things: dedication to learning, great interpersonal skills, and passion.
With these under your belt, you’re ready to embark on your journey to becoming a doctor. This is how to get there.
Which undergraduate degree is best?
You’re probably raring to set yourself on the right path to medicine by choosing the most science-y Bachelor degree you can find.
If you simply can’t get enough of formulas, lab coats and laboratories, then by all means go for a science-related undergraduate degree. But if your interests are leading you to a different discipline, Dr Gray says there’s no need to commit yourself to several years of a degree you think is a little ‘meh’ just because you don’t think you’ll get into medicine without it.
‘You should be choosing an undergraduate degree that you’re really interested in and that you love doing. Because that’s what’s going to give you the strong academic performance that you need [to get accepted into medicine],’ she explains.
‘We have to acknowledge that medicine is a really competitive program. We get a lot of applicants for a fairly small number of places.’
‘You need to choose a course that you’re interested in, because there’s no substitute for passion.’
Still feeling sceptical? Bringing knowledge, skills and practice from another discipline into medicine is a real asset – for both your studies and future professional practice. Having this kind of life experience allows you to understand what working is like, and be better able to relate to your future patients. ‘That’s a real strength,’ Dr Gray says.
‘We’ve got people studying medicine who’ve been engineers, people who’ve been working in the air force. In fact, the dux of the cohort a couple of years ago had been a chef previously.’
The biggest hurdle: getting into medicine
Unlike many other industries, it’s not finding a graduate job that’s tough: ‘Getting into the course, that’s hard,’ Dr Gray says.
The standard pathway of entry into medicine is based on your performance on the Graduate Medical School Admissions Test (GAMSAT), the GPA from your undergraduate degree, and your performance during the Multiple Mini Interviews (MMI) which are run on university campuses.
‘It’s the combination of those factors that determine whether a student is offered entry into the program,’ she explains.
The GAMSAT is ‘designed to assess the capacity to undertake high-level intellectual studies in the medical and health professional programs’, according to the Australian Council for Educational Research.
It’s good to keep in mind that if you decide to pursue a non-science related undergraduate degree, you will still need a basic understanding of biology, chemistry and other related sciences to be successful in this test.
‘But it also tests more abstract reasoning skills and other skills that are really important too,’ Dr Gray explains. ‘There are sections that are focused on biology and chemistry and those foundational sciences, but there are other, broader aspects of the test.’
The best way to prepare is to head directly to the GAMSAT web page where you can register and read up on the best steps to take before sitting the test.
The Multiple Mini Interviews
Getting a great result on your GAMSAT and having a stellar GPA doesn’t guarantee you a place in a medicine course, but the MMIs are a great opportunity to showcase your broader range of skills and passion for medicine.
‘There are quite a few different aspects of applicants skill sets that we try to explore through the MMIs,’ Dr Gray explains.
‘MMIs are quite structured and short. Each candidate will meet approximately 10 people and have a short conversation with those people about different scenarios, answering different questions, and they might be asked to complete a task.’
Once you’re in the course, you’re in
If your application is successful, your passion will assist you significantly during what Dr Gray describes as ‘a challenging course’.
‘We ask quite a lot of our students, but we also try to support them,’ she says.
‘You should be choosing an undergraduate degree that you’re really interested in and that you love doing. Because that’s what’s going to give you the strong marks you need [to get accepted into medicine].’
Dr Laura Gray,
School of Medicine, Deakin University
As well as the course work, a medicine degree requires you to complete a diverse range of placements in various settings right from the first year of the program.
‘Some of the early placements are with GPs, some of them are with hospitals, some of them are in allied health situations or community care,’ Dr Gray explains. They’re all quite short to give you a taste of what working in that particular area could be like.
When you reach your third and fourth years of medicine, you’ll get to spend most of your time in a particular clinical placement. ‘Many students work in hospitals, some of them work in rural general practices or rural healthcare providers, and they’ll experience different aspects of medicine throughout the year,’ Dr Gray says.
It’s an intense workload, but most students who enter the course are able to complete the requirements successfully. ‘I think that just reflects the fact that the people who want to do medicine come into it with their eyes open, and are really passionate about what they’re doing.’
‘Most students, once they’re in the course, successfully graduate,’ she says. And after donning your graduation robes, the likelihood of getting an internship is ‘very, very high’.
A year-long internship is the next step on the path to becoming a medical professional, and during this time you’ll get to work and practise as a doctor – usually in a hospital – doing junior doctor tasks. ‘You are actually a clinical professional at that point, but you’re a junior so you’re supported and supervised,’ Dr Gray explains.
‘A lot of the time graduates will do their internships at one hospital and then move somewhere else after that.’
Completing an internship is a requisite to become eligible for general registration as a medical practitioner.
Specialisation and the role of lifelong learning
The process of formal learning doesn’t stop after graduation, regardless of whether you want to specialise or not. Dr Gray explains a dedication to lifelong learning is crucial to be successful in the field, as a large part of the role of being a doctor is ‘to keep abreast of new developments’.
‘You have to be able to know how to study, be adaptable and continue to learn even after graduation,’ she explains.
Before choosing whether to study a specialisation, Dr Gray says there are opportunities to experience many options first-hand. ‘Really, it gives people a good chance to get a sense of what it’s like to actually work in the system, and to learn a bit more about all the different specialties in order to make a good choice as to where they want to head.’
Then, depending on what your interests are, you can move into specialist training programs. The requirements of these vary quite a lot depending on the area you want to head towards, as does the length of the programs and where you’re able to do them. For example, some programs enable and encourage the trainees to work in a rural environment.
Plan for Plan b
Unfortunately, a challenging reality of this path is not everyone makes it into medicine. It’s a fact Dr Gray regretfully states: ‘We have 4500 to 5000 people applying [for medicine] each year, and the majority of those people won’t get in.
‘We always try and encourage people who are thinking of doing medicine to have a plan B.’
Having an alternative career option in the back of your mind help you to channel your passion into something else that excites you.
Dr Gray’s advice is to start thinking about your plan B in advance, and choose an undergraduate degree that allows you to follow that career path.
‘I think if people are really focused on only medicine, sometimes that worries me a little bit,’ she says. ‘I love the dedication, but at the same time they’ve got to be realistic and be aware that even with all the commitment in the world, their application may not be successful.’
But not being accepted the first time you apply doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to. And, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
‘It’s really common for people to apply more than once before they get in,’ Dr Gray says.
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