An advert which appeared on tele not so long ago always used to make me cringe. Shot in soft focus, a chap in his mid-30s is seen traipsing round medical schools finding out how long it takes to become a doctor. Great, I thought, the first time I caught it, a mature career changer! Of course the wanna-be clinician is actually his prepubescent daughter, and the sensible father is organising his finances. Yeah, right. Let's face it, she'll probably have changed her mind by the time she gets to 18. I don't think many of us could really say where our futures lay when we first headed for university. And now that those carefree school days are past, most of us also think the door has firmly closed on any career paths which require a vocational degree, particularly medicine with its 5 or 6 years of study. But new developments in the field of medical education mean that door could be swinging ajar just slightly.

Read All About It

Two graduate medics share their experiences.

Alan Wiles completed a DPhil in biochemistry before enrolling in a conventional, 5-year medical course. Just 3 months from finishing he reflects on whether it's all been worth it.

Tosan Okoro started a PhD, but then his long-held dream came true. He was offered a place on the new Leicester-Warwick Medical School graduate-entry course for biological scientists.

At the end of March, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced the results of the latest round of bidding by English universities to provide the extra medical school places needed to meet the growing demand for doctors. Of the 1033 places allocated, nearly 40% are for accelerated graduate-entry courses. The goal is to widen access, and graduate entry is seen as "a way of broadening the type of people" training as doctors, according to Philip Walker of HEFCE.

But demand from graduates has always been high, says Caroline Persaud, admissions officer at St George's Hospital Medical School in London. For precisely this reason St George's began investigating the possibility of introducing a 4-year graduate-entry course a few years ago. A team was dispatched to investigate medical training in the United States, where all medical students are graduates, as well as Canada and Australia, which introduced graduate courses about 5 years ago, she explains. The result is that St George's have decided to adopt the Australian model, right down to the entrance exam used by Australian universities.

Taking an entrance exam might sound like a lot of hassle, but it could be your only way in if you don't have a biology degree. The Leicester-Warwick Medical School course, for example, is open only to biological sciences graduates. The St George's course, on the other hand, takes graduates of any discipline, provided that they have a 2:2 or higher. The exam is designed to ensure that candidates, no matter what their background, will cope with the challenges of an accelerated medical education and is "very rigorous" says Persaud. The three papers test reasoning in biological and physical sciences, reasoning in social sciences and humanities, and written communication. Surprisingly the biological scientists have tended to do poorly in all three papers, says Persaud, when compared with people with arts and physical sciences backgrounds. This explains why of the first intake of 35, just 20 are biological sciences graduates, despite 80% of the 350 applicants having a life sciences qualification. So, even if you think you'll breeze the test, it's worth doing some preparation, particularly since there's a charge of £150 to take it.

Graduate-Entry Courses ...

... are available, or will be starting shortly, at:

  • University of Birmingham

  • University of Bristol

  • University of Cambridge

  • Universities of Leicester & Warwick

  • University of Newcastle

  • University of Nottingham

  • University of Oxford

  • Queen Mary (University of London)

  • St George's Hospital Medical School

  • University of Southampton

Demand for the St George's course is even higher this year, with 450 applicants, so Persaud is relieved that by 2003 when all the new graduate-entry courses are fully rolled out there will be about 700 places specifically earmarked for graduates countrywide. There are several reasons why the places are worth fighting for. Firstly the courses tend to be much more grown up! St George's is entirely based on problem-based learning, for example, and takes into account that students "have all their social and study skills in place," points out Persaud. The other major advantage is funding. Graduates on conventional courses don't qualify for any statutory funding, but on graduate-entry courses the Department of Health pays the tuition fees in years 2, 3, and 4. There are also means-tested bursaries of up to £4500 pa available. Even with this financial support, building up some debt (to add to one's existing student arrears) is inevitable, but of course with a graduate course you start earning a year earlier!

Be a fly on the wall ... Check out how the first cohort of graduate medics at St George's are getting on. They're currently being filmed for a BBC TV series to be screened this autumn!