Is attending expensive courses a fair way to demonstrate interest in a specialty?
With doctors now expected to choose a career path a mere 18 months after leaving medical school, it is more important than ever for students to start thinking about a specialty early on and begin developing your CV. The person specification for many training programmes (available through local deanery websites), especially those that are competitive or place emphasis on practical skills such as surgery or anaesthetics, ask for potential candidates to have attended relevant courses .They want candidates to develop basic skills and, perhaps more importantly, to show an interest in the specialty.
The message we often hear is that this development of one’s portfolio is a process best started in medical school. Fortunately, opportunities abound for medical students to attend the courses, with many organisations, such as the royal colleges, often putting on days for medical students to experience a particular discipline in depth. In my experience these events are usually good. In general, people who attend the courses relevant to a specialty probably have more interest in it than those who do not.
However, the cost of these events might be prohibitive for many students, despite the best efforts of the organisers to make them affordable. Using a career in surgery as an example, a quick scan of upcoming courses aimed at medical students have registration fees ranging up to £90. Travel to these events is a further expense—my university is quite remote so attending a course in London without needing an overnight stay requires me to fly. That’s another outlay of between £50 and £150, depending on how far in advance you book. Intracity transport between airports and venues is another cost. The last course I attended was in London (and not available anywhere else), and cost me about £160. That is a sizeable amount for the average student, and was certainly enough that I was on the fence about going to the course. If I was attending the event as a part of my medical school course or if I was presenting research, I would be able to get funding from my university, but courses taken for personal interest are not funded. The royal colleges do not provide funding for such events either because the price is already heavily subsidised, but some offer a small discount that can be attained through an annual membership. Smaller local events, perhaps put on by your medical school, are usually cheaper and can be useful, but they lack the same clout on an application form as a larger, national, event or course. The limiting factor in how often I get to show my interest in a specialty is not my enthusiasm but my bank balance. When I look at my peers, I see some from financially well off backgrounds who are able to attend many more events—sometimes two or more in one month. Does this make them a better candidate for a specialty than me? Of course not, but it does make their application better.
I am sure any deanery would be horrified at the suggestion that the selection process for specialty training favours those who are better off. However, care must be taken that the current selection process does not inadvertently favour those from well off backgrounds: a lack of courses attended is not necessarily for the want of enthusiasm.David Gorman, third year medical student
1University of Dundee
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Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2014;22:g378