University of Leeds medical student, Alice Barber, shares the pros and cons she experienced when extending her studies for a year to focus on a specific area of interest.
Deciding whether to intercalate or not is a decision many medical students face at some point during their training.
When it actually comes down to it, it’s a decision that can be quite daunting – and a lot more complicated than the far-away concept people talk about at the beginning of medical school.
While it’s an individual decision that will be different for everyone, it’s important to consider both the pros and cons of intercalation to make sure that you make the right choice for you.
What are the pros of intercalating?
I think the pros of intercalating can be split into three categories: time, new experiences and career development.
Intercalation can be really valuable because of the time it gives you both within and outside of study. Firstly, it gives you the time to be able to dedicate a whole year to studying something that you are really interested in. It means that you can pursue this without having to have clinical medicine as your focus.
Secondly, most intercalation courses have a lot less contact time than medicine does. This allows you to pursue other interests and hobbies outside of study. It gave me the time to get involved in societies and projects that I hadn’t previously been able to fit in alongside medical school.
Then there’s also the fact that you will have more time to be able to work alongside study. For me, this was extremely valuable as it meant I was able to save up funds to get me through my final two years of medical school.
On the surface, it may seem like the only new experience is learning something different, but I’ve found there’s much more to it than that.
For example, studying a humanities subject which is based heavily around debate has given me the chance to learn in a way I never have before. I’ve met new people who I probably wouldn’t have come across if it wasn’t for intercalation.
This may sound menial, but I’ve also loved going into different university buildings other than the medical school. Although I chose to stay in Leeds to intercalate, you can also choose to intercalate at a different medical school, which would give you the chance to see a new city for a year.
Intercalation can also be really valuable for your future career. Whilst it does help for speciality applications, I think the most career development comes from the new skills that you are able to learn throughout an intercalated year.
It’s given me the chance to develop skills in writing, debating and analysing that I think will benefit me immensely in my future career and help me to be a better doctor in the long run. Intercalation also often leads to opportunities to publish work which, again, can be really useful when it comes to speciality applications.
What are the cons of intercalating?
Although there are many advantages of intercalating, it’s also important to weigh up the potential disadvantages. The disadvantages will be different for everyone, which can make the decision a little more complicated.
Again, I think the cons of intercalating can be split into two categories: finances and adjusting back to medicine.
Although intercalating is less contact-heavy and allows you to work and earn money, it can still be challenging financially. You’ll have an extra year before qualifying as a doctor, which means you’ll have two years of medical school without a student loan (rather than one).
There’s also differences between bachelors and master’s degrees. If you choose to intercalate during a masters, you won’t be able to get a full maintenance loan.
Despite this, I think there are many ways that you can reduce the financial impact of intercalation. Firstly, as I’ve mentioned, intercalation allows for more time to work alongside studies. There are also grants and scholarships available which can help you to finance intercalation.
Some students choose to move home for a year and intercalate at a university nearby in order to save money on rent (I’m aware this is not an option for everyone, but it might be for some).
Adjusting back to medicine
One particular concern that I had about intercalation was how hard it would be to adjust back to medicine after a year away. I worried about forgetting ‘medicine’ and finding it difficult to go back to placement after a year out.
While I think it’s normal to have these worries, I also think it’s possible to adjust quite quickly when you return to medicine.
There are also many ways that you can keep up your medical knowledge whilst intercalating - for example I volunteered as a community first responder which helped me to maintain my clinical skills.
Although this isn’t a specific disadvantage, it’s worth noting that intercalating has previously counted for points on foundation programme applications – this is no longer the case.
Whilst many have concluded from this that intercalating is no longer valuable, I think I have shown that intercalation can still be valuable (both personally and professionally).
How have I found intercalating?
So, how have I found intercalating? I chose to intercalate in medical ethics at my current medical school, in between my third and fourth years.
I have found it both challenging and extremely rewarding. I’ve learnt so much already, even though I’ve only done one term so far! Whilst it is still a very individual decision, I can’t recommend intercalating enough.