Helen Jaques: To BSc or not to BSc?

Helen JaquesAs a profession, doctors seem very fond of adding letters after their name: MB BS, BChir, MRCP, FRCS, MRCOG… the list goes on. So you’d think medical students would be keen to start the process early by snapping up the letters “BSc” while still at university.

In the UK, medical students have the opportunity to do an intercalated Bachelor of Science degree—an extra year of study that usually involves doing basic science or clinical research—in the middle of their medical degree. In most medical schools doing an intercalated BSc is optional, but in other universities the extra year is compulsory. Given that a BSc takes three years for undergraduates not studying medicine, the chance to earn one in a year seems like a bargain.

Another key benefit of doing an intercalated BSc is the edge it gives in the job market: having a BSc is worth between 2 and 6 extra points in the UK foundation programme, which is the route through which medical students get their first junior doctor job after graduating. Undergraduates who do an intercalated BSc also do better in subsequent medical exams than those who don’t do the extra year.

But, apparently, students aren’t that keen on doing an intercalated BSc during their medical studies. Research performed in 1996/7 found that only a third of medical students in the UK undertook a BSc, and the proportion is thought to have changed very little or even declined since then.

At the University of Aberdeen, for example, only 12.9% of medical students intercalated in 2007/8. To try to pinpoint why their students weren’t enrolling in this extra year, academics at the university quizzed 137 fourth year students and 156 fifth year students who had chosen not to do a BSc. 

Among the 226 of these students who had not already done a BSc or higher degree before starting medical school, the most common reason for not doing an intercalated degree was not wanting an extra year of study (202 students, 88.9%). Wishing to avoid further debt was the second mostly commonly cited reason (152 students, 67.3%), although the level of debt students had did not correlate with choosing financial burden as a reason for not intercalating.

Students also said they weren’t fussed about doing a BSc because they weren’t interested in research or didn’t want to lose friends as the rest of their peer group progressed straight on to their fourth year of study, says the study, published in BMC Medical Education.

Despite the clear benefits intercalating provides when applying for foundation posts, just under half of the undergraduates surveyed (145, 49.5%) thought having a BSc would improve their long term career prospects and fewer (122, 41.6%) thought it would help then get a job in the future.

Granted, when you’re 20 or so and weighing up whether to do a BSc, like the students in this study, five years at university seems long enough, let alone six. Deciding not to do an intercalated BSc just because it makes for longer time at university seems quite short-sighted though, given how beneficial it might be later on in the job market. 

It is worth noting that only one student out of 226 was interested in a career in academic medicine, where having a BSc would provide a clear advantage, and almost half the students (135, 49.3%) said they were not interested in research. Unfortunately this study doesn’t have a comparison group of students who took a BSc, which would presumably have a far higher proportion of students interested in research. Nevertheless, doing a BSc can be beneficial regardless of whether you’re planning a career in academic medicine.

Most students (248, 84.5%) felt that they had not been provided with enough information to decide properly whether they wanted to do a BSc. However, only a third of students (117, 39.9%) actually bothered going to the timetabled presentation about intercalating and only 11.9% (35 students) went to the open day, so they’ve only got themselves to blame.

• Are you thinking about doing an intercalated BSc? Read the Student BMJ articles “Should I do an intercalated BSc?” and “Is studying for an intercalated degree a wise career move?” for more arguments for and against this path.

Helen Jaques is a technical editor for the BMJ