Applying to intercalate at Cambridge University (for a postgraduate degree)

Updated: Feb 22

If you are thinking about pursuing an academic clinical career, Oxford and Cambridge are amazing places to gain once-in-a-lifetime research experience WITH the added benefit of 1-1 supervision. A lot of medical students do not realise that intercalating in a postgraduate degree is an option, let alone at Oxbridge. Although it's not widely advertised and not 'easy' to get into, it definitely isn't impossible.


As with any student who gains admission into a reputable university, lots of people have questions about how you exactly did it and any tips and tricks. This is simply impossible to provide, especially for the niche postgraduate degrees offered at Oxbridge. It will all depend on your research interests, your previous experience to demonstrate this, and your academic ability. I am not in a position to advise on these but in this blog post, I CAN give you an outline of the application process I went through to successfully gain admission to Cambridge for my Master's (MPhil) degree as an intercalating medical student (who has completed at least 3 years of their degree).


First of all, some specifics about me that have made pursuing this degree possible + important things to note:

1. I currently study on the EMDP medicine course at King's.

If you haven't heard of this or want to know more about my experience, I have a blog post here. Essentially, this means my medical degree is 6 years long. By going to Cambridge, it has now become 7 years. I am in my 5th year of study, meaning that the NHS bursary covers the tuition fees of this Master's course as well as some of my maintenance for living out. More info about the NHS bursary and its specifics can be found in another blog post here.


Therefore, if you are a standard medical student (i.e. if your course is 5 years) and you are planning to intercalate after your 2nd or 3rd year, you will be responsible for self-funding all your fees if pursuing a postgraduate degree. You will not be eligible for an undergraduate student loan, but you can apply for a postgraduate loan of up to £11,000 (please note: this will probably cover your tuition, but your living costs will be more than this).


Tip: I recommend intercalating after your 4th year to take advantage of the NHS bursary if your university permisses you to do so.

2. As far as I know, Cambridge and Oxford only allow external intercalating medical students to pursue POSTGRADUATE degrees.

This means you CANNOT go to Oxbridge to do an intercalated BSc or BA as an external student. I would advise being very knowledgeable about what different postgraduate degrees are out there such as MSc, MPhil, MA, and so on. I discuss this a bit more in a blog post here.

3. Please check with your medical school FIRST as to whether intercalating outside of your university is possible.

Luckily, King's were incredibly supportive of my application and already had experience with students intercalating at Oxbridge before me. Other universities are not as accommodating or already have an intercalated degree embedded into their medical course.


So, what advice would I give to someone wanting to apply to Oxbridge for an intercalated postgraduate degree?

Know your research niche / academic interests

Do not apply for subjects or research projects that you have NO long-standing interest in or do not have the research skills to match. Write down all of the academic experiences you have had at medical school so far such as:

  • Academic achievements - scoring the top marks in exams, essay competitions, poster presentations and successful academic projects you've been recognised for will make you stand out. Oxford / Cambridge place emphasis on your academic ability.

  • SSCs and any research modules you have completed throughout medical school - focus on the skills you learned e.g. wet lab experience, statistics, systematic review, meta-analysis... These are what these universities are specifically looking for because, at the end of the day, YOU need to prove that you can undertake a postgraduate-level course without ever having technically graduated (if applying as an undergraduate medical student like I did).

  • Publications - a GREAT way to get your application through the door and looks really impressive (don't worry if you do not have any though)

Know your career goals

A part of my application asked me what my career goals were and how a postgraduate course will help me to achieve them.

  • Is there a specialty you want to go into that you believe your research will contribute to? How will doing a Master's help with your specialty application (besides points)?

  • Would you consider doing a PhD at some point? (MPhils are known to lead onto future PhDs and that's why some people take them).

  • Do you want an academic clincial career? (this answer should be YES)

And don't forget to be clear about WHY i.e. I am interested in an academic career in paediatrics or child & adolescent mental health (you can read more of my reasons in this blog post), therefore, my Master's research on the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people's mental health makes sense and is very topical!

These need to be clearly shown in your CV.


Tip: You should start working on an academic CV as soon as possible. This is similar to a standard CV but you need to have headings such as 'research experience' and 'academic prizes'. You can find a range of academic CV templates for postgraduate applications online - there isn't one perfect format but remember that you need to emphasise your academics, not necessarily your previous employment and extra-curriculars if they do not relate to academia.

Read!

Departments usually have lists of research projects available and the supervisors running them. They will even provide a whole list of supervisors' published papers. The best thing you can do is READ THE SUPERVISOR'S WORK. You do not need to read 100s of their papers but you should definitely read some of their most recent ones and any papers related to the research project they're currently offering. Write down a few things like:

  • What the overall findings of their research paper were

  • What you felt was really interesting (AND WHY) / something you learned from the paper

  • Questions you feel are still unanswered - and further research you think could be done to potentially answer these questions (A MAJOR INTERVIEW Q)

Start early

If you are considering a postgraduate degree at Oxbridge, you need to start as early as September/October of your current academic year. You need to have a clear idea of the departments you're interested in and the research you'd be capable of doing. Looking for the 'right' course takes time as well as getting a response from a supervisor and gathering the necessary pieces of the application together.

Know your strengths and articulate these well

It's time to get back into 'personal statement' mode. Depending on your Master's course, you will have to submit either a personal statement or a research proposal. You need to get across your love of the research topic, how it relates to your long-term goals, and what makes you suitable AND ACADEMICALLY CAPABLE of pursuing the degree. Other aspects you should touch upon will be provided in the application instructions.


For research proposals, you need to get a supervisor onboard BEFORE applying. This means sending out lots of emails (that are NOT too long and waffly), explaining why you are contacting the supervisor, what course you want to do and why you are interested in their area of research. Include a call to action such as asking them if they would be happy to have a zoom call with you to discuss further. This is essentially a pre-interview chat. Whether they respond to you after this will inform whether you're on the way to getting an offer.

Why Oxbridge?

Apart from their academic / research reputation (which, arguably, lots of other universaties also have e.g. Imperial, UCL, King's), what makes you want to apply to Oxbridge? Hint: to be able to brag about it DOESN'T count.


For me, I had a couple of reasons for applying to Cambridge ASIDE from the reputation that precedes the institution:

  • I would like to undertake the academic foundation programme at Cambridge once I graduate. This year is a great chance to live and see what it's like to do research here. My department is even based at Addenbrooke's hospital so it's a chance to see where I may be working one day.

  • I really enjoy one-to-one learning and that is something Oxbridge prides itself on with its supervisions. It's a privilege to be able to be directly partnered with some of the leading academics in your field! This is not something to take lightly and they will expect a lot from you = you will be pushed. I personally thrive from this method of teaching.

  • I wanted to leave London. (No elaboration needed here, I wanted a change of scene to be honest)!

I hope this de-mystifies some parts of the application process and answers the questions that regularly fill up my inbox.


Please note: I CANNOT offer personalised advice or feedback on your application nor will I send you my application.


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