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Should I intercalate or not? An iBSc, a BA or a Masters?!

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

As part of your medical studies, you may have the option to do an intercalation, which is a year away from your medical degree dedicated to studying a specific area of interest and gain another degree (yes, this will technically be your FIRST graduation and your second will be when you're a qualified doc).

Many medical schools in the UK have now adopted compulsory intercalated degrees (mentioned in my blog post on Choosing a Medical School), where all medical students are required to take a year off to gain an extra degree (unless you are already a graduate). Others allow you to make the decision, and in this case YOU need to take it upon yourself to apply for the year off, which usually occurs after your 2nd, 3rd or 4th year (varies between universities).

I see intercalating as mainly a way to get an insight into an academic career in medicine. It primarily gives you the opportunity to undertake clinical research, education and/or teaching as 4th year onwards are VERY clinical and busy. If you want to try your hand at getting published, see if research is for you and rack up some extra points (although this shouldn't be your only reason), an intercalation will pretty much be your last proper chance to do so before you're busy with clinical years and become a full-blown doctor. However, there are also downsides. I will detail both the pros and cons of intercalating in this blog post, tell you a bit more about the different types of degrees that you can take and the decision that I have made about intercalating next year...

Let's start with the positives!

1. Variety

Firstly, there's a wide range of subjects to choose from when deciding what you want to intercalate in.

You have the option to do:

  • A BSc (Bachelor of Science): This degree is awarded to students in the areas of Natural Sciences, Business & Management, Engineering Sciences, Mathematics, and Informatics.

  • A BA (Bachelor of Arts): A BA degree differs from a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree as it focuses on abstract or theoretical topics that require critical thinking like English literature or Medical Ethics. Whereas if you’d prefer a narrower focus in your study and would rather gain technical or scientific knowledge to succeed in fields like data analytics or health information management, a BSc may be for you. You may notice that some BSc and BA subjects overlap. For example, you can get a BSc in Biomedical and Healthcare Ethics or a BA in Biomedical and Healthcare Ethics. In this case, a BA in Biomedical and Healthcare Ethics focuses more on theoretical knowledge of ethics in medicine, and the BSc will focus more on technical knowledge and implications in clinical practice.

  • A Master's. These are the main types of taught Masters degrees that you may be able to apply for as an intercalating medical student:

Research Masters degrees are even more independent in nature than taught programmes. Students in these courses will typically focus on their own research work rather than following a set timetable of modules.

The main kinds of research Masters degrees are:

  • Master of Research (MRes)

  • Master of Philosophy (MPhil)

These are most commonly offered to intercalating students. However, you may also be interested in:

  • Master of Arts (MA)

  • Master of Science (MSc)

  • Master of Engineering (MEng)

So should I do a Masters (postgraduate) or a Bachelors (undergraduate) degree?

There are some key differences:

  • Emphasis on research skills – A Masters will focus a lot more heavily on research methods and academic writing, preparing students for the possibility of further PhD study.

  • Learning styles and contact hours – At Masters-level, more emphasis is placed on self-directed study. This also means that contact hours are usually lower for Masters compared to Bachelors degrees - however, most courses are 9-11 months long! This means that you should NOT expect much of a summer (and maybe even an OVERLAP) into your following year of Medicine compared to a BSc.

  • Number of credits – A year of full-time undergraduate study is usually worth 120 credits for a Bachelors degree. A Masters degree, on the other hand, typically runs for one year of full-time study, but requires the attainment of 180 credits in that time.

  • Longer academic year – Unlike Bachelors degrees, the academic year for a Masters doesn’t finish in May or June, as you’ll usually write a dissertation over the summer.

  • Preparatory reading lists – You’ll likely be given a much more extensive and advanced reading list for a Masters than the undergraduate equivalent and be expected to actually READ the material.

  • Specialisation – Whereas an undergraduate might study a broad subject like Neuroscience, a Masters degree in the same field might focus upon a particular specialism, such as Paediatric Neuroscience, or in a particular area of cutting-edge research (which you will be expected to demonstrate enthusiasm and knowledge for when applying!).

  • Dissertation length – The length of a Masters dissertation varies widely from programme to programme, but it will usually be a considerable step from a 10,000-word undergraduate thesis. As a general rule, you can expect to write around 15,000 words for a Masters dissertation as well as an oral presentation of your thesis.

Have a look at the courses you can intercalate in here:

Have a look at Masters courses here:

Let's talk FPAS points...

Therefore, doing a Master's is understandably awarded more points than doing a BSc.

4 points are awarded for PASSING your Postgraduate Master's degree (no merit or distinction needed), Bachelor's of Dental Surgery (BDS), Bachelors of Veterinary Medicine (B Vet Med), M Pharm Distinction, 1st Class Honours Degree (e.g. 1st class in your intercalation BSc, BA)

3 points - 2:1 class honour's degree, MPharm Merit, 1st class BMedSci at University of Nottingham

2 points - 2:2 class honour's degree, MPharm Pass, 2:1 class BMedSci at University of Nottingham

1 point - 3rd class honour's degree, 2:2 BMedSci at University of Nottingham

For more information about points, please see my blog post on The FPAS made easy

2. A change of scenery

After being stuck at your uni for 3-4 years, you may be ready for a change of scenery and want to meet new people, study at a different university with a different teaching method or just want a break from Medicine in general! This is definitely one of the selling points for me. Some universities, however, like King's are not huge fans of you transferring to a different university if they offer the exact same course. Therefore, make sure you're sensible with your options and can justify wanting to leave your university as not all of them are so lenient with this (it causes timetabling stress for them).

Approval from your Medical School is required for you to be able to intercalate.

3. Exploring your interest!

An Intercalation is great for exploring an aspect of medicine you’ve not had much time to in the course of your studies. This could be scientific in nature, such as anatomy, or something more abstract – like global health. It may even be totally separate from medicine! Medicine is so fast-paced and as mentioned before, the intercalation can be a nice way to end those pre-clinical years where you've been studying so much science before you're thrown into clinical years and spat out into the Foundation programme on the frontline.

Now the negatives...

1. Funding (mainly an issue for those wanting to do a Master's)

For Medicine and Dentistry, Student Finance England (SFE) fund the first 4 years of your MBBS or BDS course and there is normally a combination of SFE and NHS funding when you enter year 5 onwards.

For UNDERGRADUATE intercalations (i.e. NOT a Master's):

If you intercalate after completing year 2, your intercalated year will become your 3d year of study. If you intercalate after completing year 3, your intercalated year will become your 4th year of study. Therefore, in both of these cases, you remain eligible to receive your usual SFE undergraduate funding during your intercalated year.  SFE funding includes:

  • A Tuition Fee Loan

  • A Maintenance Loan

  • Any Supplementary Grants where relevant

Key point: If your intercalated year is based at a University outside of London you will get a lower rate of Maintenance Loan during your intercalated year as courses held outside of London require a lower loan amount.

For POSTGRADUATE intercalations (i.e. Master's degrees):

  • An intercalated year on a Masters course is only possible once you have successfully completed at least three years of the MBBS/BDS.  Therefore, if you attend a university that allows you to intercalate after 2nd year, you would not be able to undertake a Master's at this stage.

  • As you will be undertaking a Masters course you will NOT be eligible for the same SFE funding you received for your first 3 years.

  • Instead, you will need to apply for the SFE Postgraduate Masters Loan (PGL) and if relevant a Disabled Students Allowance. In 20/21 the maximum loan available is £11,222.

  • The PGL is a contribution to postgraduate study.  It is not intended to cover all of the costs involved such as maintenance.

  • A separate Tuition Fee Loan is not available and there are no additional Grants for Dependents. So it’s important to consider beforehand whether you can afford to study at this level.

  • The PGL is paid directly to you in three instalments across the year and most postgraduate students decide to use all of the money towards the cost of the course's tuition fees.  However, this loan may not cover the full costs of tuition fees let alone your living costs so you must plan ahead, save up or have a job. 

  • You can also look into the university's scholarships to see if you are eligible (most of the time you won't be because you are an intercalating student).

Intercalated years at Bachelors or Masters level can be counted towards the qualifying year for NHS bursary funding, which could ease financial pressures. This is particularly helpful for people who attend universities where they can choose when to do their intercalation (choose to do it after your 4th year if possible). King's intercalation must be taken between Year 3 and 4 so I do not have this option, but see your university's website for these details.

2. Prolonging your training

You will not graduate with most of the people you entered medical school with, being a year behind. It's also important to note that intercalation is not a requirement and will not stop you from becoming a consultant or GP later in your career.

3. Nothing interests you

This is not necessarily a negative but is THE most important point to consider. When looking through the intercalation database website and Masters one linked above, if you just don't find anything that jumps out at you... that's ok. Don't force it and carry on with your medical degree.

Once you're a doctor, there is always an option to go back and do further study like a Master's. AND you may even get to do it fully funded.

What have I decided?

So I have decided to intercalate (or at least apply)!

I had a look at some of the degrees available, I was pleasantly surprised at the variety and made a list of 3-4 of my favourites straight away.

I am keeping my choices fairly open, therefore I am avoiding degrees like 'Women's Health' as they are a bit too focused for my liking at this current stage of my medical training. I'm considering funding and logistics but I have currently shortlisted 2 Masters programmes I really like. I am open to doing either a BSc or a Masters.

Intercalation is not for every student, so it's worth taking the time to weigh up the pros and cons before making your decision. Promptly contact course directors at universities you want to apply to for information about application procedures and deadlines!

What intercalated degrees are any of you thinking of taking (or not)? Comment below and let me know why!

Sources/Further reading:

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