What is intercalation and is it for me?

Choosing a medical school is tough. Many factors influence your decision: the course, the place, university facilities and much more. Another factor which may be crucial is the opportunity to undertake an intercalated degree during your studies. 

 Many medical schools in the UK offer intercalated degrees. However the way they run them, the subjects available and the degree you get out of it vary widely. It is important to be aware of what intercalation is and whether it is right for you - in some medical schools it is compulsory! 

 

What is an intercalated degree? 

An intercalated degree is a “year out” of the normal medical school programme where students are able to study and get an additional degree in a subject of their choosing. This usually occurs during year 3 or 4 of medical school and involves joining the Honours (AKA final year) of another degree programme. 

 Generally the subjects on offer are related to medicine and include biomedical science-based degrees (e.g. cell biology), clinical medicine-based degrees (e.g. anaesthetics) or even literature-based degrees (e.g. medical literature). Some universities will allow students to study subjects completely unrelated to medicine; for example, one of my friends studied English literature for his intercalated degree!

The degree you receive at the end of the year of study depends on the university but usually is a BMedSci or BSc. 

 

How do different UK medical schools run intercalated degrees? 

Each medical school runs its intercalated degree programme in a slightly different way – so it is important to check this before you apply! 

As mentioned previously, most medical schools offer the opportunity to do an intercalated degree during year 3 or 4 of the programme. This often coincides with the switch from pre-clinical to clinical years, so is a convenient time for a year out. Examples of universities that do this include the University of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Imperial College London. 

 However, within this group of universities there are some important differences. In some universities, the intercalated degree remains optional (e.g. Glasgow) but in others it is now a compulsory part of the curriculum (e.g. Edinburgh, Imperial College London). Furthermore, intercalation may be available to all students who want to do it but in others it may be competitive entry. 

Different systems include the University of St Andrews, where instead of completing an intercalated degree in a field of their choosing, they gain a BSc in medicine as part of their 3-year course before moving to a different medical school for clinical years. On the other hand, the University of Aberdeen offers not only a BSc intercalated degree after 3 years but also the chance to complete a MSc degree after 4 years. 

If you don’t like the look of the courses on offer at your favourite university, don’t worry! Many universities allow students to transfer to another university for a year if they provide a course not on offer at your home institution.

What are the benefits of an intercalated degree? 

Intercalation was classically seen as a route into academic medicine as it provides an opportunity for research and an academic education not conventionally found in the medical curriculum. 

You may be asking: What is an “academic education”? It is a field of study that focusses on the conduct of scientific research (i.e. how to run a study) and how to appraise others’ research (i.e. this study says drug X is best but is that research trustworthy?). These skills can be very helpful as a clinician and are vital if you wish to pursue a career in research. 

Aside from the research focus, there are many other advantages to doing an intercalated degree. It is one of the few times in a medical education where you have the chance to explore a subject you are passionate about and pick modules according to your interests. 

Medicine can be an intense degree. Having a year out can be a nice break before clinical years as well as giving you an experience of life outside of medicine. Many students find that the intercalated degree is not as time-intensive as medicine (though this is not guaranteed!) and provides a chance to explore interests outside of medicine and university.  

Another benefit is you shall receive an additional degree on top of your medical degree. Other than just having a few extra letters after your name, this gives you extra points for your application to the Foundation Year programme after finishing medical school. Compared to other sources of points, such as your performance at medical school and the SJT sat in final year, these points count for relatively little. Nevertheless, extra points are always helpful and may provide a competitive edge to get the FY posts you desire.  

What are the downsides to intercalation? 

While there are many benefits to intercalating, it is important to consider the downsides.  

Completing an intercalated degree require an additional year of study. This means another year of paying for tuition and living costs. Bursaries and sponsorship programmes may be available from universities. If this is an important consideration, it may be worth checking with your prospective medical school for more information. 

Another potential downside is taking a year out means you shall graduate a year later than some of the people you entered medical school with. However, in some universities the majority may intercalate, so the opposite is true!  

Lastly, not everyone enjoys the research-intensive and academic nature of intercalated degrees. Sitting in a lab or poring over scientific journals is not everyone’s cup of tea! For a realistic idea of what everyday life during an intercalated degree looks look check out a previous blog post written by one of our tutors Erin.

It is also important to note that an intercalated degree is not a requirement to become a doctor or researcher! Though it can teach you some extra skills, these are by no means necessary to be a good doctor. 

 

Conclusion 

Completing an intercalated degree can be a great opportunity and a key part of your university experience. However, it is not for everyone and so it is important to take the time to weigh the advantages and disadvantages and pick an institution that suits your needs.