Q & A … Life as a Doctor

We spoke to Ross Valentine about his decision to study medicine to become a doctor, after gaining a BSc in Biology at University. Ross talks about his personal experiences as a trainee doctor, typical career paths and day-to-day life in the world of healthcare.

What made you decide to become a doctor?

I remember when I was about 17 doing my A-levels, I wasn’t really sure which direction my career was heading. I got involved in a number of different work experience placements, including a few days in the A&E department at my local hospital. The fast paced nature of that placement and seeing the difference those doctors made to the patients helped me to consider entering the world of healthcare. Even so, I still wasn’t 100% certain and given the challenging entry requirements for medicine, I decided to follow my interest in Biology and initially did a 3-year BSc.
It was over this period, when required to make a more definitive career choice, that I began to appreciate the opportunities which lay within medicine. Not only is it possible to work in a number of different specialities, from spinal surgery to paediatrics, renal medicine to public health; it is also possible to work across the world, offering help to even the most marginalised societies.

If you’ve never experienced surgery, or been to a hospital (perhaps other than birth), how could you tell whether you might be suited to becoming a doctor?

I think the first thing I would say is that getting a variety of work experience is crucial, as I really wasn’t certain at school. 16-18 year olds have to make big career decisions without a huge amount of experience to draw on and it was only through different experiences that I was able to rule out some career options and favour others.
That being said, I think a career in medicine suits people who enjoy problem solving and working in a fast paced environment. It is also important to have a desire to help others and be willing to work with a number of different people, as part of a larger healthcare team.

What sort of qualities and qualifications are necessary?

The first hurdle is getting into medical school. This can be done straight from school/college after A-levels, or alternatively after graduating with a degree. Both are quite competitive and require you attain certain grades. The entry requirements also go beyond school and university grades. You need to be able to demonstrate a commitment to medicine through work experience and voluntary programs. Whilst this does not necessarily need to be in healthcare, it does need to demonstrate transferable skills, such as leadership, teamwork and a willingness to help others.

What do you most enjoy about your job?

One of the most satisfying aspects of being a doctor is when you feel you have really made a difference to your patient(s). This may be from something as small as taking the time to talk and explain to a patient why they are in hospital, to correctly diagnosing and treating those who are severely ill.
I also really enjoy the problem solving nature of the job. Common complaints such as shortness of breath can have a number of different causes and it is our job to figure what the cause is and treat appropriately. Doing this involves working with a number of different healthcare professionals – so you must enjoy working in a team.

What are the tricky parts?

Some patients can be quite unwell with a very poor prognosis, whilst others may have unrealistic expectations in terms of what we can do for them. Both situations can be difficult to accept as a professional and even harder for the patient. In such situations, good communication is absolutely vital between both the patient and their relatives, to ensure everyone is aware of what we are trying to achieve and how we can go about doing that.
It is also no secret that the NHS is under a lot of strain at the moment and our hospitals are busier now than they have ever been. This creates issues in terms of having limited physical space to see patients with stretched staffing levels. This often translates into meaning that the care we can deliver to these patients (whilst safe) is below what we would like to be able to offer.

What is a typical career path? Are there different routes into medicine?

The common and most popular route into medicine is to do a 5 year medical degree after A-levels. Entry requirements here depend on GCSE and A-level grades (which often need to include chemistry +/- biology) and may also include aptitude tests.
Alternatively, it is possible to study medicine as a post-graduate. This is a 4 year degree course (rather than 5 years) which you can apply for after completing an initial 3 year degree. Depending on the medical school, the first degree may or may not need to be in a related science subject.
After completing a medical degree, graduates competitively apply to join a Foundation training post which lasts for 2 years. This is a two year training programme, where we work as junior doctors and train on the job. In each year (Foundation Year 1 and Foundation Year 2) we rotate around 3 different specialties (4 months each). To compete each year we must demonstrate we are meeting specific training and curriculum requirements.
After completing Foundation Training doctors are then able to apply for more specialist training posts depending on their career interest.

What’s it like to have further study and training after degree number 1?

I do not think I was ready or mature enough to study medicine at 18. The rigorous studying required; the challenging conversations to be had with patients and the busy working of a modern day hospital can be both intense and stressful. I personally feel I have benefited from a certain resilience which comes with age and it has helped me to cope in those demanding and tense moments.
However, the downside is that I have been studying for seven years rather than five. This translates to extra revision, extra exams and extra cost. This is made worse, in no small part, due to the increased cost of studying and the changes to the student loan system. At the very least, the five year course is more financially logical.

Lastly, what is the strangest/funniest/best experience you’ve had training to be a doctor?

There are numerous examples! That said, my most memorable experience, certainly as a medical student, was during my obstetric placement. We were assigned to the delivery suite for a 1 week period and I was fortunate enough to be paired with a young male midwife, who was really keen for me to get involved. After watching a couple of births and tentatively helping out, it was my turn! Under the watchful eye of the midwife, I successfully delivered my first baby. I recall being taken aback by the significance of that moment for the parents and the emotion and elation they shared. It was a very unique experience for me and one that I was privileged to be a part of as a means to further develop my knowledge and understanding as a doctor.

Thank you Ross  🙂


Find out more

If you’re thinking about becoming a doctor, take a look at Health Careers – Why study medicine?. You’ll find some useful things to consider and further information to help you make the right decision.
Also, did you know there are over 350 different NHS careers; every one makes a difference to people’s lives every day.
Explore all sorts of healthcare roles here.
Q&A…Life as a Midwife
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