The purpose of this guide is to support you in deciding whether intercalating during medical school is right for you. Whether you’re an aspiring medical student unsure about what it is and why it’s important, or you’re a medical student in their pre-clinical years, this guide will explain a little more about the process and the advantages and disadvantages of intercalation so you can make the most informed decision.
An intercalation is an opportunity to take a year out of your medical degree and explore a different undergraduate or postgraduate degree to gain more knowledge in the field and obtain a variety of new skills.
It’s an opportunity to get involved in academia away from medicine before you get bogged down in clinical years and work as a doctor. These intercalation years usually occur after the third year in 6-year courses, or often can be taken after the 2nd, 3rd or 4th year in 5 year courses. The most popular time to do it is often after 3rd year. The degree can be in subjects ranging from science (e.g. anatomy, physiology, neuroscience), to healthcare specialties (e.g. geriatrics, women’s health), to subjects that are more humanities-oriented (e.g. global health, medical ethics), and so many more in between.
We can split intercalated degrees into BSc’s, BA’s or a masters depending on the medical school offerings and when you choose to intercalate (if you have the luxury of choosing). You can find the full list of intercalated degrees in all schools here
Although intercalation is still far away for aspiring medics and nobody expects you to know for sure whether you want to do it, or what you want to do it in, it’s worth knowing a little bit about it because:
Therefore, if you know this is something you definitely want, then perhaps explore what the different universities offer and whether this is in line with what you want.
Some of the reasons medical students may choose to intercalate include: taking a break from medicine, exploring other areas of interest, obtaining points for future applications, building their CV and capitalising on research opportunities.
Intercalation offers a great opportunity to take a break from medicine and work on something else, so that you can refresh yourself before immersing yourself back into the world of clinical medicine for the foreseeable future (including as a qualified doctor).
Also, an intercalated degree can often come with more free time than medicine which is a great chance to relax a bit more, and pursue extra-curricular activities that you haven’t been able to in medicine whether that’s sports, volunteering, part-time jobs, learning something new… whatever you fancy. Sometimes, the medical school may let you study your intercalated degree at a different university, which can be really exciting and presents a chance to explore a new city, meet new people, go to different events, and enjoy what a different university has to offer.
Note: it can be a difficult process to secure an intercalated degree at a different university, so it’s worth checking your university’s rules on this if it’s important to you.
Masters caveat: A masters degree involves a lot of self-directed study with few contact hours. These are also usually up to 11 months long and so often means you will restart medical school straight after finishing the course, which means no summer break!
An intercalated degree is a chance to study in more depth a subject that you find interesting that you don’t get the chance to in medicine, whether it’s medical or non-medical related. They can be from a wide range of topics including science, business, mathematics, English literature and many others. It is worth seeing which universities offer which intercalated courses to see if there are any that take your fancy as it could sway your decision to apply there (only slightly). Consider these courses the way you would consider any degree i.e. how is it taught, what the modules are etc. You never know if studying an intercalated degree could then spark the direction you would like to take your career (again medical related or not).
As of December 2020, the UK Foundation Programme decided that they won’t be giving points for additional degrees and publications from 2023 graduation onwards. This means that when you’re applying for your foundation year jobs, it won’t matter whether or not you’ve intercalated as your final score is solely based on your exam performance throughout medical school and a one-off situational judgement test done in final year. However, additional degrees will put you at an advantage if you’re applying for the academic foundation programme (AFP).
However, it’s not all doom and gloom as there are still some points to be gained from intercalation further down the line. Even though it’s far away, you can start building towards applications for specialty training early on. An intercalated degree offers points in almost all specialty applications including those for Internal medicine, core surgical, acute medicine, psychiatry and ophthalmology with points being awarded based on your degree grade (i.e. you get the most points for a first-class honours).
Please note that an intercalated degree is just ONE opportunity for point scoring amongst many others and so isn’t the be all and end all.
Taking the time out of your medical degree to pursue a particular subject is a commitment that is recognised at higher levels beyond just point scoring. Showing commitment to specialty means that if you were to undertake a bachelors or masters in a topic/field that you will like to work in in the future, it will aid your application in the relevant specialty applications as it demonstrates keen interest from a young age.
An intercalated degree is a great opportunity to get involved in research and academia which can be difficult to do in your medical course. It is a chance to potentially publish a paper and present your work at national and international conferences which is exciting and additionally holds value for future applications as discussed earlier on top of the degree itself (i.e. more points). An intercalating degree will help you understand the research process and how to write, analyse and appraise writing as well as develop critical thinking and academic writing skills. These skills will be useful in the future as a clinician with research being a fundamental part of medicine. An intercalated degree can be a chance to get your foot in the door of academic medicine which provides a foundation upon which you can build on as a doctor.
Masters caveat: a Masters is particularly research and writing based. It is largely self-directed and can ask you to place a keen eye over a specific topic leading to a dissertation on it of around 15,000 words.
Disclaimer: This information will be applicable for students who can apply for loans from Student Finance England - SFE but there are similar schemes for NI, Wales and Scotland.
An extra year of medical school means an extra year of loans. Generally, SFE will cover university costs in the form of loans (tuition + maintenance) for the first 4 years of an undergraduate medical degree with year 5 (and 6 if you intercalate) being covered mainly by the NHS bursary instead. Therefore, if you intercalate you will receive two years of funding from the NHS, one for each year. Note that this is a BURSARY and not a loan. Therefore, unlike the SFE funds, this does NOT need to be paid back. The NHS will pay the full tuition fees (£9,250) and will also give maintenance bursaries depending on your applicability. This is usually less than what you normally get but SFE offer a reduced maintenance loan to make up most of the difference. Therefore, a 6th year of university means an additional year of maintenance loan (albeit reduced) that needs repaying in the future. You can find more details about the bursary here and here
Masters caveat: funding is often a turning point for many students. The usual SFE funding will not cover a Masters course and instead you will have to apply for a postgraduate masters loan (PGL) which is up to £11,222. The masters course itself may cost less or more than this but this is the maximum amount you can borrow, so in some cases you may need to cover the difference yourself. Additionally, there is NO loan given for covering maintenance costs and so you will have to fund this yourself as well.
If you intercalate in a Masters within the NHS bursary funded years then the bursary will only cover up to £9,250 of the tuition. This can be significantly less than the cost of the masters but you may be able to apply for the postgraduate loan to help fill remaining costs. There may also be other bursaries and awards available to you from your university or elsewhere, so it’s worth researching if you’re keen to do a masters!
If intercalation is optional and you choose to take it, then you will graduate a year later than some of your non-intercalated friends. This can be frustrating because of close bonds you will have developed. However, to put a positive spin on it, it can also be an opportunity to meet new people and make more friends.
Furthermore, intercalating means an extra year of university life. This is a bit of a marmite situation. Some people may love university and want another year of it, but for others it’s another year of lectures, exams and waiting to become a doctor. Some people see 6 years as an age and they just want to start working as soon as possible; they may see intercalating as a year away from working life (including a year’s salary).
Taking a break from medicine can make you rusty when you return to it. For this reason, many students try to intercalate before their 4th year of medicine so they don’t enter their final year feeling like they’re out of practice. This gives them time to adapt back into clinical medicine so they are ready for their finals. The transition back to clinical medicine may be difficult for some students, but the best approach is to talk to other medical students who have intercalated and ask how they have faired. It’s completely normal to take time to find your feet, but you will most likely transition perfectly fine with a bit of extra work.
Ultimately, the decision to intercalate is a personal one. When making your decision, think about your own priorities and weigh these up against the advantages and disadvantages to intercalating outlined in this article. Do further research to find out if this is for you and talk to other medical students who have intercalated (in person, forums, social media etc) and ask about their experiences. Below are a few things you can do to help make your decision.
Lastly, please remember that if you’re choosing to intercalate, as long as it’s in an area you enjoy, you won’t regret it! If you’re choosing not to intercalate and are worrying about how it will affect your career, don’t - you will have an abundance of opportunities in the future to improve your CV. There are also potentially opportunities for you to do masters courses after graduation as a doctor (possibly funded too) which can be done part or full-time, so don’t worry if you didn’t have the chance at university!
Author: Dhillon Hirani
Editor: Latifa Haque