Authors: Anthony Linton, James Pearlman, Jennifer Lim, Joel Hardman, Traudi Almhofer, Andrew Tan
After what already seems like a lengthy period of 5 – 7 years at medical school, a growing number of junior doctors are embarking on various Master’s degrees offered by universities. Each person has their own motivation to enrol in further learning. However, this trend of doing master’s degrees has no doubt been influenced by an increasingly competitive job market.
The decision of whether to enrol and, if so, which master’s degree to enrol in is a complex one.
To help answer some of these, onthewards have profiled six doctors. They have varying levels of training and have either embarked on master’s degrees or are involved in job recruitment.
Please note: The opinions of contributors expressed on Master’s degrees are their own and may not necessarily reflect those of the onthewards team.
Position: Medical oncologist and Director of Physician Training, Concord Hospital (NSW)
Over the past few years, an increase in the number of medical schools across Australia has led to ever growing numbers of junior medical officers within the health system. Therefore, the competition for training positions across a variety of specialties has never been higher. This leads candidates to search for ways to set themselves ahead of the pack. A master’s degree is one such way to create that point of difference. But should you do one? Well…it depends.
A course-based master’s, for example, clinical epidemiology, can introduce you to valuable skills. Skills that are necessary for critical appraisal of medical literature. Skills that will serve you well for your career. Similarly, involvement in a research-based master’s, either clinical or laboratory research, will lay the groundwork for future research involvement and collaborations.
However, regardless of the type of master’s pursued, the decision to enrol should not be taken lightly. The time commitments to complete assignments, attend lectures and tutorials may prove challenging on top of existing employment. Similarly, research projects involving patient recruitment, medical records reviews, statistical analysis or regular laboratory time may require candidates to work late into evenings and weekends,.Or, ut nay eat into your free time to complete.
A master’s degree can be exceptionally rewarding if you are interested in the subject matter or the project you are pursuing. But, it can also be a rocky path and is certainly a commitment that will disrupt an already delicate work-life balance. As a recruiter of both basic and advanced trainees, a master’s degree can make a candidate stand out from the pack, everything else being equal. But it must be relevant to the job that you are applying to and it isn’t the only way. It is just one of many attributes that a candidate can demonstrate to secure a training position. If your interests lie elsewhere, focus on those things that you are passionate about. And let that sell you to a prospective employer.
Position: Senior Resident Medical Officer (Intensive Care) at Royal North Shore Hospital (NSW)
Which master’s I am doing/did: Master of Medicine (Critical Care), University of Sydney
I was halfway into my internship (2015) and thought and felt like I needed to study. This was due to having self-perceived large gaps in my knowledge. For me, a structure and good curriculum with deadlines is a very effective way to study and cover large amounts of content. Continuous gentle pressure is the only way I get things done! I also have an interest in retrieval medicine. And I really wanted to complete the two retrieval modules that USyd offered in conjunction with the team at Sydney HEMS.
First and foremost, I have gained a huge appreciation of those who have studied while working full-time. I certainly feel that I have benefited from completing the modules. My basic sciences knowledge has improved as a result. It has been quite nice to get back into the nitty-gritty of the basic sciences. Especially with a little bit of clinical experience under my belt the knowledge tends to fall in place much more easily! The modules have also re-taught me how to dive back into big, thick textbooks. That was something I avoided doing for a number of years.
I think that the unfortunate thing is there is a trend of pursuing some form of post-graduate education to make you more hireable. This is a result of an increasingly competitive pre-vocational environment, with that “tidal wave” of medical graduates coming through the system. I do believe that undertaking post-graduate education is important. However, it doesn’t have to come in the form of a $26,000 AUD master’s degree. There are other master’s that are much cheaper. Also, there are diplomas that may be more interesting/relevant depending on your own interests and career aspirations. Good luck!
Position: Advanced Trainee (Medical Oncology) at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and Concord Hospital (NSW)
Which master’s I am doing/did: Master of Public Health, University of NSW
I chose to start an MPH for a number of reasons. Some noble, others less so. The good reasons include a passion for clinical governance and interest in health policy. While it feels good to help individual patients, the capacity to help large numbers on a population health basis is far more powerful. At the time, I only had a hazy idea of what my future career would look like. (I started it in residency, when medical oncology training hadn’t entered my mind.) But I thought that policy and advocacy of some kind would be involved. Therefore, I believed that a degree in this area would be helpful.
Less noble reasons include generalised “CV panic” that started in late internship. That’s when I realised I wanted to apply for a competitive job. (Basic physician training.) And I decided on the university and course that a few friends were also starting at the time. The latter reason I don’t regret. It was definitely more pleasant to go through some of the trickier courses with friends. (Like statistics and epidemiology.) As for the former – I would probably recommend easier ways of padding a CV than undertaking 4 years of part-time study alongside training!
The process of doing my master’s has helped me gain the following:
• A good understanding of research methods. I understand the value of both quantitative and qualitative research. And, I can develop a study, determine which research method to use and how to analyse the data I have collected. Given that oncology is so research-driven, these skills are indispensable.
• A grounding in biostatistics. I finally learned how to use the dreaded SPSS, and it wasn’t as terrible as I thought.
• Academic thinking. Being able to perform a literature review, analyse articles and write an essay were skills that had started to atrophy during two years of pure clinical work.
The specialty area I have chosen is very research-focused. And the prospect of a PhD and further research seems less daunting now that I have a greater skill set.
Studying part-time while working full-time is a challenge. Particularly when you add training (such as BPT) into the equation! You are either going to work incredibly hard (or take time off) to finish it quickly. Otherwise, it will drag out over years as you slog away one subject at a time (my approach). This meant I could complete it without compromising my work or training. But the problem with stretching a course out over 3-4 years is that foundational knowledge from the initial courses can seem like a distant memory towards the end.
Distance education was another challenge. It was not at all like the all-encompassing ‘learn by osmosis’ medical school experience. I had the nagging sense of “something is probably due soon” for the past 3 years. And I had to step up my self-directed learning skills and time management as a result. I studied one subject as an internal student during summer semester. And I realised how much more I learned and engaged with the material (which was reflected in my marks as well). In retrospect, I would recommend doing at least one course a year as an internal student to really get the most out of the degree!
Position: Senior Resident Medical Officer (Ear Nose and Throat) at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (NSW)
Which master’s I am doing/did: Master of Philosophy (Medicine), University of Sydney
I thought that doing a master’s was a good way to do research. It is structured, supervised and gives a recognised qualification. I wanted to do my master’s by research rather than coursework. Because, I thought that I would gain practical skills and potentially contribute something useful. I took 12 months off clinical work last year to do my research. This year I have returned to clinical work and continue to write up my thesis.
Taking time off to do the master’s was a great experience. The science world is different in many ways to the hospital-based clinical world. Conducting experiments is often a solitary, long and sometimes disappointing process. However, when things work and you start to see significant results it can be extremely rewarding.
I think the main perceived downside to the approach of taking a year off to complete a master’s degree is that some people feel they aren’t progressing in their medical careers. Ultimately, one year is not very long. And I think that having a research master’s can help in getting onto training programs and getting jobs at the end of training. There are also financial considerations. I was able to maintain an income through private surgical assisting. There are also scholarships for research and locum work.
I found that research was more flexible than clinical work. You choose when you conduct experiments. And non-experiment time can be spent wherever you choose. I would definitely recommend master’s by research. I have found it both challenging and rewarding. It is a big commitment so it’s not for people who just need to tick off research on their CV. Good luck to those considering a master’s degree!
Position: Anaesthetic registrar at St Vincent’s Hospital (Victoria)
Which master’s I am doing/did: Master of Medicine (Perioperative Medicine), Monash University.
As an anaesthetic registrar, one requirement of our training is to either complete some postgraduate studies, or undertake a research project. After I decided to follow a study pathway, it made sense to undertake a course that was relevant to my own practice.
The decision was not as simple as it sounds. The time commitment required to successfully complete each subject was significant. Around 10 hours per week per subject in addition to the usual full-time work roster. Cost is another major factor to consider. Many of these courses are not covered by HECS/HELP, and therefore must be funded out of pocket. The perioperative medicine master’s is particularly expensive. It is likely to set you back approximately $40,000 AUD. Furthermore, the applicability of the course content to your own practice and learning needs may not always align with your expectations.
Despite this, there can be a lot to gain from completing a master’s degree. From my own experience, I satisfied a requirement for my training. But I have also learnt a great deal about an area of medicine that is relevant to my practice. In particular, I have gained in-depth knowledge about an area that is often examined in detail in our fellowship examinations. Of course, the extra qualification is helpful for the resume. I’m hoping that it will eventually lead to improved employment opportunities, both as a fellow and as a consultant.
My advice to those considering undertaking a master’s degree is to do your research. Find a course that is relevant to your career path, or something you are passionate about. And then, decide if the cost and the time commitment are worth it. And if they are, jump in and don’t look back!
Position: Surgical HMO3 at Western Health (Victoria)
Which master’s I am doing/did: Master of Surgery, University of Sydney
I decided to do this degree for several reasons. Firstly, to gain in-depth anatomical knowledge via a full body dissection which is important for anyone embarking on a surgical career. Secondly, to study subjects that would help me in my preparation for the Surgery Primary exam. A.k.a. the Generic Surgical Sciences Exam (GSSE). Passing the GSSE is a prerequisite for surgical education and training (SET) selection. Thirdly, doing this degree also exposes me to clinical epidemiology, which is absolutely useful for research. I used it as a launching pad for further courses in research. In my view, doing a higher degree is the norm these days. But the knowledge and exposure I’ve gained as a result is valuable.
Costs and time. The whole body dissection component of the master’s is approximately $25,000 AUD. Then you have 4 additional subjects to complete the master’s. This will bring the total to approximately $40,000 AUD, which can be deferred to FEE-HELP. The anatomy component requires sacrificing alternate Saturdays and weekly Wednesday evenings. It was very demanding to study for the GSSE plus the master’s. It required careful planning of subjects and timing in order to get the most out of them for exam preparation.
Despite the costs and time commitment, the master’s is valuable and has been useful in my daily practice. In-depth knowledge of anatomy is so practical in day-to-day work as a general surgery registrar. Knowing where and what the problem is and how these would affect patients is bread and butter in any surgical career. The master’s had also prepared me well for the GSSE, which I passed on the first attempt. Doing the master’s also helped me discover new interests, e.g. biostatistics and research.
My advice is to consider what you can get out of doing a Master of Surgery degree, and whether you could justify the time commitment and the expense. I certainly would not recommend doing it just for the CV points. Because what you get is disproportionately low. Organise your master’s according to your interests and needs for GSSE preparation or career in general. (E.g. by doing a minor thesis.)