Blog written by Charlotte Smith MBChB, BA (Hons)
Intercalation is the process of taking a year out of medical school to obtain an additional degree and is one of the many privileges afforded to medical students. It is a fantastic opportunity to study a specific subject in great depth and obtain either an undergraduate degree (BSc, BA or a BMedSci) or a Masters degree. If you choose to intercalate you will either join the final year of a three-year degree programme or, you will join a programme that is designed specifically for intercalating students.
Deciding to Intercalate
The majority of universities in the UK allow medical students to decide if they wish to intercalate*. The choice of whether to intercalate or not is one of the biggest decisions you will make whilst at medical school. In order to decide if intercalating is right for you, it is essential to weigh up both the advantages and disadvantages.
* Note that some universities require all students to intercalate, see the mandatory intercalation section for more information on this.
Advantages of Intercalation
1. Study a Specific Subject in Great Depth:
Intercalating allows you to spend time focussing on a subject that particularly interests you. There are a wide range of intercalation programmes available, ranging from cellular anatomy to biomedical ethics to medical physics and biomedical engineering.
2. Points for your Foundation Programme Application:
In your final year of medical school, you will apply for the Foundation Programme, a two-year programme that all UK medical school graduates must complete in order to apply for speciality training.
Once you have applied for the Foundation Programme, you will be ranked according to your application score. One of the most significant advantages of intercalating is that it will improve your application score. Students who intercalate will be awarded an additional 1 to 4 points depending upon their qualification:
3. Improves your career prospects
There are a number of reasons that intercalating improves your career prospects:
- Shows a longstanding interest in a particular field of medicine
- Provides the opportunity to publish work and present it at national and international conferences
- Provides the opportunity to win prizes
- Enhances any number of skills
- Depending upon your intercalation, you will be able to enhance a wide variety of skills from research to critical thinking to academic writing.
All of these factors will distinguish you from other candidates when applying for speciality training.
4. Study at a Different University
Intercalation is a great opportunity to study at another university. Whilst you can intercalate at the university where you study medicine (internal intercalation) most universities allow you to intercalate at a different university, this is known as external intercalation.
Double-check with your university that you are allowed to externally intercalate when you’re allowed to do this and what the requirements are. For example, some universities only allow you to intercalate between the third and fourth year and require you to have certain grades to externally intercalate.
Externally intercalating has a number of benefits:
- Increases options for intercalation courses – each university offers different intercalation programmes, so what is available at one university may not be available at another. If you are considering externally intercalating have a look around and see what courses are available where.
- Live in and explore a new city
- Meet new people and make new friends
5. Experience life as a Non-Medicine Student
Intercalation is probably the only opportunity you will be able to experience life as a ‘real student’. Medical school is notorious for the long hours and intense curriculum, and whilst intercalation will not be easy, you are after all getting a whole degree in one year, you are likely to have much more free time compared with medical school. It is a great opportunity to try new things, make friends and experience life as a non-medic.
6. May Improve Exam Results
Of the studies that have investigated the effect of intercalation on subsequent academic performance; the data suggests that intercalating may improve performance in subsequent years at medical school and beyond.
7. Become a More Mature, Well Rounded Graduate
Health Education England has said that intercalation benefits the NHS as it provides more mature, well-rounded graduates.
Disadvantages of Intercalation
1. Lengthens Your Training
Intercalating will lengthen your training by one year, which means you will be a student for at least 6 years. This is a long time to be a student and will mean you won't get to graduate with all the people you started medical school with.
An extra year of university means an extra year of tuition fees and living costs on top of an extra year not earning. Luckily there is financial support available from Student Finance England, NHS Bursary* and individual institutions; however, financing is very unlikely to cover all of your expenses and intercalation will leave you with even more debt. It is therefore very important to find out what support is available to determine if intercalation is affordable for you.
* Note: NHS Bursary pays the tuition fees after the 4th year of study for all undergraduate medical students. This means you will not have tuition fees for your intercalated degree or your fifth year of medical school. For more information please visit: https://www.nhsbsa.nhs.uk/sites/default/files/2020-06/NHS%20Bursary%20Funding%20for%20Medical%20and%20Dental%20Students%202020-21%20%28V1%29%2006%202020.pdf
May be Difficult
Intercalating can be difficult. As previously mentioned, when you intercalate, you will either join the final year of a three year degree programme, or you will be enrolled on a programme that is designed specifically for intercalating students. Either way, you will be expected to perform to the level of a final year undergraduate student or a masters student even though you may not have studied this subject before. This can be very challenging, especially at the beginning.
Furthermore, once you have completed your intercalation, you are expected to get straight back into medicine. Going from seminars or labs back into a clinical environment can be a big adjustment, and some students find the transition back into medicine difficult.
While there is likely to be lots of support available during your intercalation and beyond, it is definitely important to bear this point in mind when deciding if intercalation is right for you.
Tips if you’re Considering Intercalating
1. Get more information
If you’re considering intercalating, it is important to get as much information as you can. There are a number of ways to get more information:
- Visit your university website
- Speak to your university tutors and find out if your university has any documentation on intercalation
- Ask colleagues and friends in the years above about their experiences of intercalation
- Look at other university websites (even if you can’t externally intercalate!). All university websites have information about intercalation and are an excellent resource to use
- Call or email specific departments about their intercalation programmes, they can give you more information about the course and can often put you in touch with students who have completed the course
Whilst doing your research you should aim to find out:
- What courses are available at your university
- If it is possible to externally intercalate, and if so, what additional courses are available
- What financial support is available at the university where you’re planning to intercalate
- What you need to do to apply – some universities require you to write a personal statement, whilst others require you to submit an essay, there may also be additional requirements like submitting academic transcripts and getting academic references
2. Get Your Grades Up
Some universities require you to have certain grades to be able to intercalate, so if you’re considering intercalating, it is important to work hard and try and get your grades to the required level.
If your overall grades are not as high as they need to be and it is not possible to improve on them, try to get your grades up in the subject you would like to intercalate in. You can often make a case to your university that you have a special interest in that area and they can lift the restrictions.
Good grades are also important when applying for intercalation programmes. Good grades, especially in the subject area you're applying for will increase your chances of being accepted on to your desired programme.
3. Start Your Applications Early
As previously mentioned, all applications are different, so it's very important to find out what you need to do to apply. Once you have this information, start your application. It can often take much longer than expected to write an essay or personal statement and get all the documentation required.
Unlike applying for medical school there is no limit to the number of intercalation programmes you can apply for, so unless you are determined to study a specific subject at a specific university, it is best to apply for a few different programmes as this will increase your chances of being accepted onto one. However, don’t stress yourself out trying to complete hundreds of applications, keep it sensible and apply for a couple of programmes you would be happy to study.
Whilst the majority of universities in the UK allow students to decide if they wish to intercalate, there are some universities that require all students to intercalate, these are:
1. Oxford University
If you study at Oxford University you will complete a Bachelors of Arts (BA) degree in Medical Sciences in your third year of university.
2. Cambridge University
If you study at Cambridge University you must choose to specialise in one of a wide range of subjects in your third year to qualify for a Bachelors of Arts degree (BA). Options include:
- Biological and Biomedical Sciences in Natural Sciences
- Natural Sciences
- Management Studies
- History of Medicine
You must also complete your ‘Preparing for Patients’ course by attending community-based health-related agencies during your intercalation year.
3. Nottingham University
If you study at Nottingham University you must complete a Bachelor of Medical Sciences (BMedSci) degree in your third year. It is important to note that as this degree is integrated during the five-year BMBS course, it is awarded fewer points for your foundation programme application.
You also have the option to suspend your studies after you have completed the BMedSci to undertake a Masters or PhD degree before completing your medical degree.
4. University College London (UCL)
If you study at UCL you must complete a Bachelors of Sciences (BSc) degree either between years 2 and 3, between years 3 and 4, or between years 4 and 5.
UCL currently offers 18 different intercalation programmes including:
- Anatomy, Cell and Developmental Biology
- Cardiovascular Science
- Clinical Sciences
- Global Health
- Mathematics, Computers and Medicine
- Medical Anthropology
- Women's Health
You may be permitted to intercalate externally if you have a particular interest in a programme that is not offered at UCL.
If you do not study medicine at UCL you can apply to externally intercalate.
5. Imperial College London
If you study at Imperial College London you must complete a Bachelors of Sciences (BSc) degree in your fourth year of university.
Imperial College London currently offers 17 intercalation programmes including:
- Anaesthesia and Critical Care
- Biomedical Engineering
- Cancer Frontiers
- Cardiovascular Science
- Gastroenterology and Hepatology
- Global Health
- Remote Medicine
If you do not study medicine at Imperial College London you can apply to externally intercalate.