There’ll inevitably be that moment, possibly after standing around awkwardly during a day’s work experience, possibly during a particularly inspiring chemistry class, when a small voice inside you just won’t stop nagging: “Is medical school really the thing for me? Do I want to spend my precious student years on a ward, fetching stuff for nurses and hovering apologetically next to a doctor while their patient glares at me angrily?” (Because, let’s face it, you both feel like you shouldn’t really be there.) Maybe you’ve tried talking to a few patients yourself, and find that getting someone to open up about their health issues or make light of their bewildering list of daily medications is actually a lot harder than the doctors make it look. It all seems a bit… underwhelming. Where are all the people curing cancer and 3D-printing organs for transplant? What even was the point of doing all those lab reports for Advanced Chemistry? Will I actually get to do any science if I do Medicine?
So you might find yourself thinking about applying for something like – let’s just get it out there – Biomedical Sciences or Genetics, instead of Medicine. And of course that’s totally fine by us. It’s definitely a good idea to explore all options before you make your ultimate decision. But make sure you actually know what’s available to you as a medical student before deciding it’s going to be all emptying bedpans and awkward conversations with mistrustful patients.
How do Medicine and science degrees differ on a day-to-day basis?
Obviously, the degree you pick isn’t all about what you’ll actually be studying – it’s important that you fit in and feel you can manage time-wise. It’s completely rational to be spooked by the idea of still being a medical student when most of you friends who did other degrees will have started climbing the career ladder and saving towards a pension. Spending up to six years at university compared to just three for a science degree might be a deal-breaker if you can’t wait to get out into the real world. On the flipside, Medicine can offer a whole three more years of youthful irresponsibility and university bubble bliss. Your choice.
What about the crucial aspect of anyone’s university experience – social life? Medical students tend to be quite open and friendly, so you’ll definitely make a lot of friends pretty quickly. Medic clubs and societies are usually very active and welcoming, and you’ll find those communities can become an important support for the duration of your studies. “But do you actually have the free time to take part in any of these activities, what with the fabled medical school workload?” I hear you ask. Well, the library can actually be a great place to meet people. And it’s surprising how dissecting a cadaver as a group can be such a bonding experience. On the other hand, science degrees definitely give you more opportunities to meet people from other courses, as many of the modules you take are shared. Medical school can be kind of cliquey in that respect. Also, let’s be honest, you can get away with a lot more doing a science course – turning up hungover to a morning seminar doesn’t have quite the same repercussions as arriving semi-conscious from the night before for a hospital placement.
A big difference in the day-to-day aspect of your experience is how each course is taught. Medicine tends to have a lot of scheduled teaching – if not the most of any degree. If you think medical school will mean the end of regular early morning starts clearly designed to leave you sleep-deprived, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you. A science course, while still pretty intense, is not quite as demanding, and you may appreciate having more control over when and where you work.
What’s the difference between Medicine and a life science course?
Life science degrees and Medicine can initially have a surprising amount in common. Of course each medical school has a slightly different curriculum, with some being more clinical and integrated from the start, and some focusing on providing a solid science background before they trust you with patients. If you do feel more research-oriented, pre-clinical years can be a great way to get stuck into the behind-the-scenes of Medicine – alongside lectures and tutorials addressing the field’s key scientific underpinnings, you’ll be encouraged to pursue your research interests with academics working at your university. Many medical schools now offer an integrated BSc in your third year – meaning you can choose to study an area of science relating to Medicine that you’re interested in, and get the chance to work on your own research project. A life science degree would have a similar structure to pre-clinical years, but obviously with a greater focus on details – if you get excited by the prospect of learning the names of every subunit in a G-protein coupled receptor by heart, Biomed is definitely for you. As a medical student, you will probably cover the same material, but in less mind-boggling detail and set more in the context of pathology and potential treatment.
Obviously doing a life science degree you won’t have to address the things that relate to science and health, but aren’t necessarily hard science themselves – like the ethics of healthcare, psychosocial aspects of health and disease or communication skills. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends entirely on what your preferences are. Covering these subjects can give you an idea of the bigger picture though – definitely helpful when you inevitably find yourself, in the wee hours of the morning before an exam, frantically revising what seems like the trillion steps in the development of the human nervous system and wondering what you’re doing with your life.
Of course the big difference with a medical degree is its clinical component. This aspect of the course can seem daunting if you’re more into medical science than practice – however, it’s important to acknowledge the huge benefits working on the frontline can give you from a research perspective. The opportunity to meet patients living with the diseases that up till then you’d only read about with a vague sense of interest in a textbook can give you renewed focus and inspiration for your academic work.
Basically, you can learn similar things doing either type of degree, especially if you compare a traditionally-structured medical degree with a science course. Medicine will give you a broader and more integrated perspective, with the possibility of being both research- and practice-based, whereas a science degree gives you a more specialized education. You’ll know best what suits you.
To Sum Up:
- A science degree is a lot shorter than a medical degree
- Medical school gives a strong sense of community, whereas doing a science degree will give more of a connection to the rest of the university.
- More workload flexibility as a science student.
- Medicine offers a lot more than basic clinical work – don’t be put off by disappointing work experience!
- Traditionally structured medical degrees will offer you as strong a science base as a life science degree.
- Medicine gives a broader, more contextual view of scientific knowledge, whereas a science degree will give you a more in-depth, detailed perspective.
- Medicine provides the opportunity to understand both clinical and research aspects of health and disease.
Also published on Medium.