24 October, 2018
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They’re the age-old questions of applying for medical school: does it really matter which university I study at? Will I get a job after I graduate if I study there? Will my friends with a degree from that university be more successful than me?
The short answer is: no, university prestige does not predict the quality of a medical degree. Then why have university rankings? Why are some medical schools considered ‘better’ than others?
And most importantly, which medical schools should I apply for?
Applying for medicine is a stressful enough time as it is, and we all want to attend the university that is right for us. So here I’m going to break it down for you and explain just what university prestige and rankings mean, and which factors matter most when choosing a medical school.
Every year, you may hear about the release of ‘World University Rankings’ where every university is given a number and can even be ranked by faculty or subject. You may see bus stop ads or receive emails in your inbox from universities bragging about being ‘26th in the world for Medicine’ or ‘Highest ranked university in Australia’.
But how are these rankings even calculated?
Most of the university rankings we hear about are actually based on the research output of a university, that is: the status of the journals in which academics from that university publish in; how often those articles are cited by others; and how many PhDs are obtained per university. Therefore, the older a university is (for example USyd versus UNSW), the easier it is for that university to maintain a high ranking even if their medical degree changes it’s structure or their entrance scores consistently decrease. Universities like USyd have strong connections with professors and academics who attended university back in the day when those such as UNSW didn’t yet exist.
Furthermore, the factors that do matter to prospective medical students, such as student experience or medical graduate success in the workforce, do not usually contribute to these rankings. So even if one university in Australia produced significantly more ‘successful’ doctors, this wouldn’t directly affect their rank.
This brings us to another common concern that future employers will prefer to hire medical graduates from these more ‘prestigious’ universities. However, unlike in other fields, the shortage of qualified individuals means that careers in medicine are pretty much guaranteed. Let’s face it, the demand for medical professionals will always be there (robots can’t be that good already!). Moreover, medical practice involves the application of objective, evidence-based knowledge to a clinical scenario, and is therefore similar no matter where you studied in Australia. Therefore, waiting extra years to get into a more prestigious course could be worse off for your career than if you accepted a position straight away and got out into the workforce sooner to become a more experienced medical professional.
• The retention rate for the course - Good medical schools shouldn’t have an attrition rate greater than about 10%
Unfortunately, this is a tricky question to answer, especially considering the subjectivity of the matter. However, some factors to consider when trying to judge the quality of a medical course include:
Of course, everyone has different values and opinions, so choosing a medical school will always come down to the individual. Some factors that could come into play when deciding on your preferences include:
• Location - in both local and national terms this can be a huge influence in some peoples’ decisions. Choosing a university that is easily accessible by public transport may be really important for someone, moreover, some people are more willing to move interstate for a medical course if need be and others prefer to stay close to family. Regardless, considering how location could impact your life as a medical student is important.
• Cost of living - different cities are more expensive to live in than others, and different areas of each city come with different costs (such as food prices, the rental market, and public transport costs). If you’re moving out of home to study, this is especially important to take into account before deciding where to go.
• Student life - A large part of university, especially your medical degree, is being engaged in social clubs and activities, extra-curricular opportunities, or sporting teams. If there’s something you’re really passionate about, check out the university website to see what student life is like. Moreover, having a university that will support your well-being can have a huge impact on your experience as a medical student.
• Course structure - lastly, even though the content of medical knowledge that is taught is essentially the same across the universities, the structures between courses can vary quite a lot. Some universities get you into the hospitals earlier, and some devote more time than others to placements in rural areas. If there is an aspect of medicine that you’re already passionate about, or a structure of learning that you’re particularly drawn to, this could be something you consider early on.Feeling overwhelmed? To make this all a bit easier, you can check out one of our previous articles that list some of the pros and cons of the medical courses around Australia - Australian Medical Schools: Which is best for me? You could also read our blogpost about PostgradAustralia, and check out PostgradAustralia.com to explore, compare, and shortlist degrees.
So, as you can see, choosing a high-ranking university isn’t exactly the best way to choose your prospective medical course. It would do you much more good in the end if you accepted an offer to study medicine (should it come your way), if:
• You believe that studying medicine is the right course for you (or alternatively so that you can decide early on that is not for you)
• You would like a guaranteed place in medicine as soon as possible
• The medical course appears to have quality teaching and retains 90%+ of its students
• You have considered factors such as those above (location, cost of living, student experience) and believe that the university can meet those needs
All in all, choosing the right medical school for you is not an easy task, however studying at a medical school that you enjoy and that supports your well-being (rather than which has the highest rank or greatest ‘prestige’) will give you the best opportunity to become the doctor that you aspire to be.