Julia Isbister – Medical Student, University of Sydney

Posted October 13, 2011, by Helen Isbister
‘Kids always have exciting ideas about what they want to be and I had all those as well, but I think I actually always imagined myself doing medicine in the end.’

Julia is in her second year of a postgraduate medical degree at the University of Sydney. She survived the grueling entrance exam and interview process and is now enjoying learning all about the human body while making the most of the social side of the course.




Why did you want to do medicine?

My father was a vet and I watched him do consults, treat patients and talk to clients. I found it an interesting process to have someone come in with a problem and then talk with them, look at their animal and try to solve the problem. I’ve also always been interested in the human body and how it works.

Did you always want to become a doctor then?

Kids always have exciting ideas about what they want to be and I had all those as well, but I think I actually always imagined myself doing medicine in the end.

Did you go straight into a medical course at university?

No, I never wanted to do undergraduate medicine. I was too interested in other things as well, like languages and politics, so I decided to do an Arts degree. I got to do a bit of everything: chemistry, philosophy, maths, economics, politics, and languages; Spanish, Chinese and French. It didn’t really lend itself to a smooth transition into medicine, but then again the people in my course now come from all sorts of fields.

What are the options for people who want to do an undergraduate medical course?

There are fewer universities offering undergraduate medicine now, but if you did want to go straight into medicine in first year you need to sit the UMAT (a problem solving, no knowledge required test) and attend an interview. It’s a longer course with a different structure than the postgraduate course because they start out with a bigger focus on basic sciences.

Can you tell me about the exam you need to sit to get into postgraduate medicine?

It’s called the GAMSAT, which stands for Graduate Australian Medical School Admission Test. It is assumed that people sitting the GAMSAT have a knowledge of Year 12 physics and first-year university biology and chemistry.

It’s an interesting test because there are three sections with the science section weighing the most. Then you have to write two essays on social science questions like ‘what is democracy?’ and ‘crime and punishment’. There is also an English comprehension section.

How do you prepare for it?

Some people sit it with no preparation, while others opt to study for a year in advance and others attend courses on how to answer the questions in the GAMSAT. I borrowed some notes from a friend who had sat it, did a couple of practice exams, and read some sample essays and English comprehension questions.

What was the next step after the exam?

You put in three preferences for universities and, depending on your GPA and GAMSAT result, one of them might offer you an interview. Sydney Uni had a new format of interview called the multiple mini interview where we spent a certain amount of time at eight stations answering different questions. They were all scenario-based questions on ethical and professional aspects of medicine.

What is GPA?

GPA stands for Grade Point Average, that is an indication of a student’s overall performance in their course.

What advice do you have for someone sitting an interview?

It’s difficult to prepare because they are scenario based. A lot of people went to courses to practice, but a doctor gave me the advice to read up on medical ethics, professionalism and the basic principles of medicine. Things like why a patient should have autonomy, the role of the doctor and the patient-doctor relationship.

What attributes are looked for in people wanting to become doctors?

First and foremost, I think that being your own individual is important – don’t just say what you think the examiners want to hear. I think they are looking for people who have a solid concept of what is ethical and for people who are well-rounded with interests beyond medicine. They are also looking for people who are deep thinkers and can communicate their ideas.

What is the course like?

I don’t think you realise just how much work it is until you get into it. You can pass the exams and fulfill the requirements, but ultimately it’s about coming out a competent doctor. The course is pretty practical. From the outset you spend one day a week at a hospital with clinicians. We learn how to take patient histories, physically examine the patient, give injections and take blood pressure.

What do you most enjoy about it?

I really like learning about the human body and I also really like the communal side of the course – the fact that we are part of a group and all working towards the same goal.

And what do you least enjoy?

I always feel like I never know enough. There is an infinite amount to learn and sometimes you can’t understand one part until you understand the rest. It’s not about being lazy, but it takes time for all the pieces to fit together and sometimes it can be frustrating.

What are your future career goals?

Ultimately I hope to become a competent doctor who can diagnose and treat illnesses and care for patients. I think it would be satisfying to become a rural GP where you see your patients for many years and see them grow up. You are also servicing a community which really needs and values your skills. On the other side of it, I really do find some of the specialties interesting.

When do you have an opportunity to narrow your career path?

Some people know from day one that they want to be an orthopedic surgeon or a cardiologist, but all the way through the degree you have opportunities to focus on areas of interest. Actually choosing a specialty doesn’t come until years in.

What advice do you have for someone who thinks they might like to become a doctor?

Firstly you need to understand that medicine is a life choice – it’s not the kind of job you leave at 5 o’clock in the evening and go home without a worry on your mind. Also, talk to people who are working in medicine and ask them about their experiences. 

It’s a lot of hard work to get there, so it’s not something to do on a whim. That said, we all really enjoy it! I had a tutor in his seventies at hospital who came bouncing in every Monday morning saying how excited he was to be there and how much he loved medicine. From what I’ve seen, I think medicine can be an intensely exciting and satisfying profession.

Helen Isbister

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