Intended for healthcare professionals


Choosing the right course

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 02 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6416
  1. Farhana Ara, core medical trainee year 2
  1. 1Glenfield Hospital, University Hospitals of Leicester, UK
  1. farhana.ara{at}


Farhana Ara outlines how attending a course can be an investment towards your career

It has been estimated that junior doctors spend more than £17 000 on postgraduate qualifications during their training,1 and a weighty proportion of this sum goes towards paying to attend courses.

Junior doctors are often inundated with invitations to attend courses which can vary widely in nature, from optional courses on presentation skills to mandatory training. This article outlines some of the reasons that trainees should attend courses and how to choose the right course.

Why attend a course?

There are many reasons for junior doctors to attend courses as part of their professional training. Often, trainees will have a “study budget” to spend (see your postgraduate centre about its availability and how to claim it), and the promise of some time away from the ward can be enticing. More importantly, however, attending courses provides the opportunity to develop new skills and boost your CV.

Courses can help build your confidence in subject areas where your knowledge is hazy. There are courses for specific topics geared towards different specialties and grades, so all doctors should be able to find a course that will fill their knowledge gaps. Attending a course can also allow trainees to indulge in specific academic interests, in particular in areas that are not covered in depth in the medical curriculum.

Courses taken during foundation or core training can be used to demonstrate commitment to a specialty, which will go down well at interviews for specialty training. Prospective cardiology trainees, for example, may wish to show their early interest in the specialty by attending an echocardiography or pacing course. Hopeful paediatric or orthopaedic trainees often undertake the advanced paediatric life support or advanced trauma life support courses to give their application an edge—these courses are also essential requirements for trainees within a post.

Another way to support your specialty application is to attend a career day at your specialty college. Career days can help trainees to focus on the skills and attributes needed when applying to a certain specialty and put them in direct contact with prospective future interviewers.

Courses on interview skills are a huge market and can help junior doctors prepare for specialty training and to become consultants. These are often run by recruitment experts who know what generic questions are asked at interview, and they offer handy hints to help candidates overcome personal fears or even speech and behavioural idiosyncrasies. Attending courses also shows interview panels that you have taken the initiative to explore their field and gain valuable transferable skills.

Membership exams are clearly a lucrative business for the royal colleges, with a pass rate from 42% to 69% for membership of the Royal College of Physicians parts 1 and 2. Candidates can optimise their chances of passing by attending exam preparation courses, guided by peer recommendations.

Finally, the core medical curriculum emphasises the attainment of desirable interpersonal skills, including management, leadership, presenting, communication, and teaching skills. Attending a course can show how a trainee has worked to develop these “soft” skills.

How to choose a course

A huge array of courses is available to junior doctors. Cost, location, and personal recommendations are often cited as the most important factors to take into consideration when choosing a course. Financial restraints can severely limit which courses you are able to attend; look into bursary schemes, sponsorship, and study budget allowances.

Another thing to consider is your learning style. The VARK questionnaire sorts learners according to their different learning styles (visual, aural, read/write, kinaesthetic, and multimodal learners).2 Adult learners can then decide whether they are suited to a particular course on the basis of how best they learn, which can determine whether to choose a six month course or an intensive course, a simulation or a lecture. Advice from helpful peers or friends who know you well can also help with this decision.

An international course can look impressive on your CV, especially if it is accompanied by an abstract or poster presentation, but the most successful choice of course is one that meets the objectives of what you hope to achieve.

“Best of” the most popular courses

Objective analysis of which courses are best for a particular topic is limited. Here is a rundown of the most popular courses in several key areas and how different courses compare.

Clinical skills

The Royal Society of Medicine (, the BMA (, and the royal colleges have events calendars on their websites offering a wide range of clinical courses. The Royal College of Physicians hosts monthly free teach-in sessions at its headquarters in London that deal with a range of topics from neurology to respiratory medicine ( BMJ Masterclass courses give regular insights into new developments in specific fields (

Life support courses

Courses that provide life support accreditation are highly regarded and are compulsory requirements in some training posts (fig 1). For example, most foundation schools want junior doctors to have an advanced life support certificate to complete foundation training; trauma and orthopaedic trainees need to prove that they have achieved advanced trauma life support accreditation; and paediatric trainees need to have done the advanced paediatric life support course. Life support courses are often very similar, and the emphasis is on interactive and scenario based learning on common life threatening emergencies. The courses vary in the depth of detail they go into, however, and so the duration and cost of courses can vary.


Life support courses for junior doctors

MRCP courses

Numerous courses around the country aim to prepare junior doctors for the part 2 clinical examination (PACES) of the membership of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP) qualification. Attending the almost legendary PassPACES course at Guy’s Hospital, London, has often been described as the only sure way to pass the exam. The course provides access to an objective structured clinical examination circuit and a wide array of pathologies under one roof, which is highly desirable in the build up to sitting the exam. There are many other MRCP part 2 and PACES courses, but none is endorsed by the Royal College of Physicians (fig 2).


MRCP PACES courses for junior doctors

MRCP online resources

Exam oriented online courses can be used for targeted revision. Numerous options are available, and juniors are often guided simply by colleagues’ recommendations (fig 3). The types of exam catered for and the number of questions available vary across websites. Likewise the detail in the answers and explanations to questions can vary and can be brief on some websites.


MRCP online courses for junior doctors

Non-clinical skills

Presentation skills

Finalmed ( is familiar to many final year medical students. Students present a case to different consultant examiners, and a prize is given at the end of the course for the best presentation. These courses are also available to junior doctors within two years of graduation.

Oxford Medical’s presenting course incorporates theory of teaching and applying its techniques on various one day courses ( The BMA’s course “Art and science of presenting to and influencing others” is available at a discount to members and has a particular slant on how to deal with a difficult audience. Although the Oxford Medical course provides a general overview of presenting for medical ward rounds and teaching presentations, the BMA course will attract those who face more demanding audiences in presenting research or audit work.

Leadership and management courses

Courses on leadership and management equip doctors with the skills promoted by the Medical Leadership Competency Framework, such as setting direction and managing services.3 Some postgraduate deaneries also offer their own management courses for doctors. As well as working to improve personal qualities, these courses help with understanding healthcare systems, processes, structures, and governance.


A teaching certificate (more than a two day course) will land you the coveted two extra points on a specialty trainee year 3 application. Courses are run frequently by various organisations (including ISC Medical and Oxford Medical); shorter ones include the popular one day “Teach the teachers” and “Train the trainers” courses.

Longer courses include diplomas and postgraduate qualifications as part of university qualifications. The Royal College of Physicians’ “Doctors as educators” course, for example, is geared towards medical trainees and comprises medical workshops and scenarios. This leads on to a postgraduate certificate in medical education. Trainees might also want to consider doing an MA course, such as the course on clinical education offered by Brighton and Sussex University.

Shorter courses allow you to dip into your field of interest while you continue with clinical commitments. Longer courses, however, are an opportunity to further your studies in a particular area, especially if they are concerned with research, publication, and the general field of academic medicine.

Top tips

  • The cash strapped clinician can apply for free access to some educational courses. For example, members of the Medical Protection Society are entitled to attend free medicolegal workshops (a saving of £150), with several dates and locations to choose from ( It is worth paying a visit to your local library to see whether your deanery has posted advertisements about courses, or ask a helpful specialist registrar for formal teaching.

  • E-learning modules with accompanying videos are free resources that can help you improve your clinical knowledge. For updates direct to your inbox, sign up to Medscape ( or its eMedicine service (, or look up medical journal listings.

  • Continuing professional development points are credits that show how a course meets parts of a specialty curriculum. Junior doctors are awarded these points on completion of a course and can list on their CV any cumulative points they have earned. These points can serve as a quick reference tool for trainees to show their knowledge, skills, keenness, and initiative. Attendance certificates can be uploaded onto e-portfolios to provide evidence against curriculum criteria for foundation year doctors or core trainees.


The benefits of attending courses during postgraduate medical training are numerous. There is a multitude of courses to choose from, but it is important to attend courses that will be an investment for your career. Taking time beforehand to research a course will save you time and money, and planning for courses will ensure that you attend the appropriate course that meets the specific needs and ambitions for your future career path.


  • Competing interests: None declared.


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