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University rankings and prestige: how much do they really matter for studying medicine?

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Is studying medicine at Monash more prestigious than Melbourne? Is studying medicine at USyd more prestigious than UNSW? And in the end, does it really matter?

University rankings and prestige: how much do they matter for studying medicine?

Prestige, prestige, prestige. It’s a battle cry often heard echoing from the halls of the oldest universities and repeated with an unwavering insistence of certain parents that: ‘my son will only obtain his the degree from The University of…’ (Well, we don’t need to name names here..)

When selecting the university with the right medicine course for you, we would suggest that there are other factors to consider that are far more important than university rank and prestige. Medicine, unlike other professional practice areas such as law, engineering or accounting is heavily subsidised by the Government. Thus, any career in medicine will always offer a safe and guaranteed job because the need and demand for medical professionals is always there. This is reflected in the success of medicine graduates finding jobs after completing university. The Government guarantees a job to all the medical graduates. Therefore, it is obvious that the sooner you can get out into the field and practice, the more experience and work you can gain compared to those students who take the graduate medical entry pathway and who only end up practising much later in life.

What are university rankings based on anyway?

This is perhaps the greatest reason to largely disregard the usefulness of university rankings when deciding which medicine course is best for you. The vast majority of university rankings are based on the research output of the university. This means: the number of PhDs obtained by academics at that university; the journals in which those academic papers are published and the amount of times such papers are cited by other academics and journals. University rankings do not tell you how many of their students actually go on to succeed and practice in the real world of medicine nor is there a ranking system that considers which universities are producing students who have the greatest success in the medical field or who specialise in those more sought after and prestigious areas of medicine such as Dermatology or Surgery. This also helps to explain why older 'sandstone' universities are failing to maintain their rankings due to a steady decrease in the demand for their medicine courses since change to graduate entry. Some universities are also becoming experts at 'gaming' the rankings system (10/6/20, The Australian).

So what is the best way to rank medicine courses offered by different universities?

Unfortunately, as emphasised above it is almost impossible to come up with a sound ranking system for universities because the notion of what is the ‘best’ university is highly subjective. Considering this, perhaps the most effective way to judge a university is by its popularity which can be determined by several factors:

  • Is the required entrance score or other entry requirements consistently increasing?
    If the answer is yes, then it’s fair to say that the university’s popularity is also steadily increasing.
    If the answer is no, then ask yourself why this is: it may be because the university has increased the number of medical places available and thus ‘diluted’ the entry requirements OR more likely, the popularity of that university’s medical course and medical pathway is in decline.
  • What is the retention rate for your preferred medicine course?
    Good universities should not have an attrition rate of more than 10%.
  • How many students from that course go on to practice medicine in sought after specialties?
    This is perhaps the most relevant and useful criterion that should be used. University websites and some other independent websites will provide statistics such as these. Perhaps the anecdotal information is the best source for this.

What about….?

Location

In an ideal world, we would all be able to walk to university in less than 5 minutes, but the reality of the situation is: In most instances you will have to travel some distance to your desired university location.

Many students with the dilemma of choosing to study medicine at Monash or Melbourne or, USyd or UNSW may consider the graduate entry pathway simply because USyd or Melbourne are located far more conveniently. However, future medicine students should remember that it doesn’t matter if it takes you an hour or more to drive to Monash or UNSW, because overall you will save more time than taking the graduate medical entry pathway

For the mathematically inclined amongst you:

There are 8765.81 hours in a year. If you spend 2 hours a day commuting for an entire university year (4 days a week average) that’s 272 hours (assuming 34 weeks of university per standard university year).

272 < 8765.81 hours.

Therefore, a degree that takes an extra year or more to complete will set you back at least another 8765.81 hours and that’s assuming that you do gain entry into post-graduate medicine.

So taking the undergraduate entry pathway, you would have 8493.81 hours to spare. 8493.81 hours that you could spend do anything and everything else. Or, you could choose the graduate entry medical pathway (via the GAMSAT) and spend 8493.81 hours of your time studying that you will never get back. Not to mention the potential earnings you will have missed out on here.

Further, for school leaver entry programs, students will only be required on campus for the first year. From second year onwards, students attend placements in hospitals and other health or aged care services which are likely to be closer to home.

The bottom line is: you can earn back lost money, but you can’t earn back lost time.

Prestige: further things to consider.

Simply attending a so called prestigious university will not guarantee a place in your desired field of specialty. When looking at applicants, selectors will rarely consider which university you have attended. What they look at is the grades you received at medical school; your interview performance; and your referee's reports.

Remember that you get exactly the same licence no matter which uni you get your medical degree from: you don't get a 'better' licence.

But it’s a better course at….

A broken arm is a broken arm no matter which state of Australia you live in or which university you attend. Being qualified to practice medicine means you can practice throughout all of Australia. This is unlike some other professions, such as law, where the qualifications will only be valid on a state to state basis. Further, the study of medicine is about the application of proven, objective medical knowledge to a patient problem. There aren’t a huge variety of different approaches when it comes to patient treatment and all doctors throughout Australia follow the same set of standards and guidelines set out by the Medical Board of Australia. Therefore, the content of medical courses between universities will not differ greatly: your choice of university should be based on whichever is the best medical course for you!

Finally, we would suggest that there are things more important than a university’s rank:

  • getting to study what you want to do straight away, rather than having to wait until your postgraduate degree.
  • getting a taste for what medicine is really like early on so you know if it is the right course for you.
  • having a guaranteed place in your desired medical school.
  • student wellbeing and welfare.
  • student success post-uni.
  • quality of teaching staff.

Remember that Graduate entry medicine programs are good for the university, whereas school leaver entry programs are good for you.

So, with exams just around the corner, and the final date for changing your tertiary preferences looming ever closer, we would strongly suggest that you consider factors other than university rank and prestige when deciding which medicine course is best for you. What is most important, is that you are able to start studying what you truly want to study straight away. Having just finished an extremely stressful final year of high school the last thing you would want is have to continue studying full bore in order to maintain a GPA or WAM high enough to gain entry into post-graduate medicine. As well as the stress of having to sit the GAMSAT.

Remember, the actions of one health professional can make a huge difference, not just to their patient but to all those people connected to that individual whether it be friends, family or colleagues.

Thus, If studying medicine and helping people is really what you want to do, then you should aim to get out into the field and begin helping others sooner rather than later. Because every health care professional makes a lasting and far reaching difference. 

Please also read this blog: "Ranking of Australian/New Zealand Medical and Dental Schools"

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