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Is undertaking an MSc midlife madness?

Dr Abayomi McEwen found doing a distance learning MSc hard work and nerve racking but ultimately very valuable indeed

Sitting on the shores of a lake in a distant land is not the time to agree to undertake a life-changing course of action.

I was teaching in Macedonia on my sabbatical. A colleague on the trip told me about the benefits of doing an MSc course in primary care on which he was to be a tutor. If I signed up I would be part of the first year, a sort of pilot group.

The course, run by the Royal Free and University College Medical School, University College London, was web-based so after a week in summer school everything would be online. It was attractive not needing to negotiate time out of the practice as I was already spending too much time on outside activities.

The course designers were making plans to address 'the loneliness of the long-distance learner'. How could I turn this suggestion down? It was going at half price for the first cohort. Incidentally, as a GP tutor and educational adviser to the PCO, the course content was just what I needed, especially as community teaching and learning was one of the elective modules offered in the second year.

On my return from Macedonia I signed up for the three-year, part-time course. I realised I needed to learn certain things to fulfil my increasing commitments to medical education. Despite my various hats, I realised I knew less than people thought I did about education, research and the workings of the NHS.

Helping to develop the PCO

Those who have worked in the area for years are a valuable resource to the army of new managers in post and I needed to learn how to work in new ways to be as effective as possible to the development of the PCO.

I am not good at reading on my own, digesting and synthesising information and then putting it into practice. I can do this quite well in the clinical arena but for areas I find difficult or have mental blocks about, such as research, I needed help. The thought of a formal course of study with deadlines hanging over me seemed appealing.

My experience at medical school had made fear a familiar motivator for learning. Thus I felt it would be a useful tool to help me complete difficult learning-related tasks.

Attending virtual 'uni'

Summer school was great and I got to know the other seven students well. We were taught to use the software ­ WebCT, a program widely used by universities.

So when 'I went to uni' I logged on. There was a virtual bar and a virtual seminar. Attendance at the virtual seminar was compulsory and 10 per cent of the marks of each module were given for attending it.

For someone like me who is intimidated by people who can speak 'academic' it was great. I could digest a posting, think about it and reply rather than have to sit with a group of colleagues spouting off long words like 'heuristics' and 'epistemological', wondering if I was the only one who did not know what they meant. We had a Christmas debate with illustrious speakers and great topics. There was always a resident tutor who was easier to get a response from than tracking colleagues down in the flesh.

The contributions from fellow students and tutors alike were very useful, especially as it was a multidisciplinary group. The help given by the group on topics not directly related to the course work is one of the aspects I shall miss most. I will also miss the online access to a seemingly infinite number of journals.

Coping with whinging children

I got through the first two years more or less meeting deadlines and enjoyed the respect of my tutors. As the children whinged about their deadlines (three were at university at the time) I could sympathise and yet say 'No, you cannot have a certificate to authorise you handing in your work late. Stay up all night as I am going to do!'

The dissertation was the hardest part. In the end a friend (and local mentor) insisted we go away to her parents' flat in Spain where I would not have anything to distract me. I had planned to do four hours a day but once I started I was up early and worked for up to six hours before allowing myself to go to the beach and relax for the rest of the day.

Having a knowledgeable friend on tap was so helpful ­ just to bounce ideas and check whether I was heading in the right direction. As I lost momentum so easily, my official university supervisor was great at pushing me a bit further and responding quickly. Without these two people I think I would still be hugging my data wondering how to set my thoughts out. The concentrated work I undertook in the last few weeks made me determined that I wanted to end that phase of my life.

What have I learnt?

So here I am with my MSc in primary care. What have I learnt? First, I am not an academic but have gained confidence in my academic ability. I am committed to lifelong learning but have no aspirations to studying at a higher level. I am sure that will be a relief to my mentor and supervisor whose patience and goodwill I sorely tested.

I know now that asking questions is good and many of my work queries can be translated into research questions. I have ideas as to how that research could be undertaken and I think I can make a useful contribution to a primary care research team. I know how to produce a sustained piece of writing with a table of contents and so on. I have also learnt to use referencing software as well as qualitative data analysis software.

I am pleased that what I have learned, especially community teaching and learning, has enabled me to share my newly acquired knowledge and skills effectively with others so that they too can develop themselves.

Abayomi McEwen

is educational adviser and appraisal lead to Epping Forest PCO and

also locums

in the area

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