The Trials and Tribulations of High Stakes Assessments: How I still remember everything about FRCPath

Seven years ago this week, I found out I passed the exam to be awarded Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath) in Medical Microbiology. It is still the only exam, other than my PhD viva, where I vividly remember not only how it felt to sit it, but also how I felt both awaiting and getting the results. As others currently await their outcome, I’ve been reflecting on what it was about this exam that means, even 7 years on, it has had such a lasting impact on both my career trajectory and my memory? Also, why did I, as a scientist, decide to sit it in the first place?

For me, it started with you can’t

I’ve started a post that I’ll publish another time about the journey from trainee to Consultant Clinical Scientist, and the joys and pitfalls that entailed. For me, although my path may appear winding, I always knew what I was working towards and had a list of things I knew I would need to accomplish to get there. Knowing what was needed was never the issue. Knowing how to achieve it was often much less clear.

Getting FRCPath is essential to becoming a Consultant Clinical Scientist in microbiology. There are, however, 2 common ways of achieving it, by publication or by exam. I knew plenty of people who had FRCPath by publication, and it was a route that was achievable by me, as I was also on a clinical academic pathway. The problem for me was, however, that I was in a patient facing role, making patient-based decisions over a broad spectrum of activity. To me, FRCPath by publication would have given me credibility in a different way and would not, therefore, have been perceived as equivalent by my medical colleagues. I was just not sure it would fully support the work I was undertaking or aspired to undertake. So it was that I started to think that FRCPath by examination was the only way forward for me.

(Side note – I truly believe that either way of attaining Fellowship is valid. I believe it’s just about the kind of work you are going to do once you have it. That decision should drive your thinking about which is the right choice for you.)

I don’t think I’d realised how many feathers I would ruffle along the way by making that decision. One of the challenges, and also eventual benefits, is that a lot of people will give you advice along the way, and some of it will make you question your decisions. This eventually enables you to have an even greater understanding of your choices, but at the time, it can lead to a lot of self-doubt and require a lot of self-reflection. In this case, I was told you can’t by a LOT of people on the road to even sitting the exam. I was told that you could only pass if you worked as a registrar in a teaching hospital for 3 years. I was asked (even at the mock and the exam) why on earth a scientist should be allowed to sit a medics exams and what kind of job did I think I would get afterwards. In just about every way I was told that someone like me should just give up and choose a different path. Any readers of this blog know how well I deal with those kinds of responses. So, like so many other times, I had my reflections, dusted myself off, and came back with even more determination that this was the right path for me. Determination, however, doesn’t always change outcomes. All I’d done was decide to sit an exam, that was all rather different from passing it.

No one said it was going to be easy

What is FRCPath by exam all about anyway and why do people think of it as such a defining moment? It has changed a bit more recently, especially through the pandemic, but when I sat it, the exam was about 30 hours carried out over 4 days. I’ve always described it as a bit like The Great British Bake Off of microbiology exams, but without the benefit of ending the day with cake. Day 1 included written papers (essays, short answers, critical appraisal). Days 2 – 4 were wet lab practicals, with 9 written exams interspersed throughout the days. You would just be told during these to put down your loop and move to another room where a written paper would be waiting for you. These further written tests included: virology, quality, spots and public health. In my year they were closed book, but in previous years some of these had been open book. Between sessions you would be given new specimens or further clinical information on ones you’d already processed to make further laboratory actions. Doesn’t sound too bad…….right? I didn’t think it would be, or I hadn’t quite conceived of how hard it would be until I attended the mock exam up in Blackpool in June 2015.

I knew before going to the mock that the pass rate was about 40% for the real thing and I knew that everyone described it as the toughest exam they had ever sat. I just don’t think that I KNEW it. The challenges of the exam are hard to describe. Some of them are physical, how many of us physically write essays for 8 hours a day these days. I have a history of repetitive strain injury and so it was interesting to come up with a painkiller strategy that would enable me to perform as well at the end of the day as at the beginning. I was surprised at the extent of the exhaustion. Usually, I prep enough that I arrive at the exam in a ball of flames and adrenaline gets me through the day so I can collapse in a heap afterwards. With this exam you can’t do that. At the end of day one you need to study and prep more for day 2, at the end of day 2 you know there is stuff you need to pick up hinted at in the specimens so you can be more sure you know your stuff for day 3 etc etc. The exhaustion therefore accumulates until (at least for me) by day 4 I was working in an exhausted haze.

The other thing that makes this particular exam challenging is that it covers EVERYTHING. They can ask about any organism, any presentation, any vaccine, any treatment. Part of the reason it was designed that way I think, was to ensure that come day 4 when you are exhausted you can still make safe clinical decisions and spot pitfalls and risk. Normally when you walk into an exam room you have a syllabus that enables you to have a fairly reasonable chance of targeting some of your learning and determining likely content. This isn’t that exam, and therefore a lot of the exam techniques you’ve previously used are not quite as applicable. This one is more about maintaining your calm, being structured and clear in your responses and making life very easy for your examiners, in terms of finding and making your points. You have so little time for each of the components that clarity of both thought and communication are key, and practice is the only thing that will get you there, that on top of all the revision you can cram into your brain. (If useful the link to some of the content I prepped to help with revision in 2015 is here)

The ugly truth of coming face to face with who really are

All of the challenges, physical and mental, are nothing compared to the emotional and psychological roller coaster that you go through. I’ve always been fairly fortunate, in that until FRCPath I’ve never come up against a challenge where I thought I couldn’t conquer it if I worked and applied myself hard enough. It’s why I talk all the time about how it’s important to know you’re why. Your why will get you through when other things fail, your why means that you know quite what price you are prepared to pay and what you are prepared to sacrifice. Everything in life comes with a cost, life itself is resource limited. Knowing how much you value something means you know when to stay in the game and when to walk away. That has been true of every exam I’ve faced until FRCPath. FRCPath forced me to face something different. It’s the first time in my life where I’ve had to look myself in the mirror and ask myself whether I actually had what it takes. Not whether I had what it took to put in the time, to face the physical toll or wanted it enough, but whether I had actually reached my limit. Was this just something I would never be able to achieve no matter how hard I worked, but that I as a person would just fall short. I can tell you, apart from fear for my loved ones, I have never felt fear like it.

Now I’m not telling you all this to put you off sitting the exam, far from it. For me it was a life changing process, not just because of the fact that it changed my career, but because of what I learnt about myself. It made me look myself in the mirror and face something that really scares me………….failure. I can in a logical way sit here and talk about how the things I’ve previously post about impact on how I feel about failure, or how because of what happened to my sister this career means more to me than I can logically explain. The thing is none of that can encompass how I felt when having a full on panic attack outside of the exam room before going into short answers, because it had gone VERY badly at the mocks. Just not being able to find my breath. Knowing I could walk away, and just take the easy way out. Then finding the strength of resolve to make a choice, to press the button on my phone and turn on my ‘get psyched mix’. To forcibly calm my breathing and to walk into that exam room, face my fear and turn over the front page of the exam paper. I learnt more about who I am in that moment than sitting 100 easier or more straight forward exams could have shown me, and for that I am strangely grateful.

Is this the best way to test competence?

The question is, should any exam take you to that place? What is it really testing? I was told that most medical exams involve candidates sitting multiple times, it’s common for people to fail at least once, which with a pass mark of ~40% for FRCPath feels likely. I don’t know for definite that this is the case, it’s just what I’ve been told by registrars who’ve trained with me. It is true that I know many highly competent Microbiology Consultants who failed at least once. The other thing is that this test doesn’t really represent clinical practice. In the real world I would consult guidance and other sources if I had any doubts, competence isn’t just a matter of recollection, it’s mostly how we use that information in practice. At the end of the exam one of the education leads at the college turned around and congratulated us, they said not having quit and making it through 4 days was a success in itself. I do see the value in making sure that those sitting these exams can make safe decisions when they are exhausted, after all most of us will take calls when that is the case. I’m not sure however as an educational driver we couldn’t be doing something better. The exam has changed a lot since I took it, it’s now a one day exam. In some ways I’m saddened by this, it was almost a rite of passage that me and others bond over to this day. I also worry that by removing so much of the lab side of things and reducing the exam hours so drastically it could be pretty hit and miss about the content suiting candidates, rather than truly testing against the curriculum. Anyone who works in education knows that assessment design however drives educational engagement. Although I’m not by any way an expert in this, I do think that high stakes summative assessments have cons as well as pros, and just because I’m sad that the exam/rite of passage is under review does not mean that change is a bad thing.

What happens when there is no plan B?

One of the problems with high stakes summative assessments i.e., those taken at the end of learning and are pass/fail, is that there is often no plan B. This is especially true for FRCPath where there are a limited number of times you can sit it before you are not permitted anymore (x4) and will therefore never become a consultant. For someone, such as myself, who is not from a wealthy background and was being paid a junior scientist salary, the costs associated with this exam could be prohibitive. Sitting the exam was over £1000, that combined with hotel accommodation, books, paying for the mock, meant paying over £3000. I have friends who spent over £10,000.00 in 2 years sitting the exam 4 times. In a world where accessibility matters a financial barrier should not mean that someone cannot progress in their profession. Currently the exam in online and so the barriers are not the same, but the exam fee itself can add up. I needed to pass first time, not just because I couldn’t face losing another 6 months of my life, but because I was pretty sure I couldn’t afford to sit it again. I went all in and came out the other side, but I know of people who have found the process damaging, rather than the freeing experience it ended up being for me. It is an immovable block to your future and failing really does mean that you could be dealing with the consequences for the rest of your career, a career that you will have already invested years into.

The payoff was worth it all

Having been through the process though I don’t regret it for a minute. It is still one of the things in my life I am proudest to have undertaken. It has given me the courage and conviction to fight as I had stared into my soul and knew that this is what I wanted. I wouldn’t be a consultant without it, not just because I wouldn’t be qualified but because I wouldn’t have had the courage to fight for it. I still remember my candidate number, it’s become one of my favourites. I still remember crying uncontrollably when I looked at the website and saw the below, and then sent this screen shot to everyone I knew in order to make sure I hadn’t read it incorrectly.

The other thing to say is that there are lots of people out there who will tell you there is only one way to pass this exam and frankly I don’t believe that is true. The exam is a milestone on the pathway to where you want to end up. In the same way that FRCPath by publication is the right route for some people, you can pass this exam by not being a registrar for 3 years in a teaching hospital, after all, I did. It all depends on what your aspirations at the end of it are. If you work in public health you are probably not aiming to switch to being a Consultant Clinical Scientist doing on call in a district general, but to upskill and improve your clinical competence to continue working in your area. If you are like me with an aspiration to work and specialise in Infection Control in a paediatric setting, then your aspirations will be different again. It is OK to sit the exam and plan with this in mind and to make your own path. Everyone is different and where we want to end up does not have to be the same, nor the path we take to get there. The challenges we face along the way are sometimes more important that the destination. Even when it’s hard enjoy the journey, enjoy the challenge if you can and for sure enjoy the person it enables you to become. Finally, if it doesn’t work out first time know that there is life beyond, don’t let my fear of failure make you doubt that that is the case. We are after all definitely more than the sum of our grades.

All opinions on this blog are my own

A new Girlymicro podcast where we talk about what it’s like for someone living with an FRCPath candidate

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