Guest Blog by Karen Barclay-Elliott: Life, the universe and surviving FRCPath part 1

I put out a post earlier this week on my experience of sitting MRCPath or FRCPath part 1, but as, in Healthcare Science terms, I am a bit of a dinosaur and sat mine so very long ago I put out a call for someone to help out who has more recent experience. The wonderful Ren Barclay-Elliott was a life saver and jumped to my aid. Ren is a virology clinical scientist based in the Midlands with an interest in congenital and childhood infections, fantasy novels, and cats. She also has demonstrated she has a generous heart by not only agreeing to write this but turning it around so quickly for the enjoyment and aid of all of you 🙂

It’s Me, Hi!

A quick introduction to who I am and why I’m writing this – my name is Ren, and I’m a clinical scientist in Virology and Molecular Pathology. I completed the NHS Scientist Training Program in Infection Sciences in 2020 and have been working in virology ever since. After a year or so of putting off sitting my FRCPath Part 1 exam, I finally gathered up the courage and willpower to attempt it in Autumn 2022. (Spoiler alert – I was fortunate enough to pass on my first attempt.)

I found Part 1 incredibly dauting for so many reasons – not least of which was the fact it was the first exam I had sat since finishing the STP, and there had been a whole pandemic in the interim! Not to mention it is an incredibly broad exam, and as a virologist I had promptly forgotten about 90% of the bacteriology I had ever known the second I finished the STP. I was given a lot of advice about studying for, and sitting, this exam over the last year, as well as gathering some (possibly questionable) wisdom of my own – I hope that in sharing it, I can make Part 1 a less intimidating prospect for anyone sitting this exam in the future!

The Exam Itself

In this post-pandemic world, many things look a little different to how they used to. Part 1 is no exception – at least for the time being, the exam is entirely online. This can be quite an odd experience for those of us used to huge, drafty exam halls and ominously pacing invigilators. There are certainly a lot of perks to this way of doing things – mainly not needing to travel to physically attend the exam, but also the comfort of being at home and being able to think out loud if you come across a tricky question.

The exam itself is simple – 125 best-answer multiple-choice questions in 3 hours. When they say “best answer”, they are not kidding – be prepared to think “but these could ALL be right!” at least 30 times throughout the exam. Fine-tuning your decision making to be able to narrow in on the most likely to be right is a skill in itself, and one that takes time and practice to develop. I found that practicing multiple choice questions from a few different sources really helped – more on that later! Almost everyone I know who has sat the exam finished well before the time limit and had plenty of time to go back and check their answers a few times.

Help – How and When Do I Study?

So now you know what to expect on the day of the exam. But what about the weeks or months leading up to it? How do you prepare for an exam where the syllabus is just “literally everything you have learned up until now”? How long do you need to study for, and how much time do you need to spend on any given topic? Unfortunately, as with many things in life (and in Part 1 for that matter!), there is no single right answer. I was given the general rule of thumb of starting to prepare about 3 months prior to the exam, but I know people who have spent as little as 2 weeks or as long as 18 months preparing for their first attempt.

Personally, I started off very slowly about a year before the exam – not with full-on studying, but by doing fairly low-effort things like listening to podcasts, making a point to attend MDTs where I knew interesting cases would be discussed, and starting to note down areas where I knew I had a weaker knowledge base and reading up on them whenever I had downtime at work. I started studying in earnest about a month before the exam and found this was sufficient time for me to cover everything in enough detail to feel confident.

AS for how to study – there’s as many correct answers to that as there are people on the planet! However, I have tried to summarise my best advice below…

Find Different Ways To Learn

I have always thought of myself as a very visual learner – come exam season in uni, the walls of my room would always be plastered in meticulously colour-coded mind maps covering every possible topic I could be examined on.

An actual picture of the walls of my bedroom circa March 2017 while I was studying for my MSc exams

However, once I got to studying for part 1, I found this approach wasn’t working so well for me anymore – not least because I don’t think I have enough wall space in my whole house for the number of mindmaps I would have made! For a while I kept stubbornly trying to stick to my tried-and-true method (after all, it had gotten me this far!), but eventually I had to admit that I needed to be more flexible in how I learned. I ended up with a huge variety of methods depending on the topic I was learning and how I was feeling on any given day – printing and highlighting guidelines, writing flashcards, making (and delivering) powerpoint presentations, and teaching my (non-lab-scientist) husband, who now knows WAY more about carbapenemases than you’d expect from a high school chemistry teacher.

Trying out practice questions was massively helpful, both for getting me ready for the multiple-choice question format in the exam, and to give me a way to assess my progress as I went along. I found the BIA LearnInfection resource to be invaluable, as well as the infamous “orange MCQ book” (more formally known as “Infectious Diseases, Microbiology and Virology: A Q&A Approach for Specialist Medical Trainees” by Luke S P Moore and James C Hatcher).

I also found listening to podcasts to be a great way to learn – I would thoroughly recommend ID:IOTS (bonus points for the hosts’ Scottish accents, which really helped to alleviate my homesickness!) and Febrile (bear in mind that this is American so not all of their guidelines are identical to those used in the UK, but it’s a great resource and very entertaining). Both are available on Spotify!

Make It A Game

Let’s face it, studying can be incredibly tedious. After finding myself staring blankly at textbooks for hours on end, barely taking in a single word I was reading, I realised that I needed to make studying fun – or at least, not mind-numbing! I found that games were a brilliant way to re-approach a subject with fresh eyes and remember that I am studying this subject because I genuinely love to learn about it. One of my favourite resources with Microbial Pursuit (https://firstline.org/microbial-pursuit), an online trivia game that my colleagues and I got very competitive over! One question is published each day, so it’s great for doing a little bit of learning every day, or you can dive into the back catalogue if you want a more extended study session. It’s a fun way to test your knowledge across the whole breadth of infection science, and useful for picking up little facts that you may have missed in your reading.

I found this approach really important the closer I got to the exam – it was a useful way to remind myself that learning can be fun and exciting, and I wasn’t just memorising screeds of information for the sake of it.

Create Systems That Work For You

Part 1 covers a frankly enormous amount of content, and it can be utterly overwhelming trying to find a way to cover all the necessary material without accidentally missing things out. There are plenty of ways to split it up, and some may work better for you than others! Some systems that I, or people I’ve spoken to, have used include:

  • Going “head to toe” – learning organisms associated with clinical syndromes starting with brain/CNS infections, then down to ENT, respiratory, cardiac… you get the idea. Don’t forget to include skin and soft tissue infections if you’re using this method – it’s surprisingly easy to forget about!
  • Going through organisms by classifications – e.g. start with Gram-positive cocci, then Gram-positive rods, then Gram-negative rods… you get the idea. This can be particularly useful if you’re struggling to remember things like viral structures – if you learn all of your DNA viruses back-to-back, it’s easier to remember they are all in the same group then if you learn them individually by the clinical presentations they are associated with
  • If you have a lab background, then going “bench to bench” can be helpful – learning about organisms/lab tests/clinical presentations associated with wound swabs vs blood cultures vs tissue samples can be a great way to learn if you have a lab background since you might already unconsciously group things in this way
  • Picking interesting cases – if you have a lot of clinical time and see plenty of cases, then you might come across (or be able to construct) memorable cases that help you to learn about lots of different concepts, from diagnostic tests to antibiotic stepdown choices, associated with a single patient

You may find a system that works perfectly for you first time, or (like me) you may need to chop and change as you go along. I would definitely advise going in with a plan though – even if you end up changing it later, it gives you a good framework to start with and refer back to so that you can be sure you haven’t missed anything.

There Will Be Some Questions You Know the Answer To, And Some You Don’t…

While this seems like a fairly obvious statement, it was one of the most helpful pieces of advice I received while I was preparing to sit Part 1. You are never going to know absolutely everything – there will always be at least one question that throws you for a loop and makes you think “how on earth am I meant to know that?!”. All you can do is make your best guess and then move on – while the exam isn’t unfair or out to get you, it is meant to be challenging and everyone has blind spots – don’t let it faze you, just move on. On the flipside, everyone has strengths as well, and you are likely to find far more questions that make you think “Yes! I know this one!!”.

I had to learn to bear this in mind especially when talking to friends or colleagues who had sat the exam before me – people love to tell horror stories starting with “You wouldn’t believe what they asked about when I sat it…”! There are always going to be questions designed to stretch people and test the limits of their knowledge, but these do not make up the majority of the paper. 

Don’t Stress!

I am fully aware that my friends, family, colleagues, and literally anyone who has been in my general vicinity in the last few months will all laugh uproariously at my hypocrisy when I say this, but try not to stress about Part 1 too much. While preparing for any major exam can feel overwhelming and world-ending, it is not the be-all and end-all, and does not reflect your worth as a scientist or as a person. I know many excellent scientists who are outstanding in their fields who did not pass on their first attempt. While Part 1 is a significant milestone, even getting to the point of sitting it is an achievement to be celebrated, regardless of the outcome. Treat yourself with kindness, take breaks when you need them, and ask for help early and often.

Best of luck to everyone sitting Part 1 in the future – I sincerely hope that my ramblings have been at least a little bit helpful. And remember – at the end of the day, it’s just a test. You will be okay. You got this!

All opinions on this blog are my own

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