Guest Blog by Phillipa Burns: Part 2, the view from the finish line

In the final of a series of blog parts linked to taking FRCPath parts 1 and 2, the wonderful Phillipa Burns has written a guest blog about her recent experience of sitting and passing part 2 in Medical Microbiology.

Phillipa Burns works as a Principal Clinical Scientist (HSST) at Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. She has over
two decades of diagnostic microbiology experience, and is currently completing the Higher Scientific Specialist training Programme, with a planned Doctoral graduation in 2024 from the University of Manchester. As she recently passed the her FRCPath in Medical Microbiology in 2022 she is ideally placed to talk about what her experience has been, especially now the exam has gone back to face to face after several years online.

I read the guest blog by Ren Barclay-Elliot about her recent Part 1 experience; it was so generous and thoughtfully written that I thought the kindest gift I could give back would be a piece on preparing for Part 2.

I must say though that the kindest thing you can do for yourself after Part 1 is to take a break, revive and recharge, irrespective of the result, before reaching for the books again.

Trust me when I say that HSST is a marathon and not a sprint; build your reserves before stomping up the next hill.

The caveat to my gift of kindness is that I only have experience of the Medical Microbiology exam; but hopefully this will still be helpful to other life science pathways.

A little about me

I started HSST in 2018, after 16 years working as a Biomedical Scientist in Medical Microbiology.

I think my career can be best described as “mostly wore a white coat and often wore different hats!”; this is true of many scientists that pick up the hats of quality, safety, research and management.

Entering HSST as a direct entrant allowed me to leave all my previous roles and responsibilities behind and to focus on the completion of the programme; I know that the vast majority of HSSTers are master jugglers who are completing this course alongside another role.

Truly, you are all amazing.

First Steps

Part 1 was the first examination I had sat in 14 years and I was revision rusty; I got by with a little help from my friends and by reading guidance and making short notes.  I knew that this approach wasn’t going to cut it for Part 2.

Decide when you want to sit

Plan the best time for you and be honest with yourself about your readiness and your resilience

Look at what is ahead in the calendar; you will be giving up a lot of time and social events in the name of revision so if you have huge life events on the horizon factor these in.

Even if your sole reason for preferring the attempt to be in the Autumn is that you revise best in the outdoors, then make that choice and enjoy reading in the summer sun

Timing really makes a difference, especially if you have children to factor in. I have small children and I couldn’t sacrifice another Christmas to revision; find your redlines and stick with them.

Find some study buddies

Ideally a small group, 4 or 5,  that covers a range of knowledge and skills.  Studying with a both medical and scientific trainees worked best for me.

You need to like who you revise with and it needs to be a safe space; you will share your worries, knowledge gaps, the things everyone expects you to know but you just can’t keep in your head!

It has to be judgement free and welcoming.

Do not worry if it takes a few groups before you find your tribe; I knew that early morning revision groups were never going to work for me but a few fellow night owls were a great find.

Keep the information flowing with chat groups and emails; it is amazing how much information a determined group can gather.

Be prepared to do your fair share of the prep work; exam revision is stressful – especially towards the end and it really helps if everyone does their bit.

Notes

Part 2 checks your knowledge recall under pressure in the format of OSPEs, SAQs and LAQs.

The whole curriculum is covered; this feels daunting but if you break down the revision into key topics and cover one or two a week you easily get through it.

Most of the exam is skills learnt from doing the day job; they are just “stretched” to cover every series of unfortunate events that can happen with cases. It really helps to reflect on the calls you have had during the day and think “what would I have done if that was a child/drug resistant/linked to another case/pregnant woman etc.,” Let your imagination run wild and really challenge yourself until you reach a layer of confidence with your reasoning and decision making. If there are things missing in your day job, find courses and ask for placements.

Make notes that are aligned to the exam format; covering the clinical, infection control, treatment, public health and laboratory identification elements.

Revision

Team event or lone wolf; your approach has to work for you.

I learnt more with a team, and they added depth to my knowledge; the diversity in the both my study groups was phenomenal – I was always awed by the talent in the room and the experiences that my peers had

The exam covers guidance and it is easy to know what you do in your workplace and why; but you need to know if that is evidenced in national guidance, recent studies – be critical of your own practice and look at the quality of the evidence. Also prepare for situations on the edge of the guidance, the grey areas and when you need an expert consult.

Read around the subject; big studies that have changed practice – challenge yourself to understand the design and outcomes. Social media is invaluable for “Top 10 ID papers this year” and tweetorials.

Be able to write, the exam is 6 hours of handache! I spent the last month of my revision hand writing until I was quick enough to tackle a 3 hr paper. A lamy fountain pen proved to be my saviour.

The Exam

Get to the venue early, ideally the night before.

Plan your route and make sure you have all your ID and stationery in your bag.

Take snacks, the need for a sugar hit mid paper was very real

Take study leave before and slowly ease off the revision so that you are rested; this is really hard to do but it is easy to become sleep deprived and to underperform in the verbal stations due to fatigue

Wear smart casual, but comfortable, clothing – it is a long day

Take time after the exam to decompress and debrief, by this point you will know if your study group are sharers and talkers, respect the wishes of those that just want to forget until results day

The whole experience left me very tired, unsure if I hit the brief; this is completely normal.

Results Day

Have a plan, my consultants checked my result for me! I was horrendously nervous and sleep deprived.

Agree with your group if you are going to wait for people to check in; remember this is a tough exam and fail is just a “first attempt at learning”

Check in with the quiet people, give them time to talk about it and reflect.

Celebrate the milestone, pass or fail, reaching this peak in knowledge is a huge achievement.

HSST is so relentlessly busy it is easy to swap the FRCPath preparation for the other items on the to-do-list; I have taken my own advice and had a little pause to just look back at the progress I have made in the past four years.

I have timetabled in events with my much missed extended family & friends; these became the extras that I struggled to fit in whilst revising and I have put some other books, rather than podcasts, on my audible app.

Tomorrow, my fellowship with the Royal College of Pathologists will be ratified and I can officially use the designation, FRCPath; I have asked others – “When does it feel real?”,  this seems to be a common feeling when you have recently crossed the line. I cannot pretend to be unaffected by the enormity of the achievement, I will be smiling for months (maybe years) and I fully expect to sob with joy when I see my study buddies at the investiture ceremony in February.

My final words are “that if you can see it, you can be it”; be proud of the seven little letters (and the many others you have earned), show your career path and light the way for others to follow.

Plenty of people showed me that this is possible, and to them I am forever grateful.

Check out the other blog posts in this series:

Guest Blog by Karen Barclay-Elliott: Life, the universe and surviving FRCPath part 1 – December 2nd

Your Wish is My Demand: Here are some of my tips for sitting MRCPath in Micro/Viro – November 29th

The Trials and Tribulations of High Stakes Assessments: How I still remember everything about FRCPath – November 25th

All opinions on this blog are my own

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