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What was your path into medicine? Hundreds of doctors have shared their stories on social media, using the #mypathtomedicine hashtag. We invited several to tell their stories at greater length. In the second contribution, Sidra Hussain describes how she was the first to apply to Cambridge for medicine from her school, and how a work placement made a crucial difference
I was born in east London, the eldest of four daughters. My dad was a student at university when I was born and my parents struggled financially to be able to support their young family. My mother came to the UK from Pakistan after she got married and learned English at the same time as I did at school.
My sisters and I were always encouraged to play, read and learn about the world around us. I attended local comprehensive schools, where the overwhelming majority of students did not have English as their first language, and I went on to study A-levels at my local sixth-form college.
My youngest sister was diagnosed with autism just after I had started secondary school. It was very difficult for our family to come to terms with this diagnosis. She had challenging behaviours and limited communication, and I took a very active role in caring for her and helping her to learn and communicate. I wanted to become a doctor so that I could understand more about her learning difficulties and to be an advocate in the future for families like mine.
When I was growing up, a lot of girls from a Pakistani Muslim background like mine were actively discouraged from pursuing further education. Some members of my extended family were not very positive about my career choice, as they felt it was not appropriate for a woman. Fortunately, my parents were always very supportive of whatever I wanted to do in terms of education.
I did not know anyone who had successfully managed to get into medical school and my parents did not have a medical background either. My close friends and family all thought I was capable of achieving my ambition, but I was not sure where to start.
At school, despite my interest in the subject and suggesting that I could self-study for the exams, I did not even get the opportunity to study single sciences at GCSE. My lessons were in large, often disruptive, classes, where the focus was on passing the exam, rather than learning for interest or stretching myself. I would always study in my free time and read up on articles online when I came across interesting topics in class.
In sixth form, we started to discuss university admissions, and I began to research the application process. I read about the process, the tests, interviews and I was initially unaware of the requirement for relevant work experience.
I realised that this would be a long journey and there were many obstacles to overcome. Some of my teachers were very encouraging, but at times I faced comments about how difficult it would be to get into medical school from an inner-city comprehensive school and that I should not be surprised if I don't make it.
Getting into medical school required a very proactive approach and I had to make the most of any opportunities I could find. A urology consultant at my local hospital allowed me to undertake a work experience placement with him in the summer before applying to medical school. This was crucial for my application and it was also the moment I knew I definitely wanted to study medicine.
I had to secure the grades that I would need to apply for medical school, and strangely this was probably the easy bit! I did lots of research online into the admissions tests and prepared independently for the UKCAT and BMAT.
I attended open days at universities to learn more about studying medicine and many of the students I met on open days were from private schools. At my school and sixth form, I had friends from all walks of life, and medical school did not look as diverse in terms of ethnicity or socioeconomic background.
Even when I was writing my personal statement, my extracurricular activities seemed less exciting than playing an instrument or volunteering abroad, as I did not have the financial means and I spent a lot of my free time fulfilling my caring responsibilities.
My sixth form had never sent a student to interview at Cambridge for medicine before, and I remember going to the interview feeling very unprepared. Fortunately, the experience was much less daunting than I had expected, and I found that with all my interviews, I was able to enjoy the experience as they just wanted me to demonstrate my passion for the subject.
I managed to secure a place studying pre-clinical medicine at Jesus College, Cambridge. I intercalated in experimental psychology and I studied at UCL for my clinical years. Medical school was a wonderful experience, and I made friends for life whilst studying a subject I love. There were many opportunities to get involved in research and teaching, which I got involved in from early on in my university career.
I have also been very active in widening participation initiatives, working as a ‘CAMbassador’ and a UCL student ambassador during term-time. When I was growing up, I did not see many doctors from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who went to ordinary schools like mine.
There are many barriers facing individuals with so much to offer our profession, including a lack of positive role models and mentors to seek advice from. I hope young people get to meet and learn from doctors with a less conventional path into medicine and feel inspired and empowered to achieve the same.
I still have much more I want to achieve in my career and I feel like I’ve made a good start on that journey.
Sidra Hussain is an F2 in psychiatry in London
Read Welsh GP Cliff Jones’ path to medicine
Thank you for sharing! You must be extremely able to have managed to achieve what others struggle to despite the privileges in their home and school environment. But I’m sure that has made you incredibly resourceful and resilient and you should be an asset to any workplace!
I really hope you sub-specialise in Learning Disability Psychiatry, to fulfil your wish to help people with autism like your sister. I have been an LD consultant for 25 years and still enjoy my work!
I suggest you revisit Pakistan and other countries in south Asia to find out for yourself on the ground how female doctors form a very major part of a very positive, professional and gender considerate workforce...
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Proud of you Sidra. You’ve come a long way, baby.
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