The Bachelor of Medical Science (Honours), or BMedSc(Hons), is an optional 1-year research degree.1 It can be undertaken any time after year 3B of the Monash medicine course, but by far the most common time to undertake it is between years 4C and 5D.
Should I do a BMedSc(Hons)?
As year 4C rolls around, many students start wondering whether they should do a BMedSc(Hons). Commonly cited potential reasons include:
- to have effectively a year off
- to fatten up your CV
- to see if research is something you might be interested in
- to gain experience in research
It is important to note that completing a BMedSc(Hons) does come with costs: it is a year of time and effort, and comes with a price tag (particularly for international students).
In my opinion, to have a year off is a poor reason to undertake a BMedSc(Hons). While the workload of a BMedSc(Hons) is likely to be less than a year of clinical medical school, it is still not a small workload, particularly around the due dates for key assessments. The comparatively reduced workload of a BMedSc(Hons) is a nice bonus if one is considering it for other reasons, but a poor reason on its own.
Similarly, in my opinion, doing a BMedSc(Hons) only to ‘boost’ one's CV is not necessarily worthwhile. While CV is, at the time of writing, one component of the assessment for internship applications, it is not a large one,2 and a BMedSc(Hons) is only one component of a CV. Additionally, when it comes to apply for specialty training, many colleges have recency requirements when it comes to publications, so a publication arising from a BMedSc(Hons) (which is not itself guaranteed) may not even count. As above, the BMedSc(Hons) is no walk in the park, and if you are not interested in research you simply will not have a good time.
So that brings us to what I believe are good reasons to do a BMedSc(Hons): if you think there is a chance research might be something you're interested in, and you'd like to gain some ‘toes in the water’ experience.
Finding a supervisor and applying
Having decided to do a BMedSc(Hons), the first step, in the year prior, is to find a research supervisor. Usually, this must be a researcher at a Monash University clinical school or research department, but can be an external researcher if there is a Monash University co-supervisor.
The best way to find a research supervisor is to look at who has previously supervised BMedSc(Hons) students, by referring to previous BMedSc(Hons) yearbooks, and/or by speaking to previous BMedSc(Hons) students. I got in touch with my own BMedSc(Hons) supervisors as they had supervised a previous BMedSc(Hons) student I had worked with as part of the medical student society.
It is often said, and bears repeating here, that one's choice of supervisor is much more important than the choice of project. Students rarely wind up going on to work long-term on the exact topic of their BMedSc(Hons) – indeed, the same is largely true of PhD candidates! What is more important is to have supervisors who can mentor and support you to develop your research skills and help you achieve your goals.
Prospective students make contact with prospective supervisors by email, and typically arrange a time to meet (or, nowadays, sometimes Zoom) to discuss a potential BMedSc(Hons). It is good to come prepared with an idea of what one wants out of the BMedSc(Hons), and questions about the potential project and what the year will look like – how big is the research team, where will I work, what are the objectives of the project, and so on. If you have particular goals (e.g. publication, clinical exposure), or constraints (part time work, significant extracurricular commitment, holiday plans), bring them up early so they can be planned around.
If the supervisor has previously supervised BMedSc(Hons) details, it is a good idea to ask to chat to previous students and ask about their experience. It is fair to meet with multiple potential supervisors and see who might make the best supervisor for your BMedSc(Hons).
Ideally, you should have a supervisor locked in by approximately the middle of the year, as this is when applications are due. Applications are nominally assessed on the basis of academic merit, but short of having previously failed a year or having academic progress concerns, it is not usual for a BMedSc(Hons) applicant to be rejected from the program.
Preparing for the BMedSc(Hons)
In the time between applying for and commencing the BMedSc(Hons), i.e. during year 4C and the summer holiday, some students may have a small amount of preparatory work to do, most commonly human research ethics committee (HREC) applications. In my case, my BMedSc(Hons) was to be part of an ongoing research project with existing HREC approval, so it was just a matter of a small amount of paperwork to amend the HREC approval and add myself to the project. In other cases, the BMedSc(Hons) student may be involved in helping to put together the application for HREC approval, which may be started the year before the BMedSc(Hons), although in other cases the HREC application was left until semester 1 of the BMedSc(Hons). Other work that might be done in advance of the BMedSc(Hons) might include some background reading on the research topic or relevant research methods.
Most importantly, though, it is important to enjoy the summer holiday before the BMedSc(Hons)! The BMedSc(Hons) operates on the standard university calendar – commencing in late February/early March, as opposed to year 5D which commences approximately a month earlier – so for most students this represents the last opportunity for a long holiday.
The day to day of a BMedSc(Hons) student?
In truth, there is no single way that a BMedSc(Hons) looks from day to day. Every project will be vastly different – whether clinical, lab-based or data-driven, whether quantitative or qualitative, whether involved in data acquisition or not. Some students may spend most of the time in the lab, others in clinical settings, and others in front of the computer.
My research project was a quantitative statistics project analysing data from an existing dataset, so I was in the latter category, spending most days either at a computer in the clinical school office, or working remotely from home.
In semester 1, most of my time was spent reading research articles and writing my literature review and project outline. Towards the second half of semester 1, my dataset became available and so I gradually spent more time looking at the data and performing statistical analyses.
In semester 2, most of my time was spent conducting the statistical analyses proposed in my project outline, writing up my results and preparing my minor thesis.
Throughout the year, one should have regular meetings with one's supervisors, to check in on progress. This might be once a week at the start of the year, and could be less frequent at other times of the year if things are less busy.
Prospective students often ask me if the BMedSc(Hons) includes training in statistics or research methods. It does not – after all, each research project is quite different and will involve different statistics and research methods. A good supervisor, however, will have resources to teach you the tools you will need for the project. Many of my BMedSc(Hons) colleagues who had no programming experience came out of the year proficient working with tools like R, Python or Stata.
Ultimately, aside from the fixed assessment deadlines, the day to day of the BMedSc(Hons) is very flexible, as agreed between you and your supervisors. Many BMedSc(Hons) students at my clinical school took opportunities to join their research supervisors in their clinical activities, on ward rounds or in consulting rooms, although this was somewhat impacted in my year due to COVID-19. Some students plan to take a few weeks to have a holiday or to travel in between semesters 1 and 2, and I think that so long as you discuss this with your supervisors and are able to meet your assessment deadlines and deliver on your research project, this is not unreasonable.
There are 2 major assessments in the BMedSc(Hons): the literature review due towards the end of semester 1, and the minor thesis due towards the end of semester 2. While the workload of the BMedSc(Hons) most of the time is usually lighter than a clinical year, the weeks leading up to the due dates for these written assessments are usually very busy – particularly if one has not been chipping away at them over the semester.
The literature review is a 7,500-word written report summarising and synthesising the research literature in the relevant field, and identifying the gaps in the literature. The literature review concludes with a few-page outline of the proposed research project, which ought to relate to an identified gap in the literature. For example, a copy of my literature review is here.
My approach to getting the literature review done with minimum headache was to work at it slowly over the course of the semester, beginning the semester with a few weeks of going through the literature, beginning with review articles in the area, then narrowing in on particular influential papers and recent research in the specific area of my BMedSc(Hons). Reference management software is your friend in this time – I recommend Zotero, which I also used to annotate papers and add notes for which papers were key references for particular ideas. Proper reference management software will also save a great deal of time when it comes to writing the literature review and formatting the citations and reference list.
Once I had a reasonable idea of what my literature review was going to look like, I penned an outline of the table of contents and what I would discuss in each section, and asked for informal feedback from my supervisors. Then, over the course of weeks, I would write a few sections and get some informal feedback from my supervisors on how things were shaping up. Once the full draft of the literature review is completed, supervisors provide one round of formal feedback. Getting the document back full of red tracked changes and comments is expected, normal and good! It means your supervisors are really paying attention!
The minor thesis is a 15,000-word written report, beginning with a literature review, possibly revised if the project has had any unexpected changes in direction since semester 1 (which is normal and common), and concluding with a writeup of the research project – methods, results, discussion and so on. This is, again, a lot to write, so I suggest chipping away at it gradually throughout the semester and getting regular informal feedback from your supervisors.
Aside from the 2 written assessments, there are also several oral presentations focusing on the same content as the literature review and minor thesis respectively, but in a condensed format.
As the BMedSc(Hons) year draws to a close, many BMedSc(Hons) students hope to be able to publish their results. It's important to note that publication is not a part of the BMedSc(Hons), it is separate and will require further work on top of the BMedSc(Hons); nor is publication a guarantee for BMedSc(Hons) research. I presented my BMedSc(Hons) research at a few conferences, and intend to publish as a journal article, although we are waiting for some additional data and further analyses before that.
In my experience, though, almost all BMedSc(Hons) research is publishable in some form, at the very least as a conference abstract/poster, and most is suitable for publication in a journal, although which journal and how easy it will be to publish will vary. Remember that your research supervisors and collaborators also have pressure to publish!
It is commonly referred to as a ‘BMedSci’, a holdover from when the primary medical degree was the MBBS and there was no confusion. But this is now inaccurate, since the BMedSc forms part of the BMedSc/MD primary medical degree, and every Monash medical student graduates with a ‘BMedSci’. ↩
For example, at Austin Health in 2022–23, the CV had an overall weighting of 9% – compared to 40% for the interview, and 21% for each of the cover letter and clinical references. So the impact of doing or not doing a BMedSc(Hons) really is marginal in this case. ↩