Grace Dirks has always wanted to work on the frontline of healthcare – a recession-proof career with spades of positive impact; a job that involves the literal saving of lives in some cases. And the sector’s response to coronavirus over the past year, as well as the sense of national pride in the NHS confirmed that she chose the right career, starting the University of Reading’s physician associate MSc in September 2020.

“The pandemic opened my eyes to how rewarding this profession is,” says the 26-year-old. “It will be an absolute privilege to improve lives every day.”

Driven by a fresh wave of interest, medical master’s degrees have received a boom in applications since the beginning of the pandemic. Little wonder – a 2018 report quoted a shortage of more than 100,000 workers across NHS trusts, for nurses, doctors and care staff. It also forecast that this gap could reach 250,000 jobs by 2030.

At Kingston University, almost every student nurse is employed at the end of their master’s. Julia Gale, head of the School of Nursing, says future employment prospects look rosy: “With current vacancies and an ageing NHS workforce, we do not expect demand to change.”

While many of these master’s courses will require a health or science-related bachelor’s, some programmes admit students from other degrees if they have relevant experience or take foundational modules. This includes many of the physician associate courses, which are thriving. The physician associate role, helping doctors in the diagnosis and care of patients, is well paid, with a typical starting salary of £38,890. The two-year MSc at Reading has seen a 25% increase in applications. “The pandemic has raised the profile of the NHS and the essential roles that healthcare professionals play in keeping us healthy and safe – giving students heroes to aspire to,” says Katrina Bicknell, head of the School of Pharmacy.

But the main motivation for students is almost always to make a positive impact on patient care. “Our students are passionate and genuinely committed to making a tangible difference to people’s lives,” says Craig Higgins, pro-director of learning and teaching at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He observes fresh interest in disciplines brought to light during the pandemic, including epidemiology and health policy.

However, with more demand comes more competition for places. Reading’s Bicknell recommends that potential applicants gain work experience to find their passion and secure a competitive place. “The role of healthcare professionals has always been challenging, with long hours fighting to save lives,” she says. “It is vital that you understand what you are signing up for.”



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