Applying to the Specialised Foundation Programme (SFP), previously known as the Academic Foundation Programme (AFP), can seem like a daunting process. This article summarises everything you need to know to ace your application.
What is the SFP?
The SFP is similar to the Foundation Programme (FP) in that it is a two-year training programme for doctors following medical school. But in addition to completing the core competencies of the FP, SFP doctors will simultaneously gain experiences beneficial to a future carer in academic medicine. The integrated academic training pathway is designed for doctors to undertake clinical training while also conducting research, including potentially taking time out for a PhD. It is outlined in the below schematic. However, it is not necessary to do the SFP to enter academia at a later stage of training.
Picture from Imperial College Website
The specific structure and components of the SFP will vary between Specialised Units of Application (SUoAs). Broadly speaking, there are three types of SFP: research, leadership, and education. However, you will gain skills in all three areas during each programme. SFP trainees have dedicated time set aside for academic activities. This is either as one of the three four-month placements you will undertake in your second year of foundation training, day release throughout the two years, or a combination of both. Have a look at which each SUoAs does, so if you have a preference, you can apply there.
Any final year medical student can apply to the SFP. For non-UK applications or those who graduated more than two years ago, the FP website contains up to date guidance about applying. In 2020, around a quarter of medical students, around 1800, applied for the SFP. There are roughly 500 SFP posts each year, so it is a competitive process.
The deadline for applications this year is the 22nd of September, so if you are a final year medical student, get that application in as soon as possible!
Why should I apply to the SFP?
There are lots of benefits to applying to the SPF, including:
- Conduct research in a supported environment – develop skills in research methodology, critical appraisal, report writing to name a few!
- Opportunities for peer-reviewed publication and poster or oral presentations.
- Dedicated time for focusing on academic work outside of clinical work – foundation training is busy, so this protected time is valuable.
- Although it may seem like a long way away, it presents you with lots of opportunities to develop a professional portfolio.
- Networking and mentorship opportunities through your supervisor, academics in your field of interest, and working closely with a university.
- Chance to explore a particular speciality that can guide career choices.
- Chance to try whether an academic career is right for you and, if so, act as a stepping stone to future academic jobs, including Academic Clinical Fellowships.
- Opportunities for teaching and working with medical students.
- Chance to complete postgraduate qualifications (e.g. PGCert in Medical Education), which in some SUoAs are funded.
- All the above are good CV enhancing opportunities for future applications, whether academic or not.
- The SJT does not count towards your job application as it does with the FP. However, you do need to reach a satisfactory standard set by the exam board.
- Jobs are offered a few months before they are for the FP, which means you know earlier on where you will be for the next two years.
- There is nothing to lose! It is a great chance to practice interviewing again as the last interview you probably did was to get into medical school, and writing down your white space questions can be useful for other postgraduate training programmes. And, if you don’t get offered a job, you still go into the regular FP, and there is no impact on this application.
However, there are a few factors that can make the SPF more challenging. These should be considered before applying to make sure they are not ‘deal-breakers’ to your application. However, for most, they are likely to be factors made worthwhile by the advantages discussed above. Some potential disadvantages are:
- Balancing academic and clinical work can be challenging.
- Less time to complete required foundation competencies.
- You miss out on one clinical rotation, and therefore have less time for clinical work, which may reduce the variety of your training jobs.
- The application process (we will go into this in more detail below) can be stressful and time-intensive, which needs to be balanced alongside other clinical commitments and requires you to go to an interview.
· Potential for less pay as your academic job does not usually contain out of hours work or weekend work (another major benefit of the SFP), you can boost income by undertaking locums, but remember these need to be outside the working hours of your SFP, e.g. weekends, after 5 pm.
How do I apply for an SFP job?
The overview to the SFP application is as follows:
Even though you are applying to the SFP, you still apply to the FP via Oriel. Following this, you apply to the SFP. You can apply to a maximum of two SUoA and rank all of the jobs within the SUoA in line with your personal preference. Keep your eye out for the deadlines for these applications. They are usually in September. Then, each SUoA shortlists candidates for interview. This is done in different ways by each SUoA using a combination of your decile sore at medical school, other post-graduate degrees, white space questions, and other educational achievements. It is worth emphasising that the application and interview process for the research, education, and leadership SFPs is mostly the same. There are slight differences in the type of white space questions you may be asked to complete, and the interview focus may differ slightly.
White space questions are short 250 word answers to questions generally exploring carer ambitions, motivations for applying to SFP, previous research, teamwork and leadership experiences. They are like a mini-personal statement. These are submitted via Oriel, and each SUoA outlines the specific questions they want you to answer. Some SUoAs, such as London, do not require you to complete white space questions. Target your answers to the specification outlined on the FP website – this tells you what the people marking the white space questions are looking for. Try and write your white space questions a few weeks before the deadline and get as many people as possible to read them – friends/family/supervisors/mentors etc. You can see the 2021 white space questions via the FP website. The questions will likely be very similar for future application rounds, so you can start drafting answers for the questions now if you want to get ahead for applications next year.
Previous publications, presentations, and prizes can count for points when shortlisting candidates for interviews. Each SUoA weighs these differently. For instance, in London, these factors count for a lot. However, it is not vital to have publications and presentations to secure an SFP job. Please do not let this be a factor that puts you off applying. I had none when I applied and managed to get my top choice of job. If you want to get involved with some high yield project, and don’t know where to start, then keep an eye out on the projects page of MedProjectHub – even if you don’t complete a project in time for the interview, you could still mention it as something that you are currently working on.
Following the interview, candidates with the highest scores will be offered a job according to your job rankings. You only have 48 hours to accept the offer. You do not have to accept if it is not for you, and then you go back into the usual FP application system. However, if you accept an offer, your application to the FP will be withdrawn. So, if you accept an SFP job and then reject it at a later date, you will be removed from FP allocations too. So, make sure you are certain the SFP job you accept is the one you want to do, or you face having no training programme to go into in August.
After this first round of offers, a cascade system begins. Any offers rejected in the first round – for instance, those who have offers from more than one SFP – are then re-offered to other applicants. So, if you do not get an SFP offer the first time around, keep your eye out for an offer via the cascade system. Excellent SFPs can come out through the cascade process!
The most important part of the application is understanding the shortlisting and interview process (more on the interview below!). Apply somewhere with your strengths in mind, and you stand a much higher chance of getting that all-important interview and job offer. For example, I applied somewhere that did not include critical appraisal in the interview as I did not feel as confident in this area as I did talking about my previous research and teaching experience.
What is the interview like?
Interviews are offered via Oriel between November and January. The exact dates differ each year and will be published via the FP website before applying. Make sure you check the date before applying to ensure it does not clash with something important, e.g. medical school final exams. Some SUoAs will offer you a slot, and some will ask you to book on via Oriel. The interviews have been virtual for the last two years due to the pandemic, but this format may change in years to come. Generally, you are interviewed by a panel.
The interviews vary significantly between each SUoA. There are four common components of the interview:
1) motivating factors and discussion around white space questions;
2) research, education, and leadership achievements;
3) critical appraisal;
4) clinical and ethical scenarios.
Each SUoA will use a combination of these. The type of interview given will be available via the FP website, so make sure you look at this before applying.
For the critical appraisal section, you may be asked to appraise a paper or abstract that is given to you during or before the interview starts or discuss a piece of research you have done or a research paper you have read about recently. So, if this is included in your interview, make sure you come with a paper prepared just in case they ask about it. Oxbridge classically adopts the latter style, whereas London classically gives you an abstract to appraise. There are loads of resources to help prepare you for this online – ‘How to Read a Paper’ by Trisha Greenhalgh is an excellent book.
The clinical station usually presents you with a clinical case and asks you to talk through how you would manage it. A good tip is to adopt an ABCDE approach. Practice talking through ABCDE lots of times, using a ‘Look, Listen, Feel’ system for each section. Then, when you get to this section of the interview, you can rattle it off confidently. You may be asked to interpret investigations like ECGs, blood results or CXRs. A good tip is to weave aspects of academia/evidence basis of medicine into your answers. For example, the Glasgow-Blatchford for upper GI bleed.
A mock interview will be really helpful practice – mentors, SFP doctors in your hospital, your friends who are applying or teaching fellows in your medical school are all possible people to ask about this!
- Keep up to date with the application process via the UKFP website. This will have all the up to date guidance, deadlines, and they publish documents breaking down the number and focus of each SFP in each SUoA.
- Learn as much as possible about the application process for each SUoA before you apply and apply with your strengths in mind. This will give you a better chance of being successful.
- Talk to SFPs in the SUoA you are thinking of applying to. Ask them about the programme, tips for applying and the interview.
- Remember, you will live and work in this place too outside of the world of academia. Make sure you like the location, and it is somewhere you would feel happy whatever those factors may be (e.g. close to family, near to the countryside etc.)
- Every year, the UK FP publish a ‘Recruitment Stats and Facts Report’, which contains lots of helpful information about the numbers of students applying to each SFP, competition ratios for each UoA, SFP fill rates. etc. The 2021 document has not been published yet, so keep an eye out for up-to-date information. Statistics in this blog have been taken from the 2020 report.
- Familiarise yourself with the academic training pathway, and mention this in your interview and whitespace questions.
- It is worth exploring the Foundation Priority Programmes, too, as they contain opportunities for postgraduate qualifications and academia.
- You can attend courses that talk more about the application process and offer mock interviews. Some of these are free, whilst others charge a fee. It is something to explore but is not necessary to secure a job.
Useful Documents and Websites
- UK Foundation Programme: https://foundationprogramme.nhs.uk
- CATCH: Clinical Academic and Training Hub: https://www.catch.ac.uk
- ‘Rough guide to the Academic Foundation Programme’ document published by the UK Foundation Programme
- Becoming a Doctor: https://www.becomingadr.org
- ‘How to Read a Paper’ by Trisha Greenhalgh
You have nothing to lose by applying to the SFP. If you do not get offered a SFP job, it does not mean you will not have the chance to get involved with research, teaching or leadership at your foundation school. Nor does it mean you cannot do a career in academic medicine in the future. This is just one stepping stone towards your goal, and you can take another path without changing the destination.
Good luck with your application!