Like most people, I was not alone in thinking that I would never get onto the STP. After hearing how competitive it was and how few places there were available, I was not optimistic about my chances. This feeling was only made worse by the fact that it was my first time applying and I was applying for a discipline that I had very little experience in. So you can imagine my surprise when I got told I had an interview and was further surprised when I actually passed the interview stage. The STP application can seem quite daunting, especially on your first go, so here are my top tips.
It would probably be helpful for you to know a bit about me first. I was an HCPC registered specialist biomedical scientist who worked in biochemistry labs in the NHS for 6+ years. Prior to that I was a healthcare assistant for 2 years working closely with patients. I have an undergraduate degree in biomedical science (2:1) and a masters in infection and immunity (merit). I am hoping that telling you about my qualifications will convince you that you don’t need to be a genius with 1st class degrees, distinctions or even PhDs to get onto the STP, a view that I once held. What you may be surprised to know is that my STP discipline is Genomics. Once I decided on Genomics as a discipline, I was faced with the overwhelming question of “how on earth I am going to get accepted to Genomics with no Genomics lab experience”. If you are also pondering the same question then I hope my top tips for the application will help you.
Before you apply
I highly recommend that you do your research beforehand. The STP is an intense course, it’s hard work for 3 years. This isn’t for everyone, but if that doesn’t faze you then make sure you meet the entry requirements, practice for the additional tests, and make sure you know what the STP involves and how its structured. Make sure you know what a clinical scientist does, what an average day looks like at work and what responsibilities they have. Find out as much as you can about your specialism, especially if you’re applying to one which you have little experience in. Think about why you want to do that specialism and how your specialism fits into the patient journey and the healthcare service. Also be mindful if your specialism is patient-facing. Some people love working with patients, but I personally prefer to help patients by working behind the scenes.
I thoroughly recommend checking out the YouTube channel “STP tea break chats”, a source which really helped me. This is run by a Genomics STP called Megan and she has done videos interviews with other trainees from a variety of disciplines so you can get an idea of what it is like to work in that discipline and there are also videos where Megan gives excellent advice for interviews.
You will not just be applying for a specialism; you will also have to apply for locations where you will work for most of your time on the STP. Don’t apply for locations you’re not willing to move to, there is nothing worse than getting an offer but turning it down because you’re not willing to move to that location. So please be honest with yourself when considering locations. I personally only applied for locations near to where I lived because I didn’t want to move really far away from family and friends, although I was lucky that there were a few locations nearby to apply to. However, this does mean that I have a longer commute than a lot of my fellow trainees who live really close to the hospital.
The main event, the application! It can often feel difficult to write the STP application, so hopefully the following tips will help you.
Read and follow the person specification
The person specification gives you a breakdown of all the qualities that will be assessed in your application, interview, and references. Certain qualities will only be assessed via the written application. There are a lot of qualities on the specification, and it’s impossible to write about all of them (and they don’t expect you to!). To start with, pick out the parameters that are evaluated in the application only, then narrow down your list to select the qualities that you can best demonstrate you meet. I picked out and covered 4 or 5 qualities thoroughly, using my experience to show how I met the criteria.
Read the NHS constitution
Anyone applying for the STP should read the NHS constitution, paying particular attention to the section where it tells you about the NHS values. Know what these values are and work them into your applications using examples from your experience. It’s unlikely that you will have the word count to mention all the NHS values. I picked out 3 of the values and thoroughly demonstrated how I display these values using examples from my work experience, daily life, or education.
Don’t worry about what other people are doing
It’s common for applicants to get reassurance from other applicants about what they were writing in their applications. People often have a “safety in numbers approach” to these things, meaning that if everyone else is writing the same as them then they must be on the right track. In my opinion, this is the wrong way to approach the application. I have the mindset that your application should be unique to you and your experiences, the STP values people from diverse backgrounds so use that to your advantage, make yourself stand out and don’t worry about what other people are doing.
Be specific in your answers
This is a “quality over quantity” situation. Make sure that you go into enough detail in your application. It’s no good making multiple statements in your application without backing them up. For example, anyone can write “I work well in a team”. This is a non-specific sentence and a waste of precious word count, use specific examples to show how you meet the desired criteria.
Some sections in the application may not seem as important as others because they have less word count or don’t evaluate as many qualities as other sections. However, there are always valuable points to be gained from fleshing out these sections and just because some sections may not seem as heavily weighted does not mean you should neglect them. I paid equal attention to all sections.
Check the STP website
The STP applicant website is updated frequently during application season so keep an eye out for important updates. Last year’s application process was a bit chaotic so being up to date with any changes was especially important. The STP website has a lot of information and guidance on the application process, but if I had questions that the website couldn’t answer, I emailed the NSHCS. The people working for the NSHCS were really helpful, so I recommend reaching out to them if you need. Other great sources of information includes the STP buddies social media.
Stay away from internet chat threads
Internet chat threads (yes ‘student room’, I’m looking at you) can seem like useful platforms to find information about the STP application and the people applying. However, I found them stressful rather than helpful as there was often conflicting information flying around about the application process. So let me save you some stress and just stay away from the confusion and drama of chat threads. It’s often the worst place to look for information. If you have any queries, the best people to ask are those at the NSHCS.
Have someone look over your application
I was lucky in that I already worked in a hospital laboratory, and I was already in contact with clinical scientists and trainee clinical scientists. I asked a trainee clinical scientist to look over my application and give me feedback. It was particularly helpful that this trainee was in their 3rd year of the STP. However, you don’t need a clinical scientist or STP trainee to look at your application. My main advice is ask someone you trust and who will give you constructive feedback, even if it’s just for simple things like grammar and layout. I always feel a bit embarrassed asking someone to read my applications but I’m so thankful that I did, so don’t be shy about asking someone for help.
Don’t leave it until the last minute
You will be amazed by how many applicants I came across that left their application and submission until the last minute. In fact, the NSHCS sent an update warning us about this. In some years, approximately 60% of applications are submitted in the last 48hrs before the deadline. Now considering that the application is submitted online, I had zero faith that my 8-year-old laptop would not malfunction during this and I would inevitably miss the application deadline. So, I did not leave it to chance, my application was submitted 1 week before the deadline; unnecessary stress avoided.
You applied, you got shortlisted and now you have an interview. Now a slight warning for this section, I was part of the 2021 application cycle, so interviews were done differently to the usual way. Some of this may not be applicable for future applicants but hopefully you will find some of the advice helpful. It’s easy for me to say now, but don’t freak out about the interview. If you prepare well, you should be fine.
The set up
The interview set up was straightforward. I had 7 main questions: 4 on specialist science, 3 on values and leadership. However, please bear in mind that the interviewers are likely to ask you follow-up questions based on your answers to the original questions, so in total I had approximately 15 questions with the option to ask my interviewers questions at the end. If the format is the same for 2022 then you will have 2 people interviewing you who work in the lab at your chosen location, and yes, they will likely be clinical scientists. I had 2 weeks’ notice before my interview, but this may be less if you are a reserve candidate and get offered an interview last minute. I started studying for my interview well before I got offered one, not because I thought I would get an interview but because if I did, I was damn sure not going to be stress revising at the last minute.
Do your research on the lab you are interviewing for
Each lab is different and in Genomics, there was a lot of change that happened in laboratory testing the year before I applied, so I made sure that was up to date on what was happening. It goes without saying but make sure you know what your lab does and how they do it e.g. tests and testing methods. I would also find out if your lab has participated in any clinical research. If so, it’s a good item to ask your interviewers about at the end of your interview.
Study your specialism
As stated above I had 4 main questions on specialist science with more follow up questions. Don’t be alarmed by this, the STP is a TRAINING program, the interviewers don’t expect you to know everything about your specialism. If, like me, you’re applying for a lab-based specialism (e.g. genomics, biochemistry) then make sure you find out what your lab does and how they do it, for example the tests they offer and what methods they use for the tests. Think about how your specialism impacts healthcare and perhaps recent developments within your specialism and make sure you are familiar with common terminology within your specialism. Don’t panic if you don’t know the answer to a question, just be honest if you don’t know. Interviewers are very experienced at knowing when someone is lying or guessing an answer. I didn’t know all the answers to mine and I did ok.
Think of examples for NHS values
The 3 questions you have on NHS values will likely require you to use personal examples of how you displayed those values, so make sure you have some examples prepared. You may also be asked for your opinion on certain NHS values.
Stick to your strengths
Possibly an unpopular opinion, but I hate the STAR system. For those who are not familiar, the STAR system is considered a useful tool for structuring your answers to questions (you can look it up online) and it was advised (mainly by ‘student room’ participants) to use this method during interview. Now after about 20 minutes of trying to use this method, I concluded that it wasn’t any good (for me). I’m sure the STAR system is great for many people, but I personally perform better in interviews by semi-improvising my responses. This may sound odd but basically I don’t perform well if I try to structure my answers too much, I find it too constricted. I guess my general point here is, do what works for you. I’m convinced that I would have had a disastrous interview if I persevered with the STAR system, however, if the STAR system works for you then great, use it.
Present yourself how you want to be seen
The interview is likely to be virtual unless it changes for next year. It may be tempting during the virtual interview in the comfort of your own home to dress business up top and PJs from the waist down (let’s face we have all done for a lecture or meeting at some point). However, I dressed how I normally would for an in-person interview, shoes and all! I did this not just because it made me feel (and look) professional, but it put my mind in the interview “zone”. And fair warning, you may be asked to rotate your webcam round the room you’re in to make sure you’re alone and have no notes, so make sure your room is tidy.
You will likely have time at the end of the interview to ask your interviewers questions, so use the time wisely to get some bonus points. Don’t ask questions that you can easily get the answers to off the STP website. Ask about any research your chosen workplace has participated in or any projects currently ongoing. You could ask about current developments or changes in the workplace and any challenges that may present. It’s good to try and tailor your questions to your specific (hopefully future) workplace, this will show you have done your research and are genuinely interested in working there.
Have confidence in yourself
I thought I would have no chance of getting onto the STP, but here I am in my 1st year, and I’m loving every minute. I wish I had more confidence in myself during the application process and realise that I was a good candidate and had just as much chance of getting accepted as anyone else. So if you feel the same as I did, then don’t worry, if I can do it then so can you!
So that’s all the advice I have to offer you future applicants. It is a tough process but, in my opinion, it’s well worth it. Hopefully this has been helpful, and I wish you all the best of luck in your application.