The Six Month Survival Guide

Hi, my names Estelle, and I’m a new co-editor here at STP perspectives. I’m currently in my first year of the Clinical Microbiology STP. My studies and work experience have all been in Microbiology and Medical Microbiology.

This blog is about how I’ve survived the first six months of the STP. It will cover:

  • What sort of challenges you might face
  • How to utilise your cohort/ colleagues to assist you
  • Some reminders to take it easy!

Microbiology has given me some really exciting opportunities such as working in a hospital in Antalya, Turkey during my placement year, setting up the COVID-19 testing laboratory at Kings College London University, or investigating environmental outbreaks at UCLH. I’ve learnt a huge amount in my first 6 months on the STP and am going to share a few tips that have helped me along the way.

“This is easy” I thought to myself, three weeks into the STP in microbiology. “What is all the fuss about? “Everyone had always spoken of the STP as the most competitive programme to enter, and a mountainous achievement to complete. Here I was, pre-Christmas, swanning my way through without a worry in the world. Turns out I just hadn’t looked at all my competencies yet. This is something I would recommend doing sooner rather than later. I finally sat down, three months in, and made a Gantt chart of competencies and university work I had to complete by September. And boy oh boy did I have some work to do.

I have found the STP to be highly a self-motivated programme. My colleagues scarcely have time to do their own work, let alone teach and train me on the bench. Sometimes I feel like a fly on the wall, observing the laboratory, and I know others in the cohort have also shared these feelings.  So here are some top tips on how I’ve survived the STP so far…

  1. Solution-driven discussion.

Sometimes it can be difficult to discuss concerns with your training officer or manager. However, I’ve found this to be the most productive way to make changes. Unfortunately, I have a face that cannot hide my expression. So, when a colleague asks me how I’m finding something, my face will answer for me. I recently received feedback from a colleague on how they appreciate when I bring solutions and alternatives to issues I raise regarding the programme. I recently wasn’t satisfied with my training schedule, so I created my own one with a heavier focus on my competencies and presented this to my training officer. I suggested topics I was interested in that I believed I could bring a new perspective to, such as my interest in point-of-care testing. I have since started researching a new rapid test that we are trying to implement in the laboratory.

  1. Plan.

The amount of work to complete during the STP is immense. You’re balancing university, studying lectures, preparing for exams, writing competencies, and preparing case-based discussions (AKA observed clinical events – OCEs), direct observation of practical skills (DOPs), extracurricular activities, working within the laboratory and attempting to have a social life. Additionally, many of us have families, young children, disabilities, pets, or personal commitments to navigate. I have received positive feedback on my organisational skills during my rotations by showing training officers my Gantt charts, highlighting the competencies and specifics I would like to cover during the rotation. This technique has helped me keep to a strict weekly plan, reduced my anxiety and allows me to plan time off guilt free.

  1. Be flexible.

The STP can be unpredictable at times. You’re expected to carve your own path and determine where you need to be spending your time within each rotation. This was a bit of an adjustment for me, coming from a workplace where I was set daily tasks by my manager, to having to set my own. You are supernumerary to the team, bouncing around from bench to bench. While your training plan might say you are in specimen reception, they may be busy or training new associate practitioners (APs) or medical laboratory assistants (MLAs) so you may have to move to another bench. Your training officer will expect you to think independently and find different areas of the laboratory or colleagues to shadow and assist. Last minute changes in rotations can be frustrating when you have a checklist of tasks to achieve. Keeping flexible and being prepared to rearrange my Gantt chart countless times has kept me in a positive mindset.

  1. Check in.

I have been fortunate enough to have a really supportive group of clinical scientists, consultant clinicians, managers and two other STPs working with me. We meet twice a week to chat about clinical cases, interesting organisms and undergo teaching from consultants. This is a great opportunity to check in with each other, raise any concerns and have a laugh. I try to be open and honest with my training officers and let them know when I’m struggling mentally or with the workload. These quick chats can make the world of difference.

  1. Utilise your cohort.

If your workplace isn’t as supportive as it could be, it is important to utilise your STP cohort. Our year currently has a group chat where people often ask questions and share experiences or pictures of our pets (my Landlord’s cat Reggie attends all lectures). It’s a bit of light relief and comfort to know that we are all in the same boat. Knowing that no-one is a robot, soaring through the programme with no qualms, has reduced my own imposter syndrome and self-doubt.

  1. Relax

I try not to work weekends unless I have an exam coming up. This is currently a hard and fast rule for me (this may well change towards the end of the year). Sometimes this means I stay in the office until 7pm during weekdays, which obviously isn’t an option for everyone – whatever works for you. But it is important to take real quality time to detach from work, competencies and university. The STP is relentless, and you are being fired at from every direction possible, so taking guilt-free time to do something that you enjoy is important.

The STP is no mean feat, and you should be incredibly proud of yourself for getting this far. Its normal to struggle and question your choices. It’s important to celebrate your successes along the way. Whether it’s passing an exam, uploading a competency to OneFile, or receiving positive feedback from a colleague, take time to acknowledge and celebrate your achievements. Try to reach out and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

We’re always looking for more tips and tricks to help fellow STPs. If you have any ideas get in touch with us to write a post.

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