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Applying for the NHS Scientist Training Programme, part II

By Weronika Z Benning, on 2 February 2016

One of our Careers Consultants recently interviewed two candidates currently on the NHS Scientist Training Programme. We’re sharing these interviews to help inform you about the value and opportunities available in the programme, and give you real-world insight into the experiences of current candidates. Last week we posted our interview with Aled Jones,  a finalist in the Bioinformatics stream. Read on for our interview with Heidi Kuoppama, during her first year on the Genetics Stream.

Applications for the NHS Scientist Training Programme have just opened. Find more information and apply here.


What made you apply to the STP?

I have an undergraduate degree and two masters degrees in science and I wanted to work in a lab, so in 2009 I started on the PTP, which is a two-year practitioner programme for technicians within the NHS, at the Cytogenetics lab at Guy’s hospital. I then spent another two years working as a technician within the same lab, and at that point I felt I wanted to do more; as a technician I was largely involved with lab and administrative work, with only a bit of analysis and interpretation. I applied to the STP because I wanted to gain a more in-depth understanding of genetics, and the science behind it, and I wanted to be able to interpret and report patient results.

What does your job involve?

As a qualified healthcare scientist, the bulk of my job will be interpreting and reporting patients’ results. The amount of labwork I’ll do will depend on how each particular lab is organised, but generally it will only be a small part of my job – maybe 10 or 20%. I’ll need to understand and be aware of what’s going on in the lab to be on hand for troubleshooting if something goes wrong. But most of the lab-based work might be when clinical scientists get involved in introducing a new test to the lab, or trying to improve existing techniques, R&D work.

As a trainee, I’m currently in the process of writing up my evidence for each of the competencies I have to fulfil as part of the training program, which involves a lot of sitting in front of a computer. But this will vary throughout the course of being a trainee – at other times I’ll be in the lab more. During the first year we do four rotations of three months each, across different labs; one in our own specialism, then three others. The three I chose were cellular specialisms; Cytology at St Thomas’, Reproductive Science at Guy’s, and ?!

As part of the STP you also study for an MSc in Healthcare Science. At the start of the first year we had an induction day where I got to meet lots of different STP trainees across all of the different disciplines, and we also had a week’s contact learning in Nottingham, where I was with all of the other Genetics trainees in my year. Later in the training I’ll also work on a research project relevant to my specialism, one that will hopefully benefit my lab.

What was the application process like?

Very competitive – it was a lot of work! I had NHS and PTP experience, as well as two Masters degrees, which was a good start, but I still applied twice! The first time I got to interview but wasn’t quite good enough, then I was successful second time around. The first step of the process is answering short essay-style questions. Answering those fully to make sure you stand out can take days. Then there are online reasoning tests, and if you don’t pass them you don’t get any further. I looked at a few example questions beforehand and thought it seemed quite easy, but some of the questions were very tough in the real test, mostly because you’re so pressured for time.

The next stage is the interview, which is a bit like speed-dating! There are four different tables with two interviewers at each, and all the candidates cycle through them in turn, changing table when the bell sounds. In my year there was a general science stand, two specialism-specific stands (so for me that was genetics), and then a stand on leadership, healthcare science and the NHS in general. You really get grilled on these stands, so you need to know a lot about what’s currently going on in your discipline, and in the NHS in general, and you need to be prepared to answer technical questions and be shown data. Then you’re given a mark for your performance on each stand, your scores are all added up, and you’re ranked against all the other candidates. Your rank will determine whether you’ll get a training place, and where that place will be.

Did you get your first choice of training location?

Yes I was lucky enough to get my first choice, which was the lab I already worked in. But I saw a few people who had to move across the country to take up places they were offered, which might not have been their first, second, or even third choice, so if the STP is something you really want to do, you may have to be flexible on location during your training.

What kind of experience is needed to get onto the program?

It’s a graduate scheme, so in theory all you need is a relevant undergraduate degree, however, it’s very competitive, and there are many applicants that meet the minimum criteria. In my intake I think there were about 16 Genetics trainees, and only one of them is a fresh graduate from university. About half of them have PhDs, and maybe around a third have worked as technicians in the NHS or in research.

What do you enjoy most about the STP so far?

I get to make a difference and help people through science. And I’m being challenged mentally; I have to innovate, and try to take my lab forward to provide a better service to patients, which is awesome.


What are the downsides?

Juggling the academic and the practical side of the training can be difficult, and you have to sacrifice your own spare time to get everything done. However, if you’re really passionate about the job, this isn’t too bad. Another key downside for people who like labwork would be the lack of lab time involved. I actually really enjoyed being in the lab when I was a technician, so I’ll miss it, but I’ve come to terms with it now!

The job can also be stressful at times. There’s a lot of work and tight deadlines to meet, and if something goes wrong, as scientists we have to be able to find a solution, otherwise we’ll be holding up the important work of the lab. But of course that’s also what makes it rewarding, how crucial the work we do is.


What advice would you have for anyone trying to get onto the STP?

I was lucky because I’d worked in NHS labs before, and although that’s not the case for all successful trainees, I would advise trying to get some NHS exposure, even if it’s just visiting a lab for a few hours. Talking to healthcare scientists, and reading relevant journal articles, will also help you to keep on top of developments in your field and in the NHS, which is important in the interview. I would also recommend practicing before taking the online tests, as you can definitely become quicker with practice.


Applying to the NHS Scientist Training Programme, part I

By Weronika Z Benning, on 22 January 2016

One of our Careers Consultants recently interviewed two candidates currently on the NHS Scientist Training Programme. We’ll be sharing these interviews this week and next to help inform you about the value and opportunities available in the programme, and give you real-world insight into the experiences of current candidates. This week we’re sharing our interview with Aled Jones, while a finalist in the Bioinformatics stream. Check in next week for our write-up with Heidi Kuoppama, during her first year on the Genetics Stream.

Applications for the NHS Scientist Training Programme have just opened. Find more information and apply here.


Aled Jones has a degree in Human Biology from Loughborough University and is now entering the final year of the three-year Bioinformatics (Genomics) NHS Scientist Training Program, during which he has been based in the Genetics department of Viapath at Guy’s hospital London.

How did you decide to apply for the bioinformatics STP?

I first became interested in Genetics during my undergraduate degree in Human Biology, so after graduating I took a job in forensics and saved money to fund an MSc in Medical Genetics at Newcastle University. It was here that I was introduced to clinical genetics in the NHS, the role of a Clinical Scientist and the scientist training program (STP) and realised that was a path I wanted to follow.

I applied for the genetics training scheme but I didn’t get onto it. The feedback that I got was that the competition was very stiff, and successful applicants had PhDs or previous NHS lab experience. To increase my chances I got a job as a technologist in the Cytogenetics department at St Mary’s hospital,Manchester.

I was there for four years. I had intended for this job to be short term, a foot-in-the-door of the genetics scientist training program. I enjoyed being in the lab environment, so much so I started to realise the role of a genetics clinical scientist wasn’t for me. I loved the labwork, being busy, and the trouble-shooting elements but I didn’t enjoy analysing and interpreting the results of the genetic tests. That was only a small part of a technologist’s role, but it would be a much bigger part of the genetics clinical scientist role. It was great to find this out in advance but it also meant that the goal I’d been aiming for had vanished.

At around that time next-generation sequencing was starting to be adopted in the clinical service, and this posed lots of challenges in terms of the wealth of data produced. There were many talks which said there was a huge shortage of bioinformatics expertise within the NHS. I was very comfortable on a computer and realised there may be an opportunity here, so I spent my lunchbreaks teaching myself about different aspects of bioinformatics, and learning the Perl programming language on the advice of the department’s Bioinformatician. I really enjoyed this and was looking for ways to move into it more when the NHS announced the bioinformatics STP, which suited my experience and aspirations perfectly. I applied for the first intake and I think that because I had NHS experience, showed that I had researched, investigated and “tried” bioinformatics, I had a good understanding of the training program and discussed bioinformatics in the NHS with colleagues from my lab, I was accepted onto the programme.

What was the STP application process like?

The basic requirement is a 2.2 degree, but it’s a really competitive program. Nearly everyone in my year’s bioinformatics intake has either a PhD or previous experience working within an NHS lab. It is possible to get a place straight out of an undergraduate degree (there’s one person in my year who did) with little or no lab experience, but you’d have to put in a very good application, and show you understand bioinformatics, clinical science, and the NHS.

In the application form there are five questions to answer in quite a short space, so you have to be concise and to the point, and show evidence of your skills and motivation from your real-life examples.

There’s an aptitude test after the application form is submitted. If you don’t pass the test, no one will look at your form. The test is pretty daunting so it’s worth using the practise tests provided as much as possible. However, I didn’t feel I did particularly well on the test, and I got through!


The interview’s a bit like speed-dating. There are four ‘stations’, each lasting 10 minutes, where you are asked really prescriptive questions. Two of the stations were speciality-specific, one computer science based and genetic based which included interpreting the output of a genetic test, so my background in NHS labs was really useful.

What’s good about the job?

Working for the NHS may not offer the biggest salary, but I feel I’m doing something that really matters, ‘giving back’. With the STP you get paid a decent wage to get on-the-job training and a Masters degree. You learn a lot of really useful things during the training programme, and especially with bioinformatics, these skills open up a lot of doors, within and outside of the NHS.

I’m still training so I’m not the most useful person around the lab yet, but when I’ve had the opportunity to work on real bioinformatics projects that are useful to people in the lab, I’ve found it really absorbing and rewarding.

What are the challenges/downsides?

A lot of the challenges my intake to the program has encountered are to do with the fact that bioinformatics is so new, and we’re the first year of the bioinformatics STP, so we’ve been guinea pigs in a way. I think subsequent intakes will experience fewer of those issues.

But there are some more general challenges too. The way the programme works is there are separate modules, and each of these have competencies that you have to tick off in various ways, maybe through writing a report or giving a presentation, and sometimes these can seem a little disjointed. Personally, I’m better at getting stuck into one bigger piece of work, so balancing all these little projects can be tough at times.

Another thing I’ve found difficult is the switch to a fairly solitary desk-job. When I was a technologist I was in the lab, physically moving around and had built up responsibilities so I was in demand and often asked for advice, but now I sit at a desk all day and have little reason to interact with the rest of the lab, especially as at the moment I’m training.

And another possible downside is the way that the STP positions are allocated. STP vacancies come up across the UK, and depending on how you perform in the interview, you may end up being offered a position somewhere in the country you don’t particularly want to work. This is what happened to me. I was very happy living and working in Manchester, my friends and girlfriend were there, but I ended up with an STP offer in London, which was not one of my top choices. Guy’s has a great genetics department, one of, if not the best, in the UK, and so in hindsight it was a good thing, but the move was pretty disruptive to my and my girlfriend’s lives. I know people have turned down offers because they were placed somewhere they didn’t want to move to.  Although there is no guarantee you’ll get your choices I’d recommend researching the labs which you apply to.
What’s the progression like?

When I complete the program I’ll be state-registered as a clinical scientist. However, there’s no guarantee of a job, so I’ll have to apply for any clinical scientist vacancies that arise. I’m an optimist, so I think if a department has spent three years training a person in an area where there’s a skills shortage, they should be ideally suited for a job in that department. But whether departments will have the money to fund a post is a different story (trainees are funded centrally, not by the host lab and money is quite tight in many departments/in the NHS!!).

I’m confident I’ll find a job in clinical bioinformatics though as if I cannot find a role in a genetics department, I think there will be bioinformatics positions popping up in virology and microbiology departments as they too adopt next generation sequencing and encounter the same challenges genetics faced.

Also, with bioinformatics in particular, I’ll come out of the program with a whole host of new computing skills that I didn’t have before, and they’ll be valuable to a variety of employers, not just the NHS.

What are your top tips for anyone interested in the STP?

Take every opportunity to find out about the STP and the work of clinical scientists [reading this blog post counts!]. Lots of labs have open days, and representatives from the STP visit universities. If you’ve missed all of that, try contacting your local department and asking a few questions. This will help you to understand the programme, and to show your motivation.
Applications for the NHS Scientist Training Programme have just opened. Find more information and apply here.

Check in next week for our write-up with Heidi Kuoppama, during her first year on the Genetics Stream.



NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP)

By UCL Careers, on 23 December 2014

This post originally appeared on the QM Jobs blog

The NHS Scientist Training Programme will open in January 2015. The STP is a graduate-entry programme for scientists, where you are paid a salary by the NHS while training.

Postgraduate training for the STP leads to a specifically commissioned and accredited master’s degree and certification of achievement of work-based training following one of nine themed pathways:

For more on the STP application process see here. And if you’re a scientist and want to talk about your career options, why not book an appointment to see one of our Careers Consultants? www.ucl.ac.uk/careers