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14 April 2022

Finding your place in the medical world

Finding your place in the medical world

When psychiatry registrar Dr Kiran Sharma arrived in Townsville from Canada, she was a locum radiation therapist contemplating a career change.

“I had a few great mentors in radiation oncology who suggested I apply for medicine,” Dr Sharma says. Plan B had been to return to Canada to study law, but she instead took a detour after her travels and gained entry to James Cook University’s medical degree program.  

Now in her third year of psychiatry training at Townsville University Hospital, Dr Sharma has worked all of her junior doctor years and started a family in North Queensland since graduating in 2015. She is currently in a clinical and academic role educating medical students and junior doctors as the medical education registrar for psychiatry. 

“The sunny weather and casual lifestyle were appealing and have kept me here for 12 years,” Dr Sharma says. “James Cook University provided a broad base of medical knowledge with particular attention to tropical medicine, regional and remote areas and Indigenous populations, all of which has helped me relate to and help my patients.”

Her career design has been a balance of family and work life, in a field where she can spend time to understand the issues her patients face and help them make positive changes for their mental wellbeing. “Every day is unique and challenging,” she says.

Dr Sharma is one of the mentors in a peer support group Northern Queensland Regional Training Hubs (NQRTH) has set up to help international fee-paying students navigate the Intern Campaign and the complexities of having to apply both interstate and in Queensland. The peer mentor group connects current interns, who were last year’s graduating international fee-paying students, with current JCU international fee-paying students.

Dr Sharma shares her experience and tips for international medical students:

Reaching the pointy end

“You have worked hard for six years studying medicine, whilst being far away from home and paying international tuition fees. During these years, you were given equal opportunities in medicine, but now at the pointy end of the journey, you realise that Intern allocations are citizenship based, and you will have to wait your turn for an internship, so now the panic is setting in!

“The year I graduated from JCU medicine was a rare year where Townsville University Hospital was fully subscribed by domestic students, and I believe this has not occurred in the many years since. There were no public hospital internship allocations available for International Medical Students (IMSs) in the state initially.

“It was horribly stressful. It was anxiety provoking. It was hard to keep perspective. I worked so hard alongside my classmates and paid my way, which involved working part-time and living frugally, and yet the divide between us remained and they would get a job and I would have to wait. It seemed unfair not to have a merit-based system.

Making the most of opportunities

Fortunately, my patience paid off, and within a few months I was offered a Mater Hospital internship with most of my rotations in the public hospital and my ED rotation in Cairns. The year was amazing for learning, growth and professional development.

“I was not disadvantaged in the slightest as an IMS. I earned the same amount as my peers and my experiences were no less valuable. Your experiences and opportunities will always be what you make of them. The support I received as a Mater intern was incredible because of the small intern cohort.

Interviewing and career anxiety

“Developing interview skills as a medical student helped me succeed in my future opportunities when successfully interviewing for internship, RMO campaign and my registrar training position with Mental Health Service Group and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP).

“The divide is no longer there. I am now an Australian medical school graduate, working in North Queensland as a dual citizen. My opportunities are no different from those I studied with and the challenges I overcame made me stronger and more ambitious.

“Being worried about waiting for your career to launch is normal and completely understandable. However, the odds of getting an internship as an IMG are in your favour. Did you know that most IMSs who want to remain in Australia are employed after their final year of medicine?

“Things will work out for you more likely than not, and if you are fortunate, you will have the chance to pursue your dream specialty and give back to medical students and junior doctors who face similar stressors, just as I have."

Kiran’s top tips for students

“In the meantime, do not lose perspective and positivity. Worrying about things you have no control over will not change the outcome. Here are some tips for peace of mind:

  • Keep healthy – exercise, get fresh air, eat well. Start to prioritise your mental and physical wellbeing while you do not have the pressures of internship. Practise what you will be preaching.
  • Keep busy – idle time is more time to worry which will not help you. Use spare time to build your CV, work on research and maybe earn a publication or volunteer. When distinctions will be merit based you will be thankful you bolstered your CV.
  • Consider what areas interest you and start developing your CV for that area.
  • Think strategically about where you want to work. Working in a major centre might not be possible, so consider regional options, or private options. Have a list of first, second and third choices. Be prepared to think outside of your comfort zone.
  • Rejection is not failure, it is an opportunity to reapply yourself. Movement before and after internship is common, so if you don’t get your first choice, there’ still time down the track to apply for future positions.
  • Don’t lose your self-esteem. The IMS internship allocation process is just that, a process, and many of us before you have survived. Don’t lose sight of who you are and what you offer.
  • Prioritise time with people who are supportive and positive.
  • Speak to someone if stress or worries are affecting your mental wellbeing. It could be as informal as a coffee with a mate, or an appointment with your GP. Caring for your own mental health will help you be a good doctor.

A network of medical training opportunities

NQRTH connects medical students, intern and junior doctors with a network of opportunities and resources designed to create a supportive and clear path to specialist (including general practice) training, and beyond, in our regions. Our network works together to strengthen medical specialist training with the view to build a health workforce prepared to meet the health needs of our regional and rural communities in Cairns, Central West, Mackay, North West, Torres and Cape, and Townsville. NQRTH is facilitated by James Cook University, who partner with hospital and health services and training providers to create a connected career pathway beginning at the medical undergraduate level right through to fellowship.

NQRTH is an initiative of the Australian Government's Integrated Rural Training Pipeline (IRTP) and is facilitated by James Cook University in partnership with public and private hospitals, Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC), health services, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) and GP clinics.

Cairns region
(07) 4226 8187

Central West region
(07) 4764 1547

Mackay region
(07) 4885 7122

North West region
(07) 4764 1547

Torres and Cape region
(07) 4095 6103

Townsville region
(07) 4781 3424