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Doctors at Work Podcast.

Episode #22

How to set up a postgraduate course. With Alex Charlton

Mat Daniel


Alex set up a one-day course aimed at preparing ENT senior registrars for the FRCS exam. In this episode he tells me how to set up a course, what skills you need, and he shares his tips for success.

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Mat: Welcome to Doctors at Work. My name’s Mat Daniel and this podcast is about doctors’ careers. Today I’m interviewing Alex Charlton. Alex set up a course designed to prepare senior ENT registrars for the FRCS exam. In this episode he tells me how to set up a course, what skills you need and he outlines his tips for success.
Hope it’s useful.
Welcome Alex, tell me about yourself.
[00:00:37] Alex: Hello. Yeah, so my name is Alex Charlton. I’m one of the ENT registrars in the East Midlands. I’m ST6, so just over halfway through my higher training. And I’ve, I live in the East Midlands. I have lived there my whole life, actually. But aspiring to be a consultant in a sort of tertiary centre, probably in head and neck surgery.
[00:01:03] Mat: Yeah. What motivated you to set up a course?
[00:01:09] Alex: So I think it was, in part, it was an opportunistic thing because I had a couple of colleagues who were, who had recently sat the exam and felt like they had ideas or And
I think we also want to, we recognize that in the East Midlands. We didn’t have anything that was nationally available or put us on the map in a sense and wanted to showcase that we have a lot to offer. And so thought that if we could really put something of good quality together and attract people from throughout the country.
It might be a really good opportunity to, as I say, to showcase what’s on offer in the East Midlands.
[00:02:01] Mat: I’m interested, what personally attracted you, because you’re ST6, so you are, or certainly when you said the course up, you were a number of years away from that. I what was your own personal thinking behind it?
[00:02:12] Alex: So I set up along with predominantly one of my colleagues who had just sat the exam at the time Samir Malik and I think it was, I could see that it was a good opportunity to do something positive to do something impactful. And I think for the longevity of the course. It would be important to have somebody who was going to be here still for several years to come to be taking it forwards and taking the lead on it.
I also could see that there was a personal benefit in terms of actually becoming familiar with the kind of setup of the exam, the content, so that by the time I come to sitting it, I would hopefully have a bit of a head start in that sense. And it’s, yeah, it’s worked out really nicely. The foresight seemed to prove true in this instance.
[00:03:07] Mat: How did you go about setting up the course?
[00:03:11] Alex: So I think we, first thing to say is we didn’t rush into it. We took a lot of time sort of consulting consultants and we’re fortunate to have people in the region who sit on the exam board and. And our examiners for the FRCS. And so we got a lot of advice, a lot of recommendations before putting our own ideas together about how to do it.
And then we developed a skeleton of what we wanted the course to look like. So we decided early on, we want it to be one day so that people didn’t have to commit too much. of their time, both in terms of faculty and delegates and then figured out what was most important to fit into that day, really.
And I think we always at the back of our mind had in mind that. We wanted it for the, because it’s a very faculty intensive course, we want, we wanted to give the candidates a really good quality experience. So we wanted to have a high number of faculty. And to achieve that, we need to make sure that for them, it’s easy and it’s a pleasant experience so that they want to keep coming and joining in.
And so that was the basis. And then we Figured out some more of the details. We had constant communication between myself and Samir, as well as potential faculty, a lot of sort of organization and planning. So making sure that we left plenty of time to sort things out. And essentially we prioritized our tasks.
We got the people that we needed on board. And made sure that we had our venue sorted and then started looking to advertise to get people booked in and then the finer details of equipment and kind of logistics on the day we were able to sort out closer to the time. But I think key things were speaking to people early, getting it on people’s kind of, Radar, so to speak, and then not over promising so recognizing that we were new to this that.
So we set the fee very low in the first instance we were very upfront that this was an inaugural course and. And with the faculty as well, we said, this is a trial run. We want to get your feedback. We want to know how it is, whether it’s something that we carry on doing and how we can do it better if we are going to carry on.
[00:05:59] Mat: If I think back to the early stages. It so happens that some people have just done the course and you have an idea, we could do that. And that will be useful, for local trainees, for you personally, and a national level. And you mentioned that you spend quite a lot of time having conversations with people.
What kind of questions were you asking right at the beginning?
[00:06:20] Alex: Asking questions about the sort of format of the exam, the types of questions. The way that other courses, most people have attended FRCS courses. So looking at how they’re run, the pros and cons that people felt from those.
And then more generally about whether people thought it was a good idea, what might be the pitfalls just to try and get a really broad understanding of what we’re getting ourselves into and how it might look.
[00:07:03] Mat: And how did you manage to persuade potential faculty to be interested?
[00:07:08] Alex: Good question.
So I, I’d like to think that. One, one of the benefits of the East Midlands, certainly for e n T training is that it’s a very compact region with a relatively small group of consultants and trainees. And so that allows you to build a rapport with people really nicely. So I think between us, Samir and I had enough of a rapport with enough consultants in the region that That we were able to ask for them to be involved and they had enough trust in us, and to agree to it.
And then I think once, once we’ve done the first course, and people could see the quality and the, how positive it is, then I think it’s recruited for itself in a sense, since I think people are keen to be involved which is the really important part of that, as I said earlier, is making it easy for people.
For the faculty, we can give them the time they need to be there. And we have everything prepared and ready and set out and they know that next time it’s going to be a stress free experience in that sense. And I think that makes the decision to be there a lot easier.
[00:08:25] Mat: And you said that after the first course it was a success and people could see that it was a quality experience.
How would you judge the quality of a course?
[00:08:36] Alex: So I think we had. both quantitative and qualitative feedback from candidates that attended as well as from faculty and that was extremely positive and then we informally Gathered feedback so spoke to consultants who had attended as faculty spoke to delegates that we knew personally or through other people and informally asked for feedback about how we could do it better from people as well and we just had really positive things that people said.
And it was, obviously we put a lot of work into it and a lot of effort and wanted to make it as good as possible. But it was a really pleasant surprise to find that it had been such a success though. And it helped us to implement some changes and to try and make it even better.
So yeah.
[00:09:34] Mat: And how much work was it?
[00:09:42] Alex: So I think the key thing has probably been organization and splitting the work up over a long time. So as soon as we’d finished the course, the first one was in March 22. And then we pretty much immediately started thinking about. Of course, a year later and getting the wheels in motion.
So booked the venue very early. And so that we knew that was done and dusted started speaking to potential faculty so things that can be done early on we did. And it just breaks the work down. So at no point does it feel like a huge amount of work, but it’s a constant kind of, I don’t know, half an hour here or there most weeks kind of thing.
And then there’s a bit of a rush, a week or two before where you’re just tidying everything up and getting all the final bits in order. And so I think it’s difficult to say how much work but it’s just been incorporated into my workload, as a constant thing, which I think is the best way to do it.
[00:10:57] Mat: I like the fact that you keep it ticking over, it’s a gentle marathon rather than a mountain to climb.
[00:11:04] Alex: Exactly.
[00:11:05] Mat: What help did you have in setting it up?
[00:11:09] Alex: So I think we, so Samir and I set the first one up. We managed to get some help from one of the other registrars in the region who’d also recently sat their exams.
A big part of the first course was writing the materials, so the questions, the scenarios, the vivas. And so they were a big part of that. And then we also got one of the consultants in the region involved in that aspect. So there are four sub specialties that are examined. And so we split that up between the four of us.
And then for the, for actually setting the logistics and the running of things on the day advertising, bookings, etc. I did most of that with some help from Samir. And we used, so we used Eventbrite, which is a booking platform, which takes some commission from the from the fees, but takes all of the work out of that aspect.
It’s just a case of sending people the link and then they can book and they get all the details through from there. So that, that simplified that side of things. And then I think for subsequent courses, a lot of that initial work doesn’t need to be repeated. So a lot of the material is the same.
And again, ticking over, we update. Bits at a time so that it’s not the same all the time, but it’s a much smaller job than creating the whole thing. And then the other, and then, so then the people who helped, who created the first course have moved on. So Samir went off to New Zealand and Sophie, who helped, had moved on to other things.
And again, looking at the longevity of the course, I then got other registrars who are more junior in the region involved. So Amr and Quentin both came on board and they’ve helped with a lot of the kind of the legwork of things going forwards. And again it’s a combination. So Amr’s recently sat the exam, so he’s very familiar with the content and the structure.
So he’s been really helpful with. Adding new scenarios or updating the scenarios to improve them. And Quentin is earlier on in his training and has been able to help with some of the more practical aspects of the work, if you like.
[00:14:02] Mat: And how did you find delegates?
[00:14:06] Alex: So we used sort of our own networks.
WhatsApp is a wonderful tool. So I think most regions will have a WhatsApp group. And there’s a lot of other WhatsApp groups with crossover between different people. We sent a flyer out via WhatsApp to, to all of our contacts essentially throughout the country and asked if they would share it amongst their colleagues. So that was probably the predominant way. And then we also asked ENT audiology and ENT and audiology news, and to publish it on their calendar of events, so that if people Looking specifically for a course, they’d be able to find it there.
And there are other routes, but the other ones that we looked at cost charge a fee. And because we’re doing this as a charitable event, all the profits are going to charitable causes. We didn’t want to. Spend unnecessarily and we actually found that we were recruiting more than enough people to fill the course and without having to do that.
[00:15:19] Mat: So how do you run the finances for the course?
[00:15:23] Alex: The biggest upfront cost is the venue. And that’s because we wanted to be a very authentic experience for candidates. And so we book a hotel, which is similar to what they use for the real exam.
So the first time we had to. Take that on as a kind of risk, anticipating that we’d be able to recoup it from the fees that we charge the delegates. And thankfully it worked out and we were able to make a bit of a profit. And then that has created a fund to pay for things going forward.
So that’s the main cost has been the venue. And then there’s a couple of smaller pieces with getting equipment and printing and those kinds of things Eventbrite take a cut of the. Booking fees but I think to make things simpler, it’s probably worthwhile. And then we use a charity bank account and all of the money goes in and out of there.
And then the plan eventually is to set up a… Traveling scholarship for EMT trainees in the East Midlands, so there’ll be a, an application process and then it’ll be awarded as a prize to someone to go and visit a centre to pick up particular skills or to try and set up a fellowship and that kind of thing.
[00:16:58] Mat: Wow, that’s brilliant. What skills do you need to set up a course?
[00:17:04] Alex: So I think what I’ve learned is that you have to. I have a lot of kind of self belief because it feels like a big risk in some ways that you’re putting yourself out there. In terms of your reputation, but also financially.
So you have to believe that it’s going to work. And then organization, communication skills, to be able to keep people on side and persuade people to do what you want them to do, essentially. And I think those are the key things. And I guess it will vary depending on what kind of course it is, but certainly for something like this where we have so many people involved, and the people are the key, and those communication skills are keeping channels of communication open and.
And having the skills to negotiate or persuade people have been crucial.
[00:18:12] Mat: And my final question what would be your top tips for a doctor who’s thinking of setting up a course?
[00:18:20] Alex: So I think definitely, It’s, it’s a great thing to consider. And it’s been extremely positive for me.
I’ve it’s a, it’s an achievement I’m very proud of, and it feels like it’s a sort of legacy thing that once you’ve put in the initial work to continue running a course, It’s a lot easier, but it’s getting over that initial hurdle of setting everything up, I think and realizing it and it working and succeeding.
And so don’t be disheartened it. It’s easy to just think about it and think, oh no, it’s too much, it’s too much risk, or it’s too much hassle. But do make sure that you inform yourself and know what you’re getting yourself into and the potential pitfalls before committing to things. So I think. I think give yourself enough time, make sure that you have enough time to really understand what you’re doing.
And then make a list of what’s going to be the crucial things that need to be sorted out, they need to be in place. Make sure that
they’re not missed.
And then, yeah, once you’re over that first hurdle and you’ve had a success, then think about systems to allow it to run itself in a sense.
But if it’s something that’s worth doing, then, you should go for it.
[00:20:00] Mat: That’s wonderful. Congratulations on your success. And thank you very much again. Thank you.

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