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PLAB Success Stories: Russian IMG to UK Doctor

Alexandra “Sasha” Goncharova, a Russian citizen working as a doctor in the UK, is one of many PLAB success stories. Outlining the exact steps she took to become a doctor in the NHS, Sasha’s journey is an interesting one. Having successfully found work as a clinical fellow (F2 level doctor) in the Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust, her story might serve as inspiration for other international medical graduates looking to do the same.

Over to Sasha.

PLAB Success Story: My Origins

I spent my adolescent years as a Russian passport holder growing up in Dubai, UAE, dreaming of going to medical school in the US. Studying pre-med at the American University there, I eventually realised I wouldn’t be able to afford going to a US medical school. So I looked into other options and decided to get a European-accredited medical degree from Medical University Varna, Bulgaria. Which worked out much cheaper!

After graduating six years later, I slowly began to realise the challenges finding work as a doctor with a Russian passport. I couldn’t go back to the UAE, where my family lived, as they had their own legislation and rules that made it difficult for me (an exam or a two-year paid clinical internship) to work there.

Hoping to get into dermatology in Bulgaria, I then realised this wasn’t immediately available to me either. So I took some time out to consider my options and ended up working in aesthetics in Sofia, as a beauty therapist.

UK Plans

I started thinking about working as a doctor in the UK after my boyfriend, a British citizen, recommended I look into it. At the time I was sceptical. Why would the UK accept me if the country I graduated from (Bulgaria) wouldn’t even consider me? Especially considering the UK’s world status!

After researching a little more I decided to take a chance. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I told my mother of my plans. She was happy to sponsor me for the PLAB exam costs and the time required to prepare.

My journey started off by a simple Google search. I read about what someone of my background would have to do on the UK government website and discovered I’d have to take the same pathway as someone who’d studied outside of the European Economic Area (EEA).

Before this I knew next to nothing about UK medical practice. I didn’t even know it was government sponsored! Coming from the UAE, which resembles the US private healthcare system, I loved the idea of working in a system that provided healthcare access to all. Especially given my grandparents expensive health issues back home.

Beginning Journey

Due to the overwhelm I felt trying to figure everything out, I decided to take the process one step at a time. The first thing I needed to do was prove my English proficiency. So I made my plans to do the IELTS before I could put in an application to do PLAB Part I.

I prepared to do the IELTS about four-weeks in advance, with my test date set for August 2018. I booked this in advance with the British Council and received their materials to prepare. If you have a good speaking level of English and are able to understand TV shows easily, you should have a sufficient enough level to pass it. Luckily I was able to do this in Sofia, so didn’t need to leave Bulgaria to do it.

As far as my IELTS result went I scored a total of eight. With a 7.5 in my writing – the bare minimum to pass! If I had to do this again I’d probably read more books in English — that would be my main recommendation to improve your grammar.

Applying for PLAB Part 1

After IELTS I began to get things in order for passing PLAB. I used the online application system from the General Medical Council (GMC). You pay in advance for the PLAB Part I. You don’t have to do this in the UK if you book well in advance. I didn’t get lucky in this regard so had to go to the UK to do it — they’re held only a few times a year in most other countries and places are very limited.

My first PLAB I experience wasn’t the greatest. I made the mistake of not booking any courses online (using only the free resources) and not giving myself enough time. This wasn’t enough to get me through the stress of the exam. I took it originally in November of 2018 and I failed by 10 points — these were the questions I missed due to running out of time!

PLAB I is scored on a curve. Meaning the passing grade is dependent on the scores of the other test-takers on that same day. And there’s around 600 people in each testing centre. On my day the score was 122 and I scored 112.

I don’t feel my medical school studies prepared me adequately for taking the exam. I had to look at a lot of USMLE resources to prepare. As the PLAB is structured in a way where any of the multiple choice questions could be correct, you have to know the clinical timelines to choose correctly.

I don’t think it matters what medical school you go to (to prepare), you just need the correct resources to pass. You need to choose things that emulate the time and rhythm of the exam.

Bouncing Back From Failure

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Being familiar with the exam, the format and the testing centres etc helped me much more the second time around. I also used the online question banks at Plabable, and did all the things available under the subscription to help me prepare.

A lot of Facebook groups can help you prepare but they can be quite stressful to be part of. That’s why I wouldn’t recommend using them all the time — but they can be useful if you’re searching for specific information.

In terms of studying techniques I’d absolutely advise timing yourself once you have a handle on the questions. There’s no point doing this however before you have a understanding of the material. You need to know the basics of clinical knowledge — not the advanced things. Tumor markers, the ABC rule etc. Also be familiar with the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine.

PLAB Part II

Studying for the second part of PLAB was much less socially isolating. This time I decided to take advantage of all the resources out there from the get-go. And obviously for this stage you really need to go the UK.

I thought that staying in Manchester for the course (given PLAB Part II takes place there) made the most sense. I took a course at an academy and followed all their instructions, coming to the UK two months in advance of the exam and doing the mock exams, group practice etc. This stage of the process is much more interactive. You get to see all the other applicants and learn about their backgrounds and experience. And everyone’s very different. Some are specialists, others junior doctors — and it’s a very good bonding opportunity but with an obvious intense premise of getting a job as a doctor in the UK!

In my experience at least it was a very humbling and reaffirming experience. Everyone is trying to do their best with the format put in front of them. So it’s all about how nice you are to patients, how well you know the legislation and your limitations of treatment etc. Obviously very different from what we’re expected to do in our own countries!

On the exam day I went to the GMC building all dressed up (same way you would dress for the wards – white shirt, tidy hair etc). Waited for the examiners and actors; and went through the stations (there’s eighteen of them). You’re very stressed because it’s a subjective test and depends a lot on what other people think of you; how you project yourself, how humble you are, how assertive you are and how much you know about the human condition. Examiners already know you have the clinical knowledge (based on PLAB I), they just want to see how well you behave around other people; your colleagues and your seniors. As well as how you follow the general legislation set out for you by the UK government.

Over preparation can be tricky here. You don’t want to look over-rehearsed. My tip is to not be automatic. Always have an understanding of your patients’ worries. And be as human as possible.

UK Job Hunting

After both parts of the PLAB lies the most frustrating part. You wait for a month for the results and then have to spring in to action; collecting all your documents about your internship year, translating everything etc. And all in a short space of time! Every single week that passes by counts as a break in practice — something that can effect negatively on your application.

I’ve heard of cases where people got GMC registration 15 years outside of the profession but these are outliers. I wouldn’t risk it. You have to explain your timeline in the last three years; what you have been up to etc. It’s a very gruelling process. And you have to be willing to be in communication with the GMC for quite some time.

I passed the PLAB II in August 2019. From then on out I was already collecting documents and translating them. After receiving the results the following month, I began applying for GMC registration then waited for their feedback. You have to register your degree with an American affiliate system — this is all explained on the GMC website. Put this in place before you attend PLAB II so you can prove your degree is legible.

I got registered in November (about two months out from the exam). And then the most difficult part began. Applying for UK jobs without UK experience. Some people were more long-sighted in this regard. They began applying for UK clinical attachments before they came for PLAB II and had these lined up; having emailed all the trusts they could and registering their interest.

Clinical Attachments

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The most successful IMG’s who get jobs as doctors in the UK the fastest are the most persistent. These people find the emails of the trusts and reach out to them repeatedly, asking to be considered for an attachment. You don’t get paid for this. And sometimes you have to pay for the accommodation.

Attachments involve you coming and observing other people working in a clinical scenario and shadowing them for a duration of time – 4 weeks, 6 weeks, sometimes 3 months.

What I generally found were the places that charge don’t usually take you on with a job after. They will give you references – which are useful as you need three of them to apply for jobs in the UK – but it’s not ideal. If you find a placement with free accommodation those are the ones to go for. This often means they’re interested in people for full-time positions. Usually because they’re short of doctors.

Securing a Job

My path into the a job was helped by the time I spent at an academy during PLAB II. Friends I made there knew more about the process of finding a job and recommended me a trust to email who had clinical attachments with the prospect of a job at the end of it. This was Epsom and St Helier.

Originally they were on the fence about taking me. Basically I got in by being able to connect myself with a Bulgarian consultant who took me under their wing and supervised me during the attachment. Then I spent the attachment talking to patients, other people in the hospital and being present for both night and day shifts. Involving myself in the clinical process.

Once I finished the attachment I was able to move into a full-time role in the trust. The interview came at the end of the attachment but I still had to apply for the job through NHS jobs. I was a bit lucky (depending on how you see it) by the fact this coincided with the start of the Covid crisis. Because of this my start-date was brought forward and I was able to get an in-country certificate from the trust. Then I was able to start after I got the certificate of sponsorship a month later. A bit different from the norm!

I started work in the beginning of May. My clinical attachment ended at the end of March. It’s been a roller-coaster to say the least!

414 replies on “PLAB Success Stories: Russian IMG to UK Doctor”

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