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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The attractions of medicine: the generic motivations of medical school applicants in relation to demography, personality and achievement

IC McManus1*, G Livingston2 and Cornelius Katona3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

2 Department of Mental Health Sciences/Camden and Islington Mental Health and Social Care trust, Holborn Union Building, Archway Campus, University College London, London N19 5NL, UK

3 Kent Institute of Medicine and Health Science, R&D Building, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7PD, UK

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BMC Medical Education 2006, 6:11  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-6-11

Published: 21 February 2006



The motivational and other factors used by medical students in making their career choices for specific medical specialities have been looked at in a number of studies in the literature. There are however few studies that assess the generic factors which make medicine itself of interest to medical students and to potential medical students. This study describes a novel questionnaire that assesses the interests and attractions of different aspects of medical practice in a varied range of medical scenarios, and relates them to demographic, academic, personality and learning style measures in a large group of individuals considering applying to medical school.


A questionnaire study was conducted among those attending Medlink, a two-day conference for individuals considering applying to medical school for a career in medicine. The main outcome measure was the Medical Situations Questionnaire, in which individuals ranked the attraction of three different aspects of medical practise in each of nine detailed, realistic medical scenarios in a wide range of medical specialities. As well as requiring clear choices, the questionnaire was also designed so that all of the possible answers were attractive and positive, thereby helping to eliminate social demand characteristics. Factor analysis of the responses found four generic motivational dimensions, which we labelled Indispensability, Helping People, Respect and Science. Background factors assessed included sex, ethnicity, class, medical parents, GCSE academic achievement, the 'Big Five' personality factors, empathy, learning styles, and a social desirability scale.


2867 individuals, broadly representative of applicants to medical schools, completed the questionnaire. The four generic motivational factors correlated with a range of background factors. These correlations were explored by multiple regression, and by path analysis, using LISREL to assess direct and indirect effects upon the factors. Helping People was particularly related to agreeableness; Indispensability to a strategic approach to learning; Respect to a surface approach to learning; and Science to openness to experience. Sex had many indirect influences upon generic motivations. Ethnic origin also had indirect influences via neuroticism and surface learning, and social class only had indirect influences via lower academic achievement. Coming from a medical family had no influence upon generic motivations.


Generic motivations for medicine as a career can be assessed using the Medical Situations Questionnaire, without undue response bias due to demand characteristics. The validity of the motivational factors is suggested by the meaningful and interpretable correlations with background factors such as demographics, personality, and learning styles. Further development of the questionnaire is needed if it is to be used at an individual level, either for counselling or for student selection.