Primary literature refers to articles citing original experimental data in pear-reviewed journals such as “Nature” and “Cell”. As you will discover through your medical career reading journals is essential in keeping up to date with the most recent advances in the field. But should you be reading them in preparation for an interview as a way of standing out?
The necessity to read primary literature and remember authors and dates for citation in Oxbridge interviews is most definitely a myth. Whilst citing literature is a powerful tool to validate your opinion, doing so with primary literature is risky at interview. Such articles are by their very nature experimental and cutting edge, and often contain mistakes in their methodology – it is all too easy to find two articles with directly opposing conclusions. On top of this they are difficult to read, and often assume background knowledge way beyond that of A-levels. In fact much of your first three years at Oxbridge will be spent learning how to read, interpret, interrogate and critically appraise primary literature.
Oxbridge interviews are unlike any other university admissions process, interviewers like to take broad concepts taught to you in GCSE/AS, but then force you out of your comfort zone by asking you to apply your existing knowledge to new, and sometimes bizarre, situations. As such interviews often proceed as a barrage of questions until you can’t answer anymore. Citing primary literature is therefore risky as interviewers will call you up on it. Chances are they will have read it (maybe even wrote it!) and will ask you a number of in depth questions which will certainly be difficult to answer off the cuff.
If you feel comfortable putting yourself in that situation however, don’t let this blog put you off, as citing a Nature paper will undoubtedly make you unforgettable! As a bare minimum just be prepared to discuss: the background to the experiment, why it was done, how it was done, the exact method, pros and cons of the techniques used, causes of any experimental error, any further work that the results highlight (even suggesting some ideas of experiments that you yourself would like to see done), and statistics. All of this is not something that can be achieved by casually flicking through the pages of a journal as a bit of light bedtime reading, it requires hours if not days of attention, and should you decide to undertake the effort you will certainly be entering the realms of a postgraduate interview.
In my opinion the answer to this blog title is categorically no – your time will be better spent reading more general articles, stick to “New Scientist” or “Scientific America” as a means of providing current issues for discussion. I remember when I was in sixth form applying to read medicine at Oxford when one day a friend of mine came in waving the latest edition of Nature – I was terrified when I couldn’t even understand the title of the article he showed me! Needless to say I told him it was a waste of time and I would advise you the same, but perhaps I’m a bit biased given I got in and he didn’t. Remember, once in the Oxbridge interview it’s not what you have read and memorised that is important, but rather what you can work out on the spot when under pressure.