Tag Archives: microbiology exams

“Indole positive or negative?”

If you asked me whether E. coli was indole positive or negative, I wouldn’t have a clue.

Despite being told the answer many times over the years, the answer just doesn’t stick. I simply don’t care..

My colleagues must despair of me.

It is a wonder that I managed to pass any exams at all…

Which brings me to college microbiology exams and my increasing disillusionment with them.

Formal exams in general have not changed much in style over the past few hundred years. They essentially test knowledge that can be held in the head. (I hold very little in my head..)

But most young people have an I-Phone in their back pocket…

The skills that young microbiologists need nowadays are not related to hoarding large amounts of microbiological facts. This is becoming increasingly irrelevant. They need to be able to problem-solve and troubleshoot. They need to be computer savvy and innovative. They need to be observant and be able to spot the unusual. They need to have the patience to tolerate a degree of repetitive work, and they need to be able to get on with their colleagues and build a rapport with lab users.

Do the microbiology exams of today really test these skills?

If it were up to me, I would get the students into the microbiology lab on day 1 of their training (so they can see if they really enjoy it) and keep them there as much as possible. I would pay them part-time for doing some simple tasks in the laboratory (so they don’t finish their degree in lots of debt). The academic part of the course would be primarily online, with occasional small group tutorials. I would ban large group didactic lectures altogether. I would focus on the diagnostic microbiology of today and tomorrow, not of yesterday. I would not have a formal written exam at the end, but rather continuous assessment throughout the training period. I would however advocate an oral examination at the end to ensure the student has a good understanding of the basic concepts of microbiology and has good safety awareness in the laboratory. I would be brutally honest with them in terms of future job prospects and where I see future work opportunities within clinical microbiology.

There are too many people within academic institutions who have too much of a self-interest in keeping things the way they are at the moment.

This has got to change…

Modern microbiology degrees are needed for modern microbiologists.


I see that most E. coli are “indole positive”. I have just checked Google on my smartphone…


Failed_130059It is June 1994, and I have just failed my microbiology finals at Medical School.

Too much alcohol, way too many parties, and definitely not enough study…

I was shocked. I had never failed an exam in my life before, but given the above, I should have expected it.

I was also indignant. How dare someone tell me I’m not much good at something!

So my summer of 94′ was spent in the Edinburgh Medical Library studying for the Resit Exam. It was during this time (of intense study and contemplation) that I developed a deep passion for microbiology, a passion that has never left me to this day.

The irony is not lost on me. Since that initial failure, I have gone on to become a consultant clinical microbiologist. I have people from all over the world clicking on my blog/website to get my opinions on clinical microbiology. Indeed, I have even compiled a book of my microbiological musings!

I have had failures since, and I will undoubtedly have further failures in the future.

Because failure is part of life. Everyone fails at something, at some point.

Learn from your failures and move on…


“Getting exams in perspective”

If you got an A in your most recent exam, well done, give yourself a clap on the back…

Then forget about it.

Getting top marks in academic exams means little in the real world. It does not mean you are going to be a good leader or a good manager. It doesn’t mean you are going to be innovative, nor does it mean you are going to get on with your work colleagues. It doesn’t tell your employer how you will deal with stressful situations or how much effort you will put into the job. It doesn’t even say whether you will turn up on time or take lots of sick days. Simply put it does not mean you are going to be a great microbiologist. Far from it.

Along the same lines, if you barely scraped through your last examination, don’t worry about it. It does not prevent you doing well all these things above. It does not mean you are going to be a mediocre microbiologist…

The point is that exams are a transient hurdle to be crossed, the passing of which will give you choices in your career/life. You need to play the game (give the examiners what they are looking for) to pass exams. After the hurdle is crossed, you can put yourself to the test, and that is always much more revealing……