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Writing at the right level

Dr Jim Taylor, IBMS Head of Digital Education, and Chris Ward, IBMS Head of Examinations, present a guide for Higher Specialist Diploma candidates.

The Higher Specialist Diploma (HSD) is aimed at experienced Band 6 or Band 7 biomedical scientists who want to progress to a more advanced role with management responsibilities. The HSD is a two-part qualification (a portfolio followed by four closed-book examinations spread over two days) in which successful candidates demonstrate their detailed understanding of relevant scientific concepts, as well as the wider professional context in which they operate.

Reputable sources

The portfolio requires two M-level essays, written on titles set by the IBMS, and in the exams candidates must write M-level essays for both the generic paper and the discipline-specific essay paper. For many undertaking the HSD, this is the first time they will have needed to produce essays at this level, and this article provides a guide to writing such essays.

For the portfolio essays, it is expected that only reputable sources of information, such as peer-reviewed journals, books, best-practice guidelines and academic databases, will be used. It is not appropriate to use Wikipedia! The IBMS website has comprehensive guidance on referencing styles and candidates are expected to use either the Harvard or Vancouver style. It is also expected that candidates will uphold the standard of academic integrity expected of a regulated professional. The IBMS will use software to check for plagiarism, AI use, and to identify suspected collusion between candidates.

No minimum or maximum number of references is stipulated – it is the quality and relevance of the references that is of greater importance. Candidates must not rely on a small sample of references that only support their perspective. To be “critical”, they must present a balanced evaluation of the literature, including relevant points concerning the credibility and reliability of chosen sources.

In the exams, candidates are not expected to recall specific citations for all points that may be relevant, but they should be able to refer to the name and publication year for key documents upon which they base their responses.

It is the quality and relevance of the references that is of greater importance

Organising ideas

When structuring essays at this level, it is important to start by logically organising the ideas that will be included. Pay particular attention to the command verbs used in the essay title. For example, if the essay title uses “justify”, it is expected that the response will explore reasons for the worthiness or validity of an idea, standpoint or view. A title including the word “discuss” requires evidence-based “for” and “against” arguments (supported by peer-reviewed research or other robust evidence). In this case, the response does not have to give equal weight to both perspectives, and it does not need to match the author’s personal perspective, but it should finish with a balanced conclusion on the issue per se.

The word “critical” or “critically” will often appear in the essay title and is (effectively) shorthand asking respondents for a consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the opinion, statement and theory. In the context of the HSD, the examiners expect candidates to demonstrate not just their own subject knowledge, but also their ability to (critically) analyse information precisely and concisely and synthesise new perspectives that might include innovative new ideas, challenge prevailing norms, and/or propose alternative solutions to existing problems. By presenting more than “just” a summary of other authors’ work, candidates will elevate their essays by demonstrating a deep and holistic understanding of their discipline and professional experience, creating a lasting positive impression on the examiners.

The essay should start with an engaging introduction; the body should be carefully structured with each paragraph dedicated to a specific point or argument. Seamless transitions between paragraphs are essential as this will guide the examiner effortlessly through the arguments to a conclusion that brings together the points put forward in the body of the essay.

Clarity and coherence

In non-exam-based situations, ensure there is sufficient time to complete an initial draft and then take time away from the essay before proofreading. This allows better objectivity to determine the clarity and coherence of the essay, and ensures the author proofreads what has been written, rather than what was intended. When proofreading, look out for grammatical and spelling errors, including the use of out-of-context but correctly spelled words (e.g. “form” instead of “from”), and make sure nomenclature is correct and has been used consistently. Colleagues who are willing to proofread and constructively criticise the essay are valuable sources of additional perspective and feedback. These individuals do not need to mark the essay but would surely value an appropriate reward.

In an exam situation, the process of writing an essay is essentially the same, albeit constrained by time and a lack of being able to refer to external material at will.

It is important to take time at the start of the exam to plan the structure of the essay (using space in the answer book if necessary) before beginning to write the response, as this will provide a guide to ensure that all pertinent points are included in the final essay. Although examiners will not mark the essay plan, it can often help them understand the intended logic and flow.

Breadth and depth

For success at Master’s/HSD level, a sound knowledge of the breadth and depth of the subject discipline, and the wider professional context in which the author is working, is by far the most important knowledge to demonstrate. Being immersed in the nuances of the question, using a variety of appropriately referenced resources, constructing a clear and cohesive narrative that demonstrates critical thinking and insightful analysis, will ensure the production of high-quality essays that showcase the author’s expertise to the examiners to help them give credit where credit is due... and well deserved!  

For more information on the Higher Specialist Diploma, and other IBMS qualifications, visit and click on the qualifications tab.

Image credit | iStock


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