How to study medical illustration (with steps and FAQs)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 7 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

If you want to get into a health-related career and have an interest in art and visual media, combining these interests and finding out about the role of a medical illustrator may appeal to you. Medical illustrators work in a variety of health-related settings to communicate information about the human body in visual ways. Learning about how to study medical illustration could help you decide if this is a career path you intend to follow. In this article, we explore how to study medical illustration and examine other frequently asked questions about this role.

What is medical illustration?

Medical illustration refers to creating visual images for healthcare purposes. Medical illustrators are professional artists who work with a variety of mediums to create resources for medical professionals, students, patients and the public. They might use 3D or 2D computer graphics and animation or hand-drawn or painted pictures. You can find this art in medical textbooks as a learning aid for people in the medical field or on posters, brochures or websites to communicate health information to patients.

Medical illustrators can work for a facility such as a medical publisher, textbook company, hospital or research institution. Many work on a freelance or contract basis, offering commissions to provide artwork. They require strong artistic skills and scientific knowledge.

Related: Types of illustrators: what role fits your career goals?

How to study medical illustration

If you enjoy drawing and have an interest in sciences, you may want to know how to study medical illustration. Do the following:

1. Learn about medical illustration

Learning more about careers in medical illustration gives you a better idea of whether it's something you want to study. Research the topic, such as reading articles and books about medical illustration or the potential career paths studying it can offer. You can get in contact with current medical illustrators to find a mentor or you might interview medical illustration students.

Find out about the specialities in medical illustration to understand the type of things you may wish to focus on. This also helps you learn about the available jobs. Look at job posts for medical illustrators and consider the skills and qualifications employers look for. This research gives you a foundation of knowledge that offers a strong start to studying medical illustration at a higher level, plus an idea of the skills you may gain on the course.

Related: A guide to illustration careers (with salaries and duties)

2. Gain the right qualifications

Before you can study medical illustration at a higher level, it helps to gain some foundational qualifications. The career can require two or three A Levels or equivalent. Choosing art and science-based subjects at this level can give you the key skills useful for medical illustration. Studying medical illustration at university may involve pursuing a master's degree in this field. This requires an undergraduate degree, typically in an art-based subject, though this may differ between institutions. Relevant science degrees are also advantageous. Some examples include:

  • illustration

  • art and design

  • graphic design

  • photography

  • digital media

  • 3D modelling

  • biology

  • anatomy

  • physiology

  • biomedical science

  • forensics

  • computer science

  • physics

Some courses offer certificates rather than degrees upon completion that may not require any prior qualifications. Some online courses offer less in-depth information and won't provide a formal qualification, but these can still offer a good basis for honing your artistic ability. Companies rather than universities often provide these.

Related: A guide to science degrees: courses, careers and salaries

3. Research other medical illustration courses

Once you have a good idea of the skills that medical illustrator jobs look for and have some qualifications, begin researching medical illustration courses. Look closely at the course curriculums and see which interest you the most alongside teaching the skills you need. Check with the provider if you meet the entry requirements and if any fees are involved. Some courses only accept those who already work in medical illustration, funded by employers.

Postgraduate degree courses may have different names but focus mainly on medical illustration. Research this keyword to make sure you have researched all available options thoroughly. These could be MAs or MScs. They may have names like the following:

  • medical visualisation and human anatomy

  • graphic design for healthcare

  • medical art

  • medical and biological illustration

  • art in science

  • clinical photography

  • forensic art

4. Research alumni

During this research, search for student portfolios that give you a good idea of the type of classes the course offers. Consider if this is the type of work you would like to do yourself. Using social media, you could contact alumni and ask them about their experiences in studying medical illustration. This way, you can get honest answers that give you an insight into what the course is like and its realistic career prospects.

Related: What does an illustrator do? (Responsibilities and FAQs)

5. Talk to the course provider

You can find important information from the university or course provider. Contact the course convenor or department and ask any questions you may have. Useful questions can include what type of medical illustration they teach, what optional modules they offer and if they have placement opportunities, for example. They may be able to provide you with a course handbook or invite you to a meeting so that you can gain more detailed information.

You can also ask if they offer any scholarship opportunities to waive the course fees to give you an idea of how you can fund your studies. Enquire about the location of the course and if the learning is in person or online so that you can tailor your decision according to your circumstances.

Related: How to become a medical illustrator (plus duties and skills)

Frequently asked questions about medical illustration careers

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about studying for a career in this field:

Is a medical illustration degree important?

Medical illustration is a specialised field, meaning jobs can be highly competitive. Those with postgraduate degrees on their CV that learnt specific medical illustration skills may compete better in gaining employment than those without, especially if accredited by a relevant body. Finding an accredited course by the Institute of Medical Illustrators gives you professional recognition in the field and unique training opportunities and industry contacts for enhanced career prospects.

Having said this, there are no legal requirements for the job. With the correct skills, experience and attitude, you can secure a trainee medical illustration job without a master's degree. You typically require a relevant undergraduate degree as listed above and employers may look for experience that shows the development of skills and a genuine interest in the field. This may include completing an online training course as mentioned, visiting your local medical photography department to shadow work, working or volunteering in a healthcare-related job or having a portfolio of artwork.

Where is best to study medical illustration?

There's no definitive answer to this question. All universities and course providers have unique features and incentives that make them suitable for different candidates. Researching their requirements and prospects equips you to make the best decision for you.

What skills do medical illustrators require?

There are many skills and qualities that studying medical illustration requires and helps you develop. Some of these include:

  • Artistic ability: Having good artistic and design skills and knowledge is essential for studying medical illustration. This could be in any medium, such as pencil, paint, graphic, 3D or 2D.

  • Attention to detail: Medical illustrators create clear, detailed artwork with accurate biological information that can be hard to photograph.

  • IT: Most jobs in this field require some IT skills. This could be for digital illustration, graphic design or 3D animation or simply scanning in hand-drawn images for publication.

  • Communication: Producing this type of art requires communicating complex medical ideas effectively in a clear, visual way. It also requires strong communication skills to engage with a team to collaborate on projects.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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