Context Integrated longitudinal rural placements are designed to promote favourable student attitudes towards and facilitate return to rural practice upon graduation. We explored the impact of an integrated placement on medical students' attitudes towards rural practice. Methods Data were available from interviews with 10 medical students, 15 clinical supervisors and teachers, three community health staff, and focus groups made up of medical students. Socio-cognitive career theory gave insight into the personal, contextual and experiential factors, as well as the career barriers, that influence students' rural practice intentions. Framework analysis was used to develop a thematic framework illustrating the key findings. Results The longitudinal placement enabled students to achieve personal goals, and enhanced self-efficacy beliefs and orientation towards the complex personal and professional demands of rural practice. The informal curriculum, including multifaceted interactions with patients and their families, clinical teachers and other health care staff, was a vital experiential component. Students assimilated these rich experiences into their practice and evolving notions of professional identity as rural practitioners. Some students had little intention of practising rurally, partly as a result of contextual barriers such as geographic isolation, family and relationship needs, restricted postgraduate training opportunities and limited opportunities for specialist practice. Conclusions The richness of the informal curriculum in a longitudinal rural placement powerfully influenced students' intentions to practise rurally. It provided an important context for learning and evolving notions of professionalism and rural professional identity. This richness could be reinforced by developing formal curricula using educational activities based around service-led and interprofessional learning. To overcome the contextual barriers, the rural workforce development model needs to focus on socialising medical students into rural and remote medicine. More generic issues include student selection, further expansion of structured vocational training pathways that vertically integrate with longitudinal rural placements and the maintenance of rurally focused support throughout postgraduate training.