Useful work experience enhances your understanding of the reality of working in a caring profession and the challenges of medicine as a career.
For the vast majority of medical schools, there is no minimum requirement for the number of hours of work experience carried out. In fact, aiming for a particular target in terms of time is counterproductive for the aim of work experience. Your focus should be on quality rather than quantity.
The value of your work experience will be assessed through your personal statement, references and interview. You need to use your experience and thoughts to synthesise succinct reflections that demonstrate your learning and development.
Some applicants to medical school have been unsuccessful due to a lack of appropriate reflection on their work experience. To get the best out of your time during work experience, use a diary to write down what you did. Specifically, record any examples of scenarios/situations that you think an interviewer would want to hear about, or situations in which you saw good attributes of being a doctor on display.
Kwang Hee – University of Cambridge
‘I made it a point to meet and speak to patients during my work experience at a GP practice, to understand their illness from their perspective, which I found especially useful in honing my communication skills. Despite my initial reservations, I found the patients to be extremely generous in sharing their stories and experiences, especially when I introduced myself as a college student carrying out work experience.’
Catherine – University of East Anglia
‘Keeping a diary to jot down who I had spoken to, short quotations or the first names or initials of people and any diseases or drugs that patients were given proved enormously useful when it came to reflecting on my work experience and preparing for interview.
While you must maintain patient confidentiality, being able to talk about Mr X’s personal experience of having a stroke and mentioning quotations or specific treatment regimens and how patients found them provides a holistic understanding of health. Personal insights such as this are valuable additions to your personal statement, rather than generic platitudes which are not backed by evidence.’
Although long-term work experience in a hospital is impressive and provides material for discussion, it is perhaps better to have spent a few days in several different places gaining different experiences rather than a longer period in one narrow area of medicine. Do not worry about how high profile your work experience is, instead focus on what you can learn from it and the insight that it can provide.
Ideally, if you can, try to show commitment by demonstrating a sustained interest in a personal care role, such as one that takes place for over 2 months, in your spare time.
Do not worry if you cannot get much experience in secondary care. Start early and be persistent in your efforts to secure some experience somewhere. Although it is often tough to secure a high-profile placement, there is a huge number of options for relevant and interesting experience out there. It is not necessarily the most high-profile experience that will teach you the most about the reality of medicine, so be open-minded and approach a diverse range of people. Most places do not turn students down to be unhelpful, but more often because they already have other students doing work experience and are busy. Try to organise yourself and send polite letters well in advance to avoid having to compete for places with other eager medics.
Ben – University of St Andrews
‘I managed to secure hospital-based work experience via a family friend. Thanks to him, I spent a valuable week shadowing doctors in a busy labour ward which gave me a great overview of how a hospital works, with the efficiency of multidisciplinary teams really shining through.’
Laura – University of Manchester
‘My most memorable work experience was on the paediatric wards. Attending clinics with various doctors taught me about how different doctors approach problems and what was most effective. Observing doctors communicate effectively and examining children taught me a great deal about the skill set needed to be a pragmatic clinician alongside alleviating patients’ anxiety.’
Aside from purely medical work experience, there are plenty of other skills that are valuable to develop. Doctors often play a role as educators and teachers; to their patients, to younger doctors and to medical students. Consider gaining some work experience by teaching in schools or tutoring other students. You may want to develop your team leadership and teamwork skills in a summer job, or by organising a fundraising project. This would provide something interesting to write about in your personal statement, and gives you solid examples to justify relevant personal attributes and ‘transferable skills’ in interview.
Always relate your experience to a medical career. Maybe those angry customers in your supermarket job helped to develop your listening skills and ability to respond effectively in times of stress. Perhaps organising a fundraising trip or charity project meant meeting and contacting many agencies or organising several events; you would have to work as a leader to head these events, and also to cooperate with others to understand their needs and expectations, thus learning how to ‘meet in the middle’ .
In summary, there is a huge world of relevant experiences out there. Do not be put off by rejection letters from places that you apply to, as many will be oversubscribed. Plan ahead for the highest chance of securing placements in your chosen area and do not be afraid to think outside the box a little by exploring experiences in other areas of medicine, or other fields to develop relevant skills and insight into a medical career.
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