What is the benefit of have work or volunteer experience?
Useful work experience enhances your understanding of the realities of working in a caring profession, as well as the challenges posed by managing various medical conditions.
People-focused experience is key – you want to be able to see and speak with patients and medical staff in order to gain a better holistic understanding of their care. Clinical experience will teach you a far greater lesson than what drug or treatment they are given: it will expose you to how their condition affects them and their life.
Experience provides the opportunity for the development of attitudes and behaviours fundamental to being a doctor. These include conscientiousness, good communication skills, and the ability to interact, empathise and respond appropriately. It will also expose you to communicating with people from a wide range of backgrounds, and help you understand the challenges this can pose.
Appreciation for the reality of studying medicine and practising as a doctor is a critical outcome of work experience that can then be summarised through your personal statement. The value of your work experience, including your awareness of the physical, organisational and emotional demands of a medical career, will be assessed through your personal statement, references and your interview. You will benefit if you are able to synthesise your experiences and thoughts into succinct reflections that demonstrate what you have learned.
Box: The vast majority of medical schools do not have a minimum quota for number of hours of work experience. In fact, a minimum would be counterintuitive to the aims of work experience.
Questions your interviewers may ask about your work experience
When discussing your work experience in your personal statement, preparing for interviews, or even as you are on your placements, it may be helpful to consider the following questions.
What were your goals at the start of your work experience placements?
What are some of the key things that your work experience taught you?
What impressed you most about the health care staff you met?
What did your work experience teach you with regards to teamwork within the NHS?
What do you feel are some of the most challenging features of being a doctor?
What differences did you observe between primary and secondary care?
Describe a memorable patient or healthcare professional who you met during your work experience and explain why they stood out.
What parts of your work experience did you find challenging or tough?
Describe a case that you found especially interesting – what research did you do and what did you learn?
What are some of the key challenges for doctors in the future?
What have you done thus far to gain an appreciation of what it is like to study medicine?
What are some of the challenges that a disabled patient faces?
What parts of your work experience did you find the most difficult?
How can a doctor effectively communicate with a patient? Can you give an example from your work experience?
Apart from a doctor, who else is important in providing care for patients?
What are the challenges of being a patient from a disadvantaged background?
What are some of the major advantages and disadvantages of the NHS?
How much work experience do I need?
It is not about quantity: Quality is far more important.
Whilst spending a long block of time doing clinical work is impressive and provides good material for discussion, it may be better to spend less time in each of a variety of different places, gaining varied experiences rather than exposing yourself to just one narrow niche of medicine. Try not to worry too much about the length of time or how high-profile a work experience seems: Instead focus on what you can learn from it and the insights it can provide.
Don’t worry if you can’t get much experience in secondary care – in hospitals. It’s more important that you have experience than that specific type of experience. Start looking for a spot early, and be persistent in your efforts. Organise yourself and send off polite letters of request well in advance to avoid having to compete for positions against other equally-eager medics.
If your initial attempts are unsuccessful, ask friends and family members if they have any contacts in Medicine, and re-approach places that turned you down to offer yourself as a volunteer rather than as a work experience student. In most cases, facilities that turn students down do so because they already have agreed to take other students and are busy, but they may be willing to take you on as a volunteer.
Medicine is vast and varied. If you are unable to get a traditional work experience placement, consider other environment in which you can learn about medicine. Go to volunteering centres, nursing homes or disability centres, or ask permission to attend drug support groups meetings. Whatever opportunities you find, be open minded to what insights they may bring, and remember that starting points like these may expose you to contacts in the fields that you did not initially anticipate.
If you are really stuck, think outside of the box. Whilst often tough to secure high profile placements, there are a huge number of options for relevant and interesting experiences out there if you just open your mind to them. Apply for work as a receptionist, or volunteer in a hospital and assist with delivering meals to patients on the wards. You can shadow a paramedic or ask to go on community visits with a nurse or midwife, or apply to work as a volunteer play specialist on the Paediatric wards. It may not feel like a clinical work experience, but by shadowing others you can learn a lot about the field, as well as the role of the multidisciplinary team. It is not always the highest profile experience that teaches the most about the reality of medicine, so try to be open-minded and approach a diverse range of people.
Some students go overseas to get work experience. This can be a good option, and certainly provides interesting insights into healthcare on a global scale and the stark differences in care between different countries. While this can be valuable, it can be also be both expensive and difficult to organise. Don’t feel that working overseas is necessary for a successful application. If, however, you are planning on taking a gap year, this is a great option to consider and allows you to combine travel with gaining new experiences of healthcare and global medicine.
Other relevant experiences to mention
There are many non-clinical skills that are valuable for future doctors to develop. Doctors are often educators and teachers to their patients, to younger doctors, and to medical students. Consider applying for work experience teaching in schools or tutoring other students. You can develop your leadership and collaborative skills in a summer holiday job, or by organising a fundraising project. This type of experience provides something interesting to discuss in your personal statement, and solid ways to display relevant personal attributes and transferable skills in your interviews.
Always try to relate your previous experiences to your future in medicine. Maybe your exposure to dissatisfied customers in a retail job helped you develop listening skills or the ability to calm people down during stressful times. Perhaps organising a fundraising trip or charity project meant working as a leader and coordinating groups with disparate interests and goals, helping them to collaborate and meet in the middle. Every experience can be translated into something useful to your medical career.
There is a wide world of relevant experiences out there. Don’t be discouraged by rejection letters from some of the places to which you apply: They may simply be oversubscribed. Plan ahead to optimise your chances of securing placements in your chosen area, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box a little and explore experiences in other areas of medicine (or other fields entirely) to develop relevant skills and insights valuable to a medical career.