Work Experience: an Introduction

What is the benefit of doing work experience or voluntary work?

Useful work experience enhances your understanding of the reality of working in a caring profession and the challenges of medicine as a career.

  • People-focused experiences
    See and speak to patients and medical staff and try to understand how they are cared for from a holistic point of view. This means not just what drug they are given to treat an illness, but also considering how their condition affects them as an individual and their life.
  • Professionalism
    Developing attitudes and behaviours that are fundamental to being a doctor is essential during work experience. These include conscientiousness, effective communication and the ability to interact, empathise and respond appropriately to information that is given. It is also important to have experience communicating with people from a wide range of backgrounds and to evaluate the differences and challenges this poses.
  • Appreciation for the reality of studying medicine and practising as a doctor
    This is a critical outcome of work experience. It means gaining an awareness of the physical, organisational and emotional demands of a medical career.

For the vast majority of medical schools, there is no minimum requirement for 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.

How do I get the most of my work experience?

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 at 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.’

How much work experience do I need?

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.

How do I find work experience?

Don’t worry if you can’t get much experience in secondary care – in hospitals. 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 don’t turn students down to be unhelpful, but more often because they already have other students doing work experience and are busy. Thus, try to organise yourself and send polite letters well in advance to avoid having to compete for places with other eager medics.

  • Ask friends or family: it is worth checking whether anyone you already know has any contacts in healthcare-related fields. It often helps to ask someone who is a friend of a friend rather than someone with whom you have no connection at all.
  • School: ask the work experience coordinator at your school, who may have personal contacts that previous students have used successfully
  • Work experience coordinators: each hospital should have a work experience coordinator who can help organise a period of shadowing if you ask early enough.
  • GP practice: you may have to shadow a practice where you are not a patient (so you don’t attend sessions with your neighbours or friends as patients!). Email the practice manager: they are normally very helpful!
  • Other experience: medicine is vast and varied, so if all else fails and you simply can’t get a work experience placement then consider other experience that could help you to learn about medicine. Go to volunteering centres, nursing homes or disability centres, or ask permission to attend meetings of a drug support group. Whatever it is, be open minded about the insight it may bring. Often starting points like these open up more contacts in the fields you initially anticipated.
  • Think outside the box: if you are really stuck, you could apply to work as a receptionist or a volunteer in a hospital, assist with delivering meals to patients on wards or take music requests from patients on the hospital radio station.
  • Community: you could shadow a paramedic or ask to attend community visits with a nurse or midwife.
  • Overseas: some students go overseas to get work experience – this is an option and certainly provides an interesting insight into healthcare on a global scale. You will observe some of stark differences between healthcare systems in different countries. However, this can be expensive or difficult to organise, so don’t feel that it is something you must do for a successful application. If you plan to take 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.

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.’

Other relevant experiences to mention

Aside from purely medical work experience, there are plenty of other skills that it is 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. Don’t 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 don’t 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.

Top tips for work experience placements

  • Prepare for your placements
    Make sure you know who you are meeting and where, and what will be expected of you. Give yourself plenty of time to find the right place, and dress appropriately. First impressions are important!
  • Be keen to get as involved as possible
    Show that you are enthusiastic and respectful. When appropriate, ask the doctor if you can get more involved, for example by listening to a patient’s heart or by asking the patient a question. This relies on your own judgement of what is an appropriate time. Building a good rapport with the person you are shadowing will open up more learning opportunities.
  • Ask questions
    Asking questions is enormously valuable: it creates a good impression, showing that you are engaged and interested, and also allows you to find out more. Asking for someone’s insight or their personal experiences can be a useful learning and reflection tool. Construct your questions carefully: knowing the best question to ask is a valuable skill for you to start developing. Don’t be afraid to ask the doctor for clarification or for more information about something that you don’t understand. Jot down key things to research at the end of each day to maximise your learning and participation.
  • Develop your own personal attributes
    If you want more practice speaking to elderly people, or more experience working with disabled people, then use work experience as your opportunity. For example, working in a care home provides ample opportunity to develop your caring and empathetic nature and gives you a chance to justify statements about your personal attributes, which will stand you in good stead for interviews.
  • Understand the NHS as a system
    The workings of the NHS are important and always feature in interviews. Ask important questions and vary your placements so that you can see different sides to the NHS – both community, locally based care and, if possible, secondary care or hospice care. Think about the community services that are also supported by the NHS and the teams that are involved in each layer of the NHS. Try to develop your understanding of the roles of different healthcare professionals, gaining a better appreciation of the role of nurses, care assistants and health visitors, for example, and how they work collaboratively.

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