5.1 Introduction to work experiences

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
    Development of attitudes and behaviours fundamental to being a doctor such as conscientiousness, good communication skills, ability to interact, empathise and to respond appropriately to information is essential during work experience. It is also important to have experience communicating with people from a wide range of backgrounds and 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. This 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, this is counter intuitive to the aims of work experience as the 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 your interview. You need to bring your experience and thoughts to synthesise succinct reflections that demonstrate your learning process.

Some applications to medical schools has been unsuccessful due to the lack of appropriate reflections on their work experience. To get the best out of your time at work experience, write down what you did in a diary. Specifically, write down any examples of of scenarios/situations that you encountered that an interviewer might want to talk to you more about, or situations whereby 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.
Whilst 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?

Whilst 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 in one narrow niche of medicine. Try not to worry too much about how high-profile your work experience seems, instead focus on what you can learn from it and the insights they can provide.

Ideally if you can, try and show commitment by demonstrating a sustained interest in a personal care role, ideally more than a couple of months in your spare time.

Where can I carry out 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 an experience somewhere. Whilst often tough to secure high profile placements, there are a huge number of options for relevant and interesting experiences out there. It is not necessarily the most high-profile experience that will teach you the most about the reality of medicine, so do try to be open-minded and approach a diverse range of people. Most places don’t turn students down to be unhelpful, but most often because they already have other students and are busy. Thus try to organise yourself and send off polite letters well in advance to avoid having to compete with other eager medics for places.

  • Ask friends or family: It is worth checking if they have any contacts in healthcare-related fields who you could ask. It often helps to ask someone that is a friend of a friend rather than someone that you have no connection with 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: At each hospital, there should be a work experience coordinator that can help organise a period of shadowing if you ask early enough.
  • GP practice: You may have to shadow a practice that you are not a patient at (so you don’t sit in sessions with your neighbours or friends as patients!), ask to email the practice manager and send them an email, they are normally very helpful!
  • Other experiences: Medicine is vast and varied, so if all else fails and you simply can’t get a work experience placement then consider other experiences that could help you to learn about medicine. Go to volunteering centres, go to nursing homes or disability centres or ask permission to attend drug support groups meetings. Whatever it is, be open minded to 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 the wards or asking for music requests from patients if the hospital has a local radio station.
  • Community: You could shadow a paramedic or ask to attend some 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 this is something you must do in order to make a successful application. If you are planning on taking a gap year, then 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 are valuable to develop. Doctors often play a role as educators and teachers – both 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 leader and teamwork skills by a summer holiday job, or by organising a fundraising project. This would provide something interesting to write about on your personal statement, and solid examples to justify relevant personal attributes and ‘transferable skills’ in interview.

Try to always relate your experience to a medical career. Maybe those angry customers in your job helped to develop your skills at listening to people and responding with pragmatic advice in times of stress to reach a solution that both parties were happy with. Perhaps organising a fundraising trip, or charity projects meant meeting and contacting many agencies or organising 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 if you get rejection letters from some of the places that you apply to, they are often oversubscribed. Plan ahead for 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. Ask the doctor when appropriate 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 appropriate at the time. Building a good rapport with the person you are shadowing will open up more learning opportunities for you.
  • 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 reflective tool. Construct your questions carefully- a difficulty is knowing the best question to ask to get the information you need in response, this is a valuable skill 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 the elderly, or more experience working with the disabled, 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- standing 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, health visitors, for example, and how they work collaboratively.

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