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What Type of Work Experience Should I Do?

By Gerens Curnow 

· Application Strategy

So, you’re thinking of applying to medical school. You have spoken to careers advisors, chosen the right A-Levels, studied hard, and done some research on what different medical schools require of their applicants. One theme keeps coming up: work experience. This is an overarching term that covers lots of different things that you can do leading up to your application. It includes volunteering and healthcare shadowing, as well as, other things that you can get involved in to broaden your understanding of a career in Medicine.

The chances of being granted admission to a UK medical school without having undertaken good quality work experience is extremely slim. And the reason for this is simple: being a doctor is not how it looks on TV. It isn’t all running around with defibrillator paddles shouting “Clear!” and shocking people back to life. It isn’t all chest compressions, medical mysteries, and slow-motion moments either. Medicine is a stressful, difficult, and often frustrating career, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. That being said, it is also one of the most rewarding careers you can undertake, with opportunities for life-long learning and constant self-improvement. As such, it is vital that medical schools can be sure their students know what being a doctor entails, so doctors don’t feel blindsided when they enter the profession, after medical school, and feel inclined to leave the career. This is where work experience comes in.

medical-school-application-work-experience

Having undertaken work experience demonstrates to admissions committees that you have seen what being a doctor/surgeon is really like and that you have carefully thought about what the career will involve for you. This leads to one very key message to answer the question “What work experience should I do?” I hope that you will have a better understanding of the answer to the question by the end of this article.

Having work experience in as broad a range of environments as possible demonstrates that you have gained a broad and holistic understanding of what is required of a doctor. It also shows you are willing to give up your time to get into medical school – which again demonstrates the commitment you are willing to make to this fantastic career. In the remaining part of the article, I have gone into more detail about the different types of work experience that you could get, and some tips on how you could organise your time in each location.

1. Volunteering

This is possibly the easiest and most rewarding way to gain work experience. There is no shortage of places that require enthusiastic volunteers to help support services.

When medical schools ask applicants to carry out volunteering work, they are looking for you to show commitment and develop skills in communication, compassion, empathy, and teamwork. I often get asked, “How much voluntary work should I do?”. The answer may seem simple: as much as you can to show commitment but not so much that it has a negative impact on other parts of your application. My recommendation is that it’s more favourable to have done 1 hour per week for 3 – 6 months (it’s ok if you miss an hour here or there), than full time for 1 month (potentially over your summer holidays). It doesn’t have to be a full-time commitment of yours and therefore, it certainly shouldn’t get in the way of revising for your exams or for the UKCAT and BMAT.

Some key examples include:

  • Nursing/care homes
  • Hospices
  • Hospitals
  • Community hospitals
  • Rehabilitation centres
medical-school-work-experience-ideas

The kinds of activities that you can do as a volunteer are very wide and include greeting patients before surgery, moving patients from one place to another, communication support for people with speech difficulties, fundraising, completing paperwork, and supporting administration staff. Each of these will give you unique insights into what it means to care for another human being. You can use these insights to talk about in both a personal statement and an interview. Such is the value of voluntary work for the NHS that most trusts have a list of voluntary posts currently open. If you’re interested in volunteering in the NHS, a good place to start would be to consult the NHS website, to identify health trusts near you. Visit the trust website, and look for ‘jobs’, where you will often find details of voluntary posts available in your area.

Remember to think smart, try to choose volunteer work near your house or your school so that you’re more likely to attend regularly. Avoid choosing work that requires a long bus, train or car journey away because you’re not going to be able to keep that up with all the other work that you’re doing.

2. Healthcare Shadowing

Shadowing refers to the practice of following doctors around as they undertake their daily jobs. This is distinctly different from volunteering in a hospital which applicants often get confused about. Healthcare shadowing is possibly the best way to see what a doctor actually does, as you will be there when they are doing all of their activities (except perhaps seeing patients, as patients must consent to this!). It can often be of benefit to the doctors too, as you will be able to help them perform some of their tasks, and possibly fetch them a coffee or two as well!

I often get asked, “How much shadowing should I do?”. My response is often based on Dr Jiva’s advice (from her 11 years of experience in Medical School admissions). Ideally, you should try to get the most healthcare shadowing experience that you can. But if you’re pushed for time, 1 week is the minimum requirement from most medical schools, 2 weeks is desirable for some schools, 3 weeks guarantees that you "tick the box" for work experience at every medical school. Importantly, any more than 3 weeks is likely not worth the time and effort to organise and attend. You may want to consider spending more time concentrating on academics, your standardised tests e.g. UKCAT, BMAT and interview preparation.

medical-school-healthcare-shadowing

This type of experience can be more difficult to organise. I would suggest that the best way to do it is to be confident and send as many emails as you can. I always recommend starting with friends and family. Keep your ears peeled for anyone in your immediate circle who mentions that they’re a doctor or are close friends to a doctor. If there’s no one in your family or friends who can help you then get onto the websites of your local hospitals and GP practices, find departments you are interested in, and contact some of the consultants listed as working in that department. While they may not be able to help directly, they are likely to be able to direct you to someone who can. There is often a section on their websites for students or work experience. Remember, if you are thinking about trying to shadow a GP, it is advisable to contact ones outside of your area as many practices will be reluctant to have you sit in with them if there is a chance of you recognising the patients attending of consultations.

If you’re still not having any luck, consider going abroad for work experience. There are lots of opportunities in less developed countries where students can learn about how doctors work in different healthcare systems. These can be found via friends and family, charity organisations or via paid organisations. If you’re still finding no joy with work experience, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at hello@themsag.com. Our doctors are based all over the UK and the world, we can help you find the right shadowing experience for you.

3. Laboratory Visits & Summer School 

Aside from being really interesting, the labs in hospitals provide an important service to the NHS. They check blood samples from all across the country, giving vital information to doctors to support their diagnostics and management of patients. They also help diagnose infections by growing microorganisms sampled from patients. While much of the work is conducted by scientists and lab technicians, there are many roles completed by doctors in this environment as well. By contacting the labs, you could see a very different side to medicine than what is seen on the wards. Further, the doctors and scientists in these environments are often very keen to tell you about their work, giving you the opportunity to learn some cutting-edge science while you’re there!

clinical-skills-course-medical-school-applications

Some summer schools across the UK also provide laboratory experiences and even clinical experiences. They offer the chance to learn basic clinical skills like taking a pulse, blood pressure, monitoring ECG recordings of the heart and learning how to examine different parts of the body. Unlike healthcare shadowing, where you could follow a doctor around all day and not see very much, summer schools are tailored to their attendees. As such, there are lots of opportunities to learn how patients present to their doctors, how to diagnose these patients, understand the disease processes going on and importantly, ask lots of questions.

My recommendation is that you need about a week or two for these sorts of experiences. They’re ideal for the summer holiday between Year 12 and 13. If you are interested in attending a course, theMSAG offer a summer school in partnership with BioGrad at Liverpool Science Park. Please click here for more information.

4. Paid Work

Paid work is like volunteering – only you get paid for it! This work would not count as “volunteering” or “healthcare shadowing”. However, there are many different paid roles available that could help you beef-up your personal statement with mature insights and reflections – from working in a reception at a GP practice to being a cleaner in a care home. It should be noted that some roles require applicants to be over 18, which can limit those applicants who are not yet at that age.

During this article, I hope some myths have been dispelled. Work experience is one of the biggest worries of applicants to medical school but the key is to have a good understanding of what different components are required for your application. These are volunteering and healthcare shadowing. Make sure that you understand the difference between them when planning. Lastly, where possible, start early.

The ideal time to get work experiences is the summer holidays before applying. But that’s when everyone else is also looking for work experience. So remember to think smart, may be arrange your experiences for Christmas or Easter holidays, when there’s less demand. Keep looking and something will come up. If you’re still struggling, don’t panic! Contact theMSAG and let us be your guide!

paid-work-experience-for-medical-school

Paid work is like volunteering – only you get paid for it! This work would not count as “volunteering” or “healthcare shadowing”. However, there are many different paid roles available that could help you beef-up your personal statement with mature insights and reflections – from working in a reception at a GP practice to being a cleaner in a care home. It should be noted that some roles require applicants to be over 18, which can limit those applicants who are not yet at that age.

During this article, I hope some myths have been dispelled. Work experience is one of the biggest worries of applicants to medical school but the key is to have a good understanding of what different components are required for your application. These are volunteering and healthcare shadowing. Make sure that you understand the difference between them when planning. Lastly, where possible, start early. 

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