Work experience – where do i start?

Dr Banuka Maheswaran tells us her story…

Growing up in Hounslow as a 16 year old student at the Heathland School, thinking about medicine as a career, I had no idea where to start. I had no family members in medicine, I was the first in my family to go to university and so the whole experience was completely alien to me. As for many people, thinking about where to start with work experience felt like a mine field but it is a really important part of your medical school application. Trust me when I say, medicine is not what its like on TV, so its important you get real life experience and help you decide whether medicine is the career for you!

Work experience can be a lot harder for those of us who do not have any medical contacts and so looking back and knowing what I know now, here are some top tips on work experience and applying to medicine:

  1. Start Early

You can never have too much work experience and it can take some time before GP surgeries and hospitals get back to you, so once you have made a decision that you may want a career in medicine, start emailing and writing letters to everyone and anyone you can think of! This is one of the things I wished I had done differently when I applied.

You need to have done your work experience before your interview and most places will only accept students above the age of 16, so that leaves a small window to get the work experience organized and done. Make sure you have your CV and a cover letter ready explaining why you are interested in a career in medicine. Research all your local hospitals, care homes, hospices and GP surgeries in the area and write to them or email them. You can often find email addresses on their website and with GP surgeries, you can even go in and drop off your CV and a cover letter.

Some hospital have work experience programs that students can apply to directly so make sure you keep a look out for these too! You can also write to local care homes and charities on a voluntary basis to get some real hands-on experience which is often more valuable and will teach you a lot more!

  1. Get Variety!

Universities like people who have done lots of different types of work experience. So if you’ve started early and written to a few different places, you will hopefully be starting to get replies now. If you are lucky enough to get work experience in a hospital for 1 week – this may not be enough!

Make sure you try and get a wide range of work experience whether that’s volunteering in a hospital feeding patients, observing on ward rounds or operations in a hospital, working or volunteering in a care home, volunteering with charities or observing in a GP surgery. This gives you a much more rounded experience of healthcare and gives you much more to talk about in your interviews. You get a better perspective of the different issues faced by different health organisations.

It is good to observe the interaction between different teams and understand the skills needed for their jobs in healthcare such as time management, performing under pressure, communication skills, showing compassion, resilience etc. And remember, it is worth gaining experience from a wide range of healthcare professionals and not just doctors! Doctors are a small part of a much larger team and it gives you a sense of how the team works together.

  • Be committed

Try and get work experience that shows you are committed to the job. Again, as good as 1 week shadowing in a hospital may be, it doesn’t beat 2-3 hours a week volunteering at a charity for 6 months. This shows you have the time management skills to be able to focus on your studies and take part in activities outside of work. It is also evidence of a caring experience rather than observation only.

I volunteered in a mental health charity for students over the course of 9 months which I found very rewarding and challenging. It gave me a great insight into the struggles that people face and how these charities help them. It helped me understand that medicine wasn’t just about taking tablets and operations but talking and listening can be a form of medicine. I remember it being very draining at times but demonstrates to the university that you have the resilience and commitment to have a career in medicine. The other form of work experience I did was volunteering at the local hospital and feeding stroke patients their dinner. This gave me hands on experience with patients, interaction with the nurses and physiotherapists and how they all work together in order to get patients back to health. It was very rewarding as these rehabilitation wards often had patients who stayed a long time and so you would see the improvements week-on-week and become part of the team.

It’s the day of the work experience: what do I need to know?

Wherever you manage to get your work experience, be friendly and introduce yourself to everyone. This way they will know you are there for experience and they will be more likely to involve you in what they are doing. Make sure you dress smartly to make a good impression and let the person you are shadowing know what you intend to get out of your work experience in order for them to make the time as beneficial for you as possible. Ask lots of questions if you don’t understand anything and show enthusiasm. Take the opportunity to ask doctors what they think of their job, their lifestyles and what the qualities are of a good doctor. Talk to patients but make sure you introduce yourself and be polite. Remember some patients may not want to be seen with or speak to a work experience student so don’t take this personally. The most important thing is to enjoy the time and try and gain as much insight as possible. Whether it’s a half day or a whole week, there is so much to learn and soak in.

Reflection: It’s not what you did, it’s what you learnt

Reflection is a big part of medical training and so it’s important you can demonstrate this in interviews. You might have spent a week shadowing brain surgery and attending ward rounds everyday but if you did not learn anything from it, it is not much use.

Often it is the work experience where you can be more hands-on such as volunteering and speaking to patients where you gain the most experience and insight. If you come back from a day of work experience and feel happy, sad, inspired or upset – just try and think, what makes you feel like this? What have you learnt from your day about how services run, how people work together? What surprised you about how the healthcare system works? What skills have you demonstrated from your work experience or volunteering? This is exactly what the interviewers want to hear about and less about what you did everyday.

  • Keep a Log

Make sure you keep a record of everything you did during your work experience and what you learnt from it! You’ve gone to all the effort of finding and organizing the work experience, so you want to make sure you remember everything you did and more importantly as we’ve mentioned, what you have learnt from it! As long as you keep all data confidential and ask permission, there will be no reason why you couldn’t keep a note of patients you see during your time. Make sure you reflect on your work experience and find evidence of all the key skills needed for a career in medicine.

Hopefully all these top tips help you get the work experience you need and how to make the most of it. As you know, during the pandemic there have been lots of online resources to kick start your work experience, so here are some of the ones I’ve come across so far: