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 and I was the first in my family to go to university. The whole experience was completely alien to me! Thinking about work experience felt like a mine field, but it’s really important to your medical school application. Trust me when I say medicine is not what it’s like on TV. It’s 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. Looking back and knowing what I know now, here are some top tips on work experience and applying to medicine:
- Start Early
You can never have too much work experience and once you’ve decided on a career in medicine, act fast. Unfortunately, it can take some time before GP surgeries and hospitals get back to you, so 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. Most places only accept students over 16 yrs, leaving a small window to get the work experience organized and done. Make sure you’ve 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. Write to them or email them. You can often find email addresses on their website. With GP surgeries, you can even go in and drop off your CV and a cover letter in person.
Some hospitals have work experience programs students can apply to directly. 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. Often that’s more valuable and will teach you a lot more!
- 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’s 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. It’s about talking and listening too. I remember it being very draining at times but demonstrates to the university your resilience and commitment.
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. 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. They’ll know you are there for experience and will be more likely to involve you in what they are doing. Dress smartly to make a good impression. 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. Ask doctors what they think of their job, their lifestyle and which qualities you need to be 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 didn’t learn anything from it, it’s not much use.
Often it’s 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? Were you surprised 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 it, so you want to get the best from it! As long as you keep all data confidential and ask permission, there’s no reason you couldn’t keep a note of patients you see during your time. 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:
- BSMS Virtual Work Experience – https://bsmsoutreach.thinkific.com/courses/VWE
- Observe GP Virtual Work Experience – https://www.rcgp.org.uk/training-exams/discover-general-practice/observe-gp.aspx
- Patient journey to GP practice – virtual reality app – https://www.gmc-uk.org/about/what-we-do-and-why/learning-and-support/e-learning-resources/patient-journey-to-gp-practice