First things first, you need to know if medicine is the job for you. Work experience can be essential in helping you make that decision so I would suggest doing some as soon as you can- don’t leave it until you start applying! Work experience is such a useful way to find out what working as a doctor is truly like, how doctors work within the all-important multi-disciplinary team and can support your will to study medicine. It can also be a scary eye-opener, as you realise the responsibility that doctors have, what an absolutely exhausting job it can be and how even modern medicine can’t save everyone. I remember after my first day of work experience, I crawled through my front door at home because my feet hurt so much! It is important that you do get to see both the good and the bad factors of working as a doctor because medicine is a 5-6 year university course and you don’t want to be finding out at the end of the course that actually, medicine isn’t the job for you.
As well as using it to check that you’d like working as a doctor, it is essential that you can draw from your work experience when talking about medicine in your personal statement and interview. Similar to what I said above, admissions teams want to see that you have realistic insight into what the course and job are like to ensure that you won’t drop out during the course or not want to practice medicine at the end of it. So from examples in work experience you can show that you know about the difficulties that doctors face, but you can also suggest how you might overcome such issues should you become a doctor. This would help to convince admissions teams that you would be able to ‘hack it’ as a doctor. What’s more, giving examples from work experience of certain elements that you have noticed during your time around doctors can demonstrate the qualities in doctors that you value and would aspire to. That’s because depending on the aspects of work experience that you focus on, you’ll learn and therefore speak about different things in an interview. For example, I spent the majority of my work experience really focusing on communication and the way that doctors interact with their patients. So when it came to interviews, it was clear that I was someone who really cared about making the patient feel safe, respected and heard through good communication. Others that I know focused on the procedures that they encountered and the science they learnt during their work experience, which translated to their passion for science and learning when they spoke about it in their interviews.
What you get out of work experience very much depends on you and what you make of it. It’s important that you take any opportunity you can to learn from not only the doctors around you but also from other healthcare professionals. Quite often during my work experience the doctor I was shadowing would warn me that the next hour would be spent with them writing out discharge letters which could be boring for me, and so I would ask nurses if I could shadow them or indeed if there was anything I could do to help them out as I shadowed. A question that universities sometimes ask at interview is “Why do you want to be a doctor and not a nurse?”. In order for you to be able to answer that question well, you need to actually know what the role of a nurse is so that you can accurately compare it to the role of a doctor. As well as trying to learn from lots of different healthcare professionals, you should also be taking every opportunity you can to ask who you are shadowing questions. If you don’t understand something about a case, ask them! So often work experience students are totally bamboozled about things they hear the doctors talking about but are too shy to say something- don’t be! As long as you are sensible about when you ask the questions (i.e: not in front of patients or interrupting the doctors) doctors are often happy to explain it to you, especially foundation doctors fresh out of med school and excited to share their knowledge.
Finally, how do you get work experience and how long for? Some people spend weeks and weeks doing work experience, others can spend 3 days at the same place to glean the same amount of insight. Most universities do not specify how long they want you to do work experience (although there are some exceptions, so make sure you check the university’s website) so it’s up to you to decide how much you want to do. I personally did about 3 weeks, broken up into 4 different placements spread across 2 years. The first week (2 placements) was all about checking out the job and deciding on medicine. The other 2 weeks were at two different hospitals in the summer before applying but honestly, I think just 1 week would’ve been more than enough. I have to warn you, it can be difficult to get work experience if you don’t have contacts in healthcare to use but just persevere and it’ll be worth it! Some ideas for how to secure work experience would be to visit local hospitals and ask receptionists if they can help, or if they know who you should contact regarding work experience or you could look online as some departments in certain hospitals require you to apply online for a work experience placement.