What is work experience and what is its purpose?
The General Medical Council (GMC) states: “students can gain practical experience and find out more about a career in medicine through work observation” – quote directly from GMC website.
Commonly amongst medical school’s work experience should; be in a people-focused environment; give a realistic understanding of the emotional and physical aspects of being a medical professional and allow you to develop essential values for a good doctor i.e. good communication skills, teamwork and organisation. The NHS constitution outlines values of a good doctor.
Every UK medical school requires applicants to have experience in a caring role which can be paid or voluntary. Some also require direct observation of healthcare. Each medical school sets their own requirements for work experience. Very few set a minimum number of hours or specific experience i.e. shadowing a GP. If the experience meets the criteria in the paragraph above it is appropriate.
Summary of this section
1. All medical schools require some form of work experience
2. Your experience should:
a. Be in a people-focused environment
b. Give a realistic understanding of the emotional and physical aspects of being a medical professional
c. Allow you to develop essential values of a good doctor
How do medical schools consider work experience as part of the application?
Medical schools require work experience for applicants to gain an understanding of a career in medicine. Completing the work experience is the first part of the process. After completing the work experience it is necessary to reflect upon in order to show that you understand what a career in medicine entails.
The interview is where medical schools will assess what you’ve learnt from work experience. Therefore, work experience is only as valuable as your ability to talk about it in an interview. Having consistent work experience over a prolonged length of time i.e. several months of weekly volunteering on a hospital ward is recommended. Prolonged work experience will give a deeper understanding of the long-term commitment required for medical careers, how the multi-disciplinary team (MDT) works and more examples of situations to talk about at interview.
Work experience can be assessed in a variety of ways at interview. “Tell me about something that you learnt on your work experience that surprised you about the role of a doctor?” is an example of direct assessment of work experience. To answer this question well, a specific situation from your work experience, why it surprised you and what you learnt from it would all form part of the answer.
Some universities assess specific qualities at certain stations during their MMI circuit. “Tell me about a time where you have shown empathy for others?” this question does not directly ask about work experience but using an example from work experience would be appropriate in order to answer the question effectively.
Both examples assess work experience in different ways. The first assesses it directly and the second allows the individual to bring in work experience to the answer if the desire. Hopefully, this demonstrates why work experience is key to a well-rounded medical application. It can provide direct insight of a medical career and can help applicants to develop values needed to be a good doctor.
Summary of this section
1. Work experience is assessed during interview
a. It can be assessed through direct and indirect questions
2. You should reflect on your work experience to gain the most from it
How to get work experience?
If you know someone who works in a hospital, GP surgery or caring environment this should be your first route of enquiry. Ask them if they can help organise a volunteering placement or some shadowing. If not, ask your teachers who may be able to advise you or connect you with someone who can organise a placement. It is also very possible to organise work experience yourself.
When contacting any trust, practice or business to organise work experience, it is a good idea to treat the application process similarly to a job application. If applying via email or post send a CV and cover letter explaining why you’d like the experience. it’s professional, shows commitment and will increase your chances of securing the placement.
Many NHS trusts run hospital volunteer programmes. West Suffolk trust allow students to volunteer on hospital wards for two hours per week for blocks of 6 months at a time. Information on these schemes can be found on the hospital website. Directly contacting care homes is another good way of organising experience in a caring environment.
Shadowing can be difficult to organise without contacts and medical schools understand this hence why most do not list it as a requirement. If you can organise it, shadowing can be a highly valuable experience as you can develop an understanding of what a doctor does. When organising it yourself check trust websites for any shadowing schemes. Contact information for doctors, medical secretaries and GP practices is usually readily available online.
Rejections when organising work experience can be frustrating, don’t give up. It’s important to be persistent and try multiple different avenues. It demonstrates determination and commitment to learning about a career in medicine once you get it organised!
Summary of this section
1. Medical schools understand organising work experience can be tough!
a. Use all avenues available to you when organising work experience
b. Don’t be disheartened by rejection – persistence pays off in the end
2. You need work experience in a caring setting
3. Clinical shadowing is good to have but not necessary
How can I use my work experience effectively?
Whilst completing the experience:
Reflect, reflect, reflect! Its essential to show that you have learnt from your work experience. By the time of your interview, it is likely that you’ll have completed your work experience several months ago. Reflecting after work experience each day will ensure that key details and learning points from it are not forgotten. In order to reflect, a table like the one below may help. Updating this table daily will give you a great bank of examples to draw upon at interview and help you gain the most from the experience at the time.
Author: Cameron Elsworth
Manchester Medical School
Date and location
I spoke to an elderly patient for one hour who hadn’t had any visitors for a week
How it made me feel and why
Sad for the patient, I speak to my family and friends daily – it must be difficult without anyone familiar to talk to
What qualities did this experience demonstrate
What I learnt about a career in medicine
That it is important to show kindness when treating patients as a Doctor may be one of the only people a patient speaks to
Questions I had following the experience
How can loneliness in the elderly be reduced?
How can loneliness affect mental health?
Developing questions and finding answers to them following work experience is a great way to show your own curiosity and desire to learn about medicine. If you can demonstrate this during interview it’s certain to impress universities.
Summary of this section
1. Write down what you see on your work experience, so you don’t forget!
2. Reflect on what you see
a. Show what you learnt
b. Show evidence of further study after the experience
It is useful to group examples from your work experience in relation to categories listed by universities which will be tested during interview. This will help you prepare best for interviews as you’ll have examples showing exactly what the university is looking for. It’s important to be specific with examples during interview “I learnt that it is important for doctors to be empathetic because when the doctor I observed empathised with patient x on my work experience when discussing their depression I observed the patients body language relax and they were much more comfortable discussing their depression. It is clear to me that empathising with a patient can make them feel far more comfortable” sounds better than “it is important for doctors to empathise with patients because it helps them relax”
The table below uses examples listed on the University of Manchester’s website of categories which they test for at interview. After you’ve grouped examples into categories listed by the universities make up some practice questions and ask others to test you on them. If the universities don’t list any tested qualities use those listed in the NHS constitution and others which you think a doctor should have.
Ability to communicate e.g. “when have you relied on non-verbal communication?”
Previous caring experience e.g. “how have you made a difference during your work experience?”
Asking a deaf patient what they would like from the hospital menu card
Volunteering at a care home – specifically having weekly conversations with an elderly resident, at the end of my work experience they said how much they appreciated my time and interest I had taken in them.
Summary of this section
1. Be specific with examples from your work experience when questioned – it gives much better answers!
2. Categorise your experiences into qualities from the NHS constitution, qualities listed by individual medical schools and those you think a good Doctor needs
a. Make practice questions based on these categories
b. Practice answering these questions – be careful not to sound too rehearsed though!
Remember: when discussing work experience at interview you should say what you learnt about yourself and others, what qualities you demonstrated, what you learnt about the role of a doctor and why. Not just what you did during the work experience.