Work Experience and Career Exploration

How much work experience do you need?

The universities aren’t that clear on exactly how long you need to spend on career exploration but around two weeks is probably enough. Trying to get a range e.g. GP and hospital can be good. You need to spend some time following doctors (career exploration) and time working with vulnerable people (work experience).

Volunteering or paid work
This is a great way to gain skills which will be useful as both a medical student and a doctor. Many people who know what area they would like to do volunteering in, directly contact organisations which are involved in it, and details of this will normally be found on their websites.  If you are unsure of what to do or what is available in your area try Volunteer Scotland which has a database of volunteering opportunities across Scotland.

Career exploration
There are several different ways in which you can go about applying for work experience.  If you know someone who works in healthcare you can ask them to speak to a healthcare professional and ask if they would be willing to allow you to shadow them and give you their contact details.  Approaching your GP is another option for gaining work experience. You can do this through speaking to the GP surgery receptionist or handing in a letter to your GP. If your GP does not reply or says no then you can try a neighbouring GP surgery, which is often better as you are less likely to come across people you know!
If there is an area of medicine which you are interested in it may be a good idea to try and gain some work experience here.  A good bet is to google your local health board and add “work experience” e.g NHS Fife work experience. This is the page for NHS Lothian but most boards have something similar. Most boards will have an application form to fill in and you’ll usually have to let your guidance teacher know too.
It is important to add that often places will not take on high school students for work experience and you often won’t even get a reply from people you try to contact.  This means medical work experience can be difficult to arrange, so it is important to try contacting several different people.

The Medic Insight Programmes offer high school pupils in their fourth and fifth years the chance to gain some insight into the life of a doctor. One of the highlights of the programme is an opportunity to get hospital work experience within the NHS. In Edinburgh this will be at the Royal Infirmary while in Dundee this will be at Ninewells Hospital. More information on the application process and the programme can be found at their websites or facebook pages for Edinburgh, Glasgow (email medicinsightglasgow@gmail.com) and Dundee.

What’s the point of work experience?

Work experience is to help you explore:

  • Why do you want to do medicine?
  • Whether you would be suited for a career in medicine?

You need to make sure you are making an informed decision to study medicine. You don’t want to commit the rest of your life to a difficult profession if that choice is made without knowing what you’re letting yourself in for. Firstly, that means having an idea of what doctors do and secondly, it means finding out about caring for vulnerable people.

Universities want you to do work experience to help you – they want you to be sure that you are ready to commit yourself and want to do this. They want you to explore and think deeply about what a career in medicine involves and whether you would be suited to that career.  Work experience is not something which needs to be ticked off a checklist. Work experience offers a chance to reflect and learn a lot about yourself as a person, what you enjoy doing, and what you can cope with in the very real world of health care. You may even end up deciding not to do medicine as a result of the work experience or realising you are more interested in something ‘like medicine’  – paramedic, psychologist, dietician, speech therapy, radiographer etc.

You Can Be a Doctor - Gibbs Reflective Cycle

It is hard to think deeply about your work experience because we are naturally inclined to think superficially and intuitively (see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow). To help you think about why you did work experience and what you gained from it you could use a reflection tool. One such method is the Gibbs Reflective Cycle – this is commonly used at medical school.

Where should you do work experience?

There is no “correct” answer to this and I think that this questions stems from the fact that applicants want to try to impress  medical schools by doing the most amazing work experience ever. Again,this is not the point of work experience – do not treat this as a checklist exercise but as as an opportunity to find out what a career in medicine involves. Your work experience placement should involve patients – doctors deal with patients every day so you need to work out if you are comfortable with them. You will not be far “wrong” in whatever work experience you chose to do as long as you spend time with patients. It goes without saying that you are not qualified and are not yet a medical student and need to respect the patients’ privacy. If they don’t want you in the room you should leave.

  • Local GP surgery
  • Voluntary (or paid) work:Hospice
  • Youth Club
  • Disability Centres and Schools for children with special needs
  • Nursing homes
  • Hospitals
  • Pharmacy
  • Etc…

If you can try to get a mix of experiences but the key point is that it doesn’t matter where your work experience takes place but whether you learn something from it. Hopefully, by the end of your work experience you should have a better understanding of the role of doctors in the modern NHS (either in primary care as a GP or in secondary care as a hospital doctor)  and some of the unfortunate truths behind modern medicine (such as the fact that despite many of the advancements there is still much that we are not able to do – Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is an excellent read on some of these aspects).

Remember that work experience is not just time spent in hospitals or with doctors, although that is important. Any work caring for vulnerable people (adults or children) is good experience and this need not be for free if you can get a job as, for example, a care assistant. Equally, no one will look down on you if you volunteer. This can be a good way to support your family or save up some money for uni and get the experience you need.

The Student Room website has an excellent Wiki page with a lot of information on all aspects of applying to university, written by students. There is a section on applying to medicine which has some excellent information and the section on work experience is particularly useful.

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