This may seem obvious, but the key is to start searching early – and by that I mean at least four months in advance. Most places will request a DBS form, a CV, a personal statement, or a reference, all of which may take a long time to send back, so don’t leave it till it’s too late!
At the time of your interview, you’re more likely to be asked what you got out of your work experience, not how you arranged it, so don’t be shy or ashamed to ask friends and family for help. If your parents are healthcare professionals, make the most of them! If – like me – they are not, ask as many people as you can: older students from your school who’ve applied for Medicine, your own GP (if you have a good relationship with them) and friends.
I really struggled to find something locally and when, in passing, I was talking about this to some family friends who came to visit, they told me their own local teaching hospital had accepted school students in the past and put me in contact with one of the Doctors. I sent out an email and received an application form a couple of weeks later. I was very lucky, but I would not have had that opportunity if I hadn’t asked!
You may have a clear idea of what you want to do for your work experience, or you might have no idea where to start. Whatever the case, you have to start from somewhere. Teaching hospitals are a good choice because they are accustomed to having students around and are more likely to engage with you while you’re there. GP practices are also great because you will see patients with a wide range of clinical presentations.
Most importantly, don’t put all your eggs in one basket and set your heart on one thing. It’s very hard to know what you want from your work experience at this early stage, and any experience is good experience as long as you make the most of it. You don’t have to travel across to the other side of the world to get the best deal – sometimes the humblest of local work experiences can be the most fruitful.
If it seems like every single hospital and GP practice in the country has turned you down, you can instead apply to do some voluntary work somewhere health-related – a hospice, a care home, a children’s ward – most places are more than happy to accept volunteers.
You may not be directly shadowing a doctor, but you will still be able to witness skills which can be applied to Medicine: leadership, showing empathy, breaking bad news, dealing with challenging situations and many more.
Getting your work experience sorted is a great relief, but clinics will be incredibly boring if you don’t understand 90% of what’s going on, so make sure you arrive prepared.
My work experience was at an ENT department and at the time I knew absolutely nothing about ENT. I watched some YouTube videos and did some simple Google searches to get a feeling of what to expect. I briefly went over some ENT anatomy (no need to become the next Henry Gray, just to get an idea) and looked up some basic facts about the hospital I was visiting. This made me feel more confident and helped me be more engaged during the day.
There is nothing worse than being passive and disengaged. From my experience as a medical student, I can say with great confidence that most doctors really appreciate it when you seem interested and ask questions. Don’t make them feel like you’re wasting their time (and this applies to all types of work experience).
Take a notebook with you: already you’ll look like you’ve come to learn something. If they suggest you join them in their morning meeting, say yes (even if it involves waking up at the crack of dawn…) Ask as many questions as you can: this is your precious opportunity to learn what Medicine is all about!
I appreciate that coming up with questions on the spot isn’t easy, so make sure you prepare some in advance. Things I would always ask are:
You’ll be amazed by some of the responses you’ll get! If the doctor told the patient something you didn’t understand, ask them about it. And if the doctor asks you a question, don’t shy away from it! Tell them what you think. Having said that, sometimes doctors will forget you are a school student and not a medical student, so if they ask you a really tough question it’s okay to just say you don’t know.
A note on etiquette: always wait till the patient has left the room before asking a question, keep the question short and to the point, if the doctor tells you they are too busy, write your question down and ask them at the end of the clinic.
The next most important thing after making the most of your work experience is not to forget it! You may have had the most amazing time but I promise that you will forget all about it by the time your interview day comes.
Even if it was a bad experience, think about what made it bad. Was it the workplace? The attitude of the people around you? an unpleasant situation? Keep a diary and write down what you did and things that impressed you, making sure you also write what it was that impressed you, and why you felt happy/inspired/sad/concerned.
Interviewers want detail, they want to know why you thought something was important. It will also serve as a nice memory in the future, so make the most of it!
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