Teachers’ Guide: Work Experience
Work experience will be particularly important to aspiring medical students – and they’ll need your support. This page will detail advice from teachers on how to help students find work placements and how to make the most of them. The views of individual teachers do not necessarily reflect the views of The Medic Portal.
Work experience (WE) is more likely to really mean ‘work observation’, as Health & Safety restrictions nowadays usually prevents active intervention by the intending medical student. Each Health Trust has its own governing specifications on giving access to work experience, with some being much more difficult to access than others, and some flatly refusing to allow any access. The age of the applicant for WE is also a factor limiting access, as often the minimum age of 18 is quoted, which is usually after applications have gone in to UCAS.
This is a great pity in many ways as work experience at an early age would give younger students an insight that would enable them to make an ‘informed decision’ reasonably early, before they select their sixth form subjects.
Should a younger person not be able to access work experience, then the way round this can be one of the many courses that are on offer that include a range of experiences and observations. Students should select these courses carefully based on course content and cost.
Sometimes students have relatives, friends or obscure contacts that gain them access to WE, and they are very lucky. As WE possibilities are limited a few medical schools state that there is no real need for WE as long as the applicant is conversant with and understanding of the problems in the healthcare system.
There is no doubting though that WE is valuable as an informing process and to strengthen an application. It would be good if an applicant had at least been to a hospital, a GP and some form of care home before application. The length of time at each place is not as important as what the applicant got out of the experience.
The applicant needs to be reflective about what they experienced and try to piece together some understanding of procedures and what they actually involved. For example, watching surgery is of no real benefit unless one realises the surgeon’s practical skills, his knowledge, and above all the teamwork involved in making the procedure successful.
Being able to communicate at interview about experiences at a GP’s surgery is very valuable these days with the huge shortage of GPs. Most applicants have high hopes of becoming a brain surgeon, but any interest taken in becoming a GP will be received gleefully. Exposure to the care of older people, either in a care home at their own home is very important also.
One must remember that increasingly the medical services will be heavily based around care for the old, and understanding their problems, being empathetic and truly having thought about palliative care will all help your application.
Work Experience: Portfolios
Last year, I started encouraging pupils to start a portfolio to keep details of any relevant experience they have. In particular, that provides them with a log of any work experience they have done.
I tell them to reflect on their placements, both in terms of what they have learned from the experience directly, but also any reading that they have done as a result. The best applicants also keep notes of talks or courses they attend, news articles and anything else relevant to their application.
How can I help my students to secure medical work experience?
Encourage them to think about a wide range of options
Medical work experience is often difficult to secure, so it’s important to encourage students to contact a wide range of places – including hospitals, GPs and care homes – and that they begin as soon as possible. Encourage them to keep a list of your local hospitals and surgeries so they can keep track of who they have contacted. You could also point them to our page on Work Experience.
As well as independent work, you could also encourage them to speak to your school’s Careers Service for assistance. Your school may already have contacts with specific hospitals, or a student may have completed a placement at a local care home in the past, so your school’s Careers Advisor may already have a list of contacts your students could utilise.
Support their learning at their placement
Once your students have secured a placement, it’s a good idea to encourage them to prepare beforehand by making a diary they can record their experience in – or they could use our free Personal Portfolio tool. This will be an excellent resource when they start to write their Personal Statement, as they’ll have plenty of experience to draw on. Encourage them to keep a note of what they learn through patient observation and interaction with junior doctors or nurses.
After their placement, ask them to show you their notes – and ask them questions. What was the most interesting thing they learned about patient care? Did it make them think differently about working in a clinical environment? After work experience, you could also encourage your class or Medical Society to discuss their experience in pairs or groups, sharing what they learned by asking these questions. This can be a good way of prompting them to assess their experiences – excellent interview practice!