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The Complete Guide To Medical Work Experience (2024)

The Complete Guide To Medical Work Experience (2024)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Medical work experience is easily one of the most important aspects of a medicine application.

It grants students a glimpse into the life of a doctor: the struggles they face, the triumphs they experience and just generally grants an unprecedented view behind the curtain of healthcare delivery.

The value students gain from quality work experience is also reflected in medical schools’ demands.

It’s rare that an applicant will be able to secure an offer without at least some evidence of first-hand experience of caring for a patient.

In this complete guide to medical work experience, I’m going to explain everything you need to know about the subject: from what it is, how to get it, why it’s important and how to make the most of it.

What Is Medical Work Experience?

Medical work experience is essentially anything you might do to try and get a taste of what a career in medicine would be like.

It can be anything from watching a surgeon perform an operation to speaking to a physiotherapist about the challenges they face working with patients.

Medical work experience can be divided into four main types:

  1. Direct observation
  2. Volunteering
  3. Paid employment
  4. Virtual

Direct observation generally equates to you shadowing a healthcare professional.

It could be you shadowing a junior doctor on the wards, it could be you shadowing a GP in their clinic or it could be you shadowing a community nurse visiting patients at home.

Holding a volunteer position can also be a great way to gain medical work experience.

This could be volunteering at a care home, volunteering with a homeless charity or volunteering as a Scout leader.

Any role in which you’ll demonstrate some of the necessary qualities to be a doctor will make for great work experience.

Paid employment runs along pretty much the same lines as volunteering, except you’re in a job where you get paid!

For example, working as a teaching assistant in a special needs school will teach you a huge amount about interacting with children with learning disabilities- so would be incredibly valuable to your medicine application, but instead of simply volunteering you may be paid for your time.

Lastly, virtual work experience is an online course (or content you can consume) that teaches you more about the medical field.

This can be anything from a live Q&A with a doctor over Zoom to a text-based e-learning course about the multidisciplinary team.

Why Is Medicine Work Experience Important?

Medical work experience is important for two main reasons:

  1. It gives you an idea of whether you’d enjoy working as a doctor
  2. It makes you a stronger applicant in the eyes of a medical school

It can be easy to get caught up in the second of these reasons and forget about the first!

When you’re concentrating on trying to make yourself a more competitive applicant in such a saturated marketplace, you can easily forget that your work experience is serving a vital purpose to you as a person too.

Ironically, there’s no better time to discover that medicine isn’t for you than during your work experience.

You’ll save yourself a huge amount of time, effort and debt compared to getting to medical school and then dropping out halfway through.

However, there is no denying that work experience is vitally important to your application’s success.

Medical schools want to see that you’ve put yourself in a position to truly be able to judge whether or not you think medicine is for you.

Do You Need Work Experience To Get Into Medicine?

By having a strong portfolio of work experience, you’re proving to a medical school a number of different things.

You’re proving that you’ve gone out of your way to really try and find out if you’re suited to a career in healthcare.

You’ve not just read the job description and thought it would be a laugh, you’ve got out the door and done your best to place yourself in the shoes of a doctor in their day-to-day life.

You’re also proving to medical schools that you’re dedicated to studying medicine.

It takes a considerable amount of effort to volunteer at a charity shop each week, consistently organise events for a local youth group or keep in touch with an elderly person at risk of loneliness.

By demonstrating these things, you’re painting yourself in a very favourable light in the eyes of a medical school.

Because of this, work experience is often an incredibly important pillar in any successful medicine application.

But, that’s not to say you can’t get an offer for medicine without it.

The long and short of it is you just generally need to have a good reason for not being able to get the work experience.

Work experience volunteering with a charity

It’s impossible to define what a ‘good’ reason is, as every case is judged on its individual merits by each individual medical school, but common reasons would include personal illness, family emergencies or global pandemics(!).

If you’re in the difficult position of having less work experience than you’d like, I’d advise all you can do is get the most experience you can as your circumstances will allow.

Just because you missed your week of hospital shadowing doesn’t mean you can’t have a phone conversation with the doctor you were due to shadow to discuss their experiences of working in medicine.

It’s all about working with what you’ve got and then explaining your circumstances to the medical schools in your personal statement and potentially at interview.

Medical schools aren’t trying to penalise you for events that are outside your control but they do need to be satisfied that the reason you don’t have much work experience is because you couldn’t be bothered to organise it.

Get the more detailed answer in my dedicated article answering ‘can you get into medicine without work experience?’

What’s The Best Work Experience For Medicine?

As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, work experience is pretty integral to getting yourself an offer to study medicine.

With this being the case, to get the most bang for your buck, you’ll likely want to know what the best work experience for medicine is?

The best work experience for medicine is an experience that gives you an honest insight into what it’s genuinely like to be a doctor. This could be shadowing a doctor, it could be mirroring the challenges they face through volunteering, or it could be having a frank conversation with a surgeon.

Unfortunately, there is no singular ‘golden’ placement that will guarantee you an offer.

The real value in work experience is what you take away from it, not what you actually physically did during it.

That being said, it is much easier to be able to reflect on events that are more closely related to healthcare than more tangentially related experiences.

For this reason, if you can I’d recommend trying to secure at least one hospital based placement and one community based placement.

Community essentially just means medicine being practiced outside a hospital- so this could be a GP practice, a community nurse, local pharmacy or sports physiotherapist.

That way you’ll have covered the two main divisions of healthcare: primary and secondary care.

Other than that, I think your ‘best’ work experience is whatever has the greatest impact on you as an individual and in some way opens your eyes to the realities of working in medicine.

How To Get Medical Work Experience

The reality is that quality work experience can be hard to come by.

There’ll often be plenty of other students applying for exactly the same placements as you and not every healthcare centre is set up to be able to facilitate shadowing.

My biggest tip for you for securing great placements is to play the numbers game.

By that I mean you need to be aware that you may have a low probability of success with each inquiry- but because of this you just need to make sure you apply to a lot of different places!

I applied to pretty much every care home in my town when I was applying to medicine and only got a reply from two of them.

However, one is literally all you need.

Work experience fitting prostheses

Although it’s easy to feel a bit dejected if you’re consistently brushed off by the places you’re applying to, keep going and eventually the odds will work in your favour.

As a result of one of those care homes replying to me, I was able to volunteer there once a week for a whole year.

This looked absolutely fantastic on my application and undoubtedly contributed to every medical school I applied to inviting me to interview.

Another key that can save you a lot of time and effort is to utilise the unique opportunities you have available to you.

If you have a personal connection to a practicing doctor then now’s the time to use it!

If your school has a work experience program set up for its pupils then be sure to engage with it.

These are the sorts of opportunities that aren’t available to the general public so you’ll have a much higher chance of being able to arrange something successfully.

Otherwise, I’d work through my eight step method for getting medical work experience below to systematically tackle the problem and come out on top.

Get my step-by-step method (including email templates) for getting medical work experience in my dedicated article here.

How Much Work Experience Do You Need?

There’s not normally a set number of days of work experience that a medical will need an applicant to have completed.

It’s more about gathering a variety of experiences that will help colour a student’s view of the medical profession.

That being said, I think it’s fair to say that your portfolio may look a bit thin if you’ve got fewer than two weeks of total exposure in one way or another to the vocation.

This could be one week in a hospital and one week in a GP practice or it could lots of smaller placement knitted together.

Again, quality is more important than quantity here so don’t worry if you add everything up exactly and it comes to less than 14 days.

Ideally, you’ll be able to pair two weeks of more direct observational work experience with a longer term volunteering position or job.

Something where you keep showing up week after week and develop a more long term relationship with your colleagues, customers or clients.

For this longer-term position, I’d try and commit yourself for at least 4 months.

In many ways the longer the better with this sort of thing, so if you’ve got the time then I’d aim for up to a year in post.

If you’re able to combine one of these long-term positions with a good variety of more direct work experience then you should be set to satisfy the requirements of any UK medical school.

Find the exact work experience requirements for every medical school in this article all about how much work experience you need for medicine.

Free Medicine Work Experience Opportunities

As a medicine applicant, your time is in short supply.

Over your year you’ve got school exams to contend with, the UCAT to get a grip of, a personal statement to write and (hopefully) medicine interviews to study for!

With this being the case, you’ll want to avoid sinking hours and hours into searching for the perfect work experience placement.

To help you out, I’ve compiled a list of the best opportunities from across the UK.

Check out a list of 9 exciting (and totally free) work experience opportunities here

They’re mostly volunteer positions with some of the largest charities in the UK.

Larger, more widespread initiatives are more likely to be able to accommodate your request for a role as they need more people to help run the organisation!

However, equally, I think you can get really lucky with smaller, more local opportunities.

If you’ve got a personal connection to any sort of charity, community project or volunteer organisation then you’ll be in a prime position to explore a potential work experience placement.

My dad actually used to help run a local Scout group.

This was after I’d already applied to medicine, but had he been a leader there earlier, it could have been a great opportunity for me to get involved in the Scouting movement and boost my application at the same time.

Medical Work Experience For 15, 16, and 17 Year Olds

With medicine becoming ever more popular (and so more competitive), it’s only logical that motivated students are beginning work on their applications at a younger and younger age.

Although I had medicine as a career path in the back of my mind before sitting my GCSEs, I don’t think anyone in my year seriously started application bashing until at least year 12.

However, this is no longer necessarily the norm.

If you’re looking to get one step ahead of your colleagues, it might mean searching out relevant work experience as a 15 or 16-year-old, rather than waiting till sixth form.

A student during their medicine work experience

There are however a couple of challenges you may have to face if you’re looking to secure some of this ‘early-bird’ work experience.

For one, some healthcare centres won’t allow students to undertake placements if they’re under 16.

This can make arranging relevant shadowing experiences extremely difficult at younger ages.

Additionally, certain medical schools actually stipulate that your work experience has to have occurred in the last two years for it to ‘count’ towards your application.

This means that if you jump the gun too early, all your fantastic shadowing experiences and volunteering may not directly equate to more points for your application.

Due to the nuance of the subject, I’ve actually written another article specifically to help you if you’re 15, 16 or 17-year-old and want to get medical work experience.

In it, I explore what the youngest age you can do work experience in a hospital is, what age you can volunteer in a medical field and what age you can undertake virtual work experience.

Get the complete answer here in my article all about ‘medical work experience at different ages.’

How To Make The Most Of Your Work Experience

Once you’ve managed to arrange a placement for yourself, there’s a lot more to getting the most out of your work experience than just showing up on time each day.

Although it takes more effort than just passively observing, if you do your homework for your placements you’ll thank yourself later.

Making the most of your work experience comes down to three things:

  1. Your preparation before the placement
  2. What you do during your placement
  3. How you evaluate your experiences after the placement

Before Your Placement

The lead up to your work experience can be a great time to remind yourself of what you want to achieve during the placement.

You’ll undoubtedly have your own individual objectives, but ultimately an underlying goal should always be to help build an understanding of whether you think you’re suited to a career in medicine.

With this in mind, it can be worth preparing a few questions (or topics) you might want to talk to one of the healthcare professionals you’ll meet about.

For example:

  • What do you enjoy most about your job?
  • What are some of the biggest challenges you have to face day-to-day?
  • Would you recommend a career in medicine to me?

By putting some forethought into what you want to get out of your experience, you’ll arrive prepared to explore topics that you’re interested in- rather than having things you wished you asked pop into your head once it’s to late!

During Your Placement

During your placement is the time in which you can really soak in what it means to work in healthcare.

You’ll likely be surrounded by doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and healthcare assistants (to name but a few).

Get involved with any opportunities thrown your way, always be ready to lend a helping hand and just generally try to appear keen and engaged with what’s going on.

The biggest favour you can do yourself during your work experience is to keep a sort of ‘mini diary’ of your notable experiences.

It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, but just what happened, who was involved and how you felt at the time.

Having this informal documentation to look back on will make it a thousand times easier to reflect on your experiences after they’re over.

After Your Placement

The time to truly reflect and learn from your work experience comes after you’ve completed your placement.

Medical schools aren’t going to be impressed by the people you’ve shadowed and things you’ve done on paper.

They’re going to be impressed by how you’ve reflected on them and the learning you’ve taken away as a result.

Reflecting on your work experience is the keystone that candidates too often miss in the excitement of getting to experience healthcare delivery first-hand.

Which is why I’m going to teach you exactly how to do it a little later in this article…

What To Wear To Your Work Experience

If you’ve never worked in a hospital, GP practice or other healthcare setting, a common question to have is how you should present yourself.

There aren’t any strict rules as such, but you’ll generally want to maintain a professional appearance suitable for the setting.

This is commonly summed up as ‘smart casual’ which doesn’t always mean that much if you’re not familiar with what’s expected!

For guys, you’ll be safe with a shirt and chinos, or a variation of the above.

As a minimum, you should have a collared shirt and not be wearing trainers.

A full suit is probably a bit overkill but it’s always better to be over rather than under-dressed.

A young lady dressed appropriately for her medical work experience

As a girl, you have a bit more leeway in what is considered appropriate.

Essentially, if you could imagine a doctor wearing your outfit to work then you’re probably good to go- it’s the same principle that dictates what you should wear to a medicine interview.

Avoid open toed shoes and anything too revealing, but generally a smart dress or skirt and blouse will be perfect.

How To Reflect On Your Work Experience

As touched on previously, your reflections on your work experience is where you can earn the real brownie points in the eyes of a medical school.

‘Reflecting’ on an experience essentially just means thinking about what you can learn from it.

For example, say you did a placement with an oncologist who had to deliver bad news to patients about cancer diagnoses or recurrences.

Watching the doctor deliver this horrific news to patients in their clinic may highlight to you the vital role communication skills play in not making a bad situation even worse.

One of your reflections may be that the manner in which bad news is delivered to patients can have a huge impact on their experience of hospital and their opinion of the treating team.

This is where your ‘mini diary’ can come in really handy as you can systematically go through what you saw and draw out valuable reflections that you can use in your personal statement or at interview.

A basic framework you can use is:

What happened?Here you just relive the experience and describe in basic terms what occurred
Why did it happen?What led up to the event and what influenced the outcome?
How did it make you feel?What were your thoughts and feelings at the time? Why do you think you felt this way?
What went well? What could have gone better?What could be improved or done differently if this same situation arose again?
How might this experience influence you in the future?What have you taken away that will influence how you act or what you do going forward?

Not every heading will be relevant to each of your experiences, but rather they’re there just as a guide and bit of a prompt to help you think about what you saw.

Final Thoughts

You should now be all set to start gathering the experiences and placements that will ultimately get you into medical school!

Just remember that getting to help perform an operation in Costa Rica and working in a corner shop down the road can be equally valuable to a candidate’s medicine application- as universities care about what that candidate took away from their experience, not what they actually did.

Give yourself plenty of time and cast your net wide and you’ll be sure to bag yourself exactly what you need to land an offer.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.