The process of getting into medical school can feel like trying to get to the end of a grueling assault course – there are so many obstacles to negotiate that sometimes it’s all you can do to complete the race, let alone focus on winning it! It’s easy to lose sight of why what you’re doing is relevant or important to you. This can be the case especially when it comes to work experience.
It is often emphasised as one of the most important aspects of the medical school admissions process – and rightly so. However, this isn’t because it’s simply a box you have to tick, or something to get over with to have material to write about in your application. If you’re thinking about doing work experience just because you feel you need filler for your personal statement, or because everyone else is doing it and you don’t want to be worse, think again. It’s one of the most valuable things you can do to help make informed, assured decisions about the direction you want your future to take.
Is medicine definitely for me?
Probably the most important reason to undertake work experience is that it can be the best way to find out if a career in medicine is definitely what you want. It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race of medical school admissions without properly reflecting on what a career in medicine implies. Work experience will hopefully help you face the reality of work as a medic and give you an unbiased, warts-and-all view of the medical world.
Getting into medical school is very hard for most people – it would be a shame to get through the whole process to then find out during your clinical training that actually, the practical aspects of a career in medicine are really just not for you! If you enjoy your work experience, it can only motivate you to do the best you can to get into medical school. If not, you have saved yourself a lot of unnecessary effort and time, which you can spend doing something that you do find genuinely fulfilling.
Fiction versus reality
The public image of doctors’ work is sometimes quite different from reality, so your understanding of the job without work experience might not be as accurate as you’d think. The world of medicine is constantly spotlighted in the media – films, TV shows, books, music, and art often focus on ideas central to medicine such as the experience of health, illness, birth, death and so on.
Any medical student who says their decision to study medicine wasn’t at least partly influenced by House’s gobsmackingly imaginative diagnoses or all the fun the Grey’s Anatomy surgeons seemed to be having together in the on-call rooms is definitely not being completely honest. But how accurate is the media’s image of doctors and healthcare as a whole? Honestly, the decision whether or not to undertake a medical degree is probably best not based on what people working in the entertainment industry think doctors do. The obvious alternative, daunting as it may be, is to actually find out for yourself what goes on in the operating theatre, the consultation room, and on hospital wards.
Work experience can show you aspects of medicine that you didn’t know existed before. As a doctor, you don’t necessarily have to work either on a hospital ward, or in a practice, as you would probably think was the case. You can also do a mix of these things, as well as conduct many types of research, write papers and articles, teach, get involved in public health and campaigning… One of the many great things about a career in medicine is precisely the diversity of opportunities available. Work experience will hopefully give you a chance to understand this diversity, especially as medical school teaching will often focus on the basic, need-to-know things and might not expose you to the more niche but still interesting, fulfilling or important aspects of the career.
Work experience will help you develop and discover yourself in ways that you hadn’t expected it could. Because it usually takes place in new and unfamiliar environments, whatever happens will definitely have a strong influence on you personally. You’ll learn and develop things that are relevant to aspects of your life other than your career, like the ability to communicate and listen. This sounds wishy-washy, but it can’t be denied that the things doctors deal with are often pretty intense and intimate, and you’re inevitably going to be personally affected – being exposed to this during work experience will help you prepare and see how you deal with emotionally difficult situations in the future.
The bigger picture
Your experiences will motivate you to do the best you can with all the other things you have to sort out to get into medical school. Work experience can give you a tangible idea of what your goals are – working hard for good grades and having to pass aptitude tests can sometimes feel pointless. Work experience can give you some context – it turns out a lot of the information you learn that seems dry in the classroom is actually important to know when you’re a doctor (yes, really!).
Being able to meet and talk to doctors is a hugely helpful aspect of work experience. Getting to know people who are doing what you want to do will give you a sense of belonging – this can be quite a powerful source of motivation. To outsiders, medics can seem quite intimidating, what with the professional jargon and concentration required for their job. Work experience allows you to see that behind the wall of professionalism, doctors aren’t superhuman, all-powerful demigods. This can make the challenge of getting into medical school seem much less daunting.
You may also find that many of the doctors you meet are very supportive of you, and this is also really encouraging for anyone who’s not quite sure whether they’d fit in to the medical world.
Medicine isn’t something you can simply learn in theory – what distinguishes medicine from other academic disciplines is that fundamentally, it requires practical experience and centres around the application of scientific theory to be able to deliver measurable benefit to individuals. No matter how much reading you may have done, you’re not really going to be prepared for work as a medic unless you jump in the deep end and experience what it’s like for yourself. There is a lot more to being a good doctor than ‘textbook’ knowledge, and lots of these things can only be learnt on the job!
To Sum Up:
- Helps you find out whether medicine is definitely what you want to do, before you’ve committed to anything.
- Gives you an unbiased view of what work as a medic is like
- Can show you the diversity of career opportunities available to doctors
- Gives you a chance to develop personally and see how you respond in new and challenging situations
- Motivates you to do well in your exams – will remind you of the ‘bigger picture’
- Allows you to meet and talk to doctors, who will be both a source of inspiration and practical help