How do I get the most out of work experience?

Let’s get real – this might as well be phrased “How do I get the most out of my first date?”. That’s because the two are pretty similar. Work placement is basically one very long first date with Medicine (sans alcohol and the trusty ‘emergency phone call’), and here are some things we came up with to try and help you get the most out of it.

Plan ahead

Before we begin, there’s one important question that you should think about, and that is something that only you will have the answer to. That is, “What do I want out of this?”. In a first date scenario, this might be a casual fling, a rebound, or a potential soulmate. When it comes to work experience, it could be to help you decide if medicine is the right choice for you, or if a particular speciality lives up to your expectations, or to satisfy your inner curiosity. The point is, be honest with yourself, and really think about what you are hoping to achieve out of it.

In both scenarios, you should have a rough idea of what you’re in for (if the pictures are anything to go by) and a short description of what to expect. You’ll probably turn up in a nice outfit feeling a bit nervous and a bit out of place, and spend the whole time thinking if he or she (or if you’re on work experience – Medicine) might be the one you want to spend the rest of your life with.

This is where it helps to plan ahead – the same way you might think of common topics of interest to talk about before you actually meet the person. Try and read around the department or organisation that you have been assigned to, and what people (both healthcare professionals and patients) are involved in the service. It might help to visit the place beforehand so you don’t feel too lost or overwhelmed on the first day. If you do find yourself getting lost in medical terminology during your research, is your friend and will help guide you through the maze that is clincial medicine. The more you know, the more confident you’ll be – and it’ll be easier to get involved with what’s going on.

Ask questions, take opportunities

New experiences can be daunting, but if you keep yourself interested and engaged you’re less likely to feel self conscious and out of place. One way to do this is to ask questions about things you don’t understand. Most people will be happy to explain (although if they’re not, don’t take it personally – they’re probably just having a bad day.), and you’ll be able to feel like a part of the team if you can follow what’s going on. Another thing that you should try and do is to talk to as many people as you can, because this will allow you to better understand the different perspectives and expectations concerning your particular work environment. You may find that staff moan about their job to you, but don’t be put off too easily. Speaking to people is also just a good way of understanding them better: something that’s always rewarding, whether or not you’re on placement or at dinner with somebody.

Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and that’s okay. Let’s just say the pub that you were going to has closed and the battery to your phone is dead and to top it all off it starts to rain – and you want to curl up in a ball and pretend that life isn’t real – but then you spot the person you were going to meet and together you find another place and end up having a lovely evening. Work experience in medicine is similar: depending on where you are, things don’t always happen the way they should. Cancellations happen, doctors ignore you, patients can be rude, but the point is stick it through and opportunities will eventually come your way. This may be in the form of an exceptionally nice junior doctor who takes you under their wing, or an interesting procedure that you might be allowed to watch. If you are not around when interesting things happen, you’ll be the one missing out! Be flexible and try and make the most of what you do get to see, because that’s how you’ll end up having the most fun.


In the dating scenario, this is something that happens naturally after you spend enough time with a new person – when you finally leave, you’ll probably think to yourself that it was a nice evening, or that it was awful, or that it was somewhere in between: the point is that you come away from it with an opinion in mind. This opinion will eventually be useful in making future decisions, like whether or not you want to see the person again.

When your work experience lasts a couple of weeks, this doesn’t come so naturally. Sometimes days can blur into one another and you end up finishing it slightly dazed and exhausted (as you should be – you just had a three week long date with your possible lifelong field of study!). Here’s where writing down your feelings can help, because unlike your social life, these opinions you form need to be explicit enough to get you through future personal statements and interviews and will come in handy whether or not you choose to apply to medical school. Beyond practical advantages, thinking about memorable events and analysing why they made you feel a certain way will help you grow into a more self-aware, observant person, which is something that you’ll never learn by reading a book. Observing how different people interact especially in a professional setting also offers you the chance to pick up teamwork and problem solving skills – things that will come in handy as they are pretty much universal no matter what your future work environment should be. As a bonus, you’ll feel like you have taken away something tangible from your time spent there, and you will glow with the satisfaction of productivity.

Don’t expect an easy answer

Most people don’t make lifelong commitments based on one date, and you shouldn’t feel the need to either. Work experience may give you a glimpse into a possibility, but ultimately it’s only a taste of what a particular bit of medicine is like. Hopefully your reflections will give you some insight into areas that you enjoyed that may be unique to medicine, or it may show you areas in medicine which you think you can change for the better. Or your reflections may suggest that medicine isn’t right for you, despite what you initially thought.

Remember that there are a multitude of factors that go towards the decision to apply to medical school and that work experience is only one part of it. It takes time and energy to know something (or someone) well enough to commit, and how much you gain from your experience will largely be determined by how much you put into it. So keep an open mind, avoid rushing into anything, and try to have fun along the way.

If you’re still feeling lost during work experience, this may be the article for you.

To sum up:

  1. Plan ahead

Be honest with yourself and do a bit of homework–it’ll go a long way

  1. Ask questions, take opportunities

Be brave and be flexible

  1. Reflect

The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it

  1. Don’t expect an easy answer

Work experience is a first date, not a lifetime commitment

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2019-08-15T15:49:41+00:00Work Experience|Comments Off on How do I get the most out of work experience?

About the Author:

I'm a medical student at Cambridge University, and one of the co-founders of 6med. I created the BMAT Crash Course and Interview Crash Course, and helped code BMAT Ninja and UKCAT Ninja. If you need a hand with anything, feel free to give me a shout!