Experiences that may be valuable to you as an aspiring health professional fall into the categories below. Review these to learn more, then see Where to Find Experience Opportunities for suggestions to help you seek out experience.

Types of Experience

Health professions schools expect that you will have found opportunities to explore what is involved in the career in which you are interested. There are several reasons for this:

  • Working with patients will show you what health care is like at the level of the patient. Shadowing a physician or other health professional will show you what health care is like for a health professional. Both give you different views of health care today and both are required.
  • You may describe yourself as a “people person” and be convinced that you want to have a career in which you interact with others. However, working with people who are ill or infirm presents different kinds of challenges than working with people who are well. You may find that you genuinely enjoy working with sick people. Alternatively you may discover that you do not enjoy working with people who are sick, and that you should consider health careers that do not involve such contact.
  • It is important for you to realize that medicine involves a great deal of teamwork and that working well as part of a team will be expected of you as a health care professional.
  • Health care professionals must be willing to take a great deal of responsibility for the lives of others. Although no amount of volunteer work will truly let you know how serious this responsibility can be, you may begin to have some appreciation for it by putting yourself in a clinical setting.
  • There are many changes occurring in the health care field. Volunteering in a health care setting will help you to understand those changes and give you a more realistic, mature understanding of the field.

Medicine is a service profession. Thus, it should not be surprising that medical schools expect applicants to demonstrate that they have found ways to be of service to others. You should be genuinely motivated to be involved in a service effort and you should be able to articulate what the experiences mean to you.

There are many opportunities available at Duke as well as in your hometown and elsewhere to put yourself in the role of a “helper.” They may include: tutoring disadvantaged youths; volunteering at nursing homes, day care centers, camps for the handicapped and in programs to assist immigrants and migrant workers; or working for organizations that deal with issues of social justice. In addition to helping people in need, you will be exposed to individuals in different walks of life and such activities can help you build communication skills and learn to be comfortable in meeting and dealing with people of all ages and backgrounds and needs.

A few suggestions: You should make sure you are grounded in your academic work before you become heavily involved in community service work and activities. Don’t over extend yourself, particularly in your first year. Give yourself time to adjust to the demands of college life. Choose activities that are important to you as an individual. And a long term, sincere, and deep commitment to one or two activities is better than a long list of things in which you are only superficially interested or which you “picked up” just prior to the application process. 

Remember, however, no amount of service work will overcome a seriously weak academic record, so your courses need to be your first priority.

Many students ask, “Do I need to do research as an undergraduate to be competitive for any of the health professions schools (medical, dental, veterinary)?”

The answer is “No” for most schools. However, health professions schools value original scholarship in your field of choice. Participation in undergraduate research is a sign of intellectual curiosity, and, in addition, hypothesis-driven research allows you to learn research techniques, formulate hypotheses, devise methods to test them and then evaluate the results. Critical thinking skills, being able to read and evaluate published articles, and your ability to work as a member of a team are all important. A research experience might also result in your participation on a paper, abstract or poster in which you effectively communicate your research results. All told, undergraduate research is a great way to develop intellectual and communication skills.  

If you are interested, try volunteering as a first-year student or sophomore. Later, you might choose to enroll in 1.0 credit research independent study and you might complete an honors thesis as a senior. Much research is done in the natural sciences like biology, but you can also find research opportunities in sociology, psychology, the humanities and social sciences.  

If you have an interest in academic medicine (i.e., M.D./Ph.D. programs and/or becoming a faculty member at a health professions school), you will need to have significant research experience in your field of interest. You may also want to become involved in research as an undergraduate to help determine if this is an important aspect for you to consider in your selection of health professions. And some of the most highly selective health professions schools do expect their applicants to have research experience. Remember, however, that health professions schools do not prefer one major over another major. Thus, you should investigate research opportunities in your particular discipline or area of interest — those opportunities do not necessarily have to be restricted to the sciences. 

At Duke University, the opportunities for research are many but will appropriately require that you take some initiative. One of the advantages of being at a research university like Duke is that there are many opportunities to study with faculty in all departments, including the basic science departments in the Medical Center. Talk with your academic advisor, prehealth advisor, instructors of your classes, other students, and undergraduate directors of departments and programs to discuss this option. Remember that selecting a mentor and setting up an independent study project takes time, so do not wait until the beginning of a new semester to attempt to arrange this. Procedures for setting up an independent study course can be found on T-Reqs.  You may want to turn your research independent study into a senior thesis for our Graduation with Distinction program. Your research project can be either in your major or one not associated with your major. Sometimes the best research experiences come with your involvement over many semesters, often a combination of volunteering, work/study and research independent studies.

Ideas and suggestions for finding research experiences, at Duke and elsewhere, are found on the Undergraduate Research Support Office website.  You may want to  begin with the Get Started section.

Shadowing a physician or health care provider lets you observe his/her work and see health care from their perspective. You may spend a few hours a week during a semester at Duke, or a few weeks at home during the summer. For medical schools, there is no minimum number of hours, nor specific number of shadowing experiences. For example, you might spend 2 or 3 days (14 to 24 hours) with your home physician, then move on to more specialized physicians or health care providers so that you can compare and contrast their work. When you find an area of particular interest, you might consider a longer shadowing experience, or return several times to that practice or service. Sometimes a health care provider will become a long-term mentor. For veterinary medicine and dentistry, you should have experience in a variety of specializations. For physical therapy and physician associate programs, there may be a considerable number of hours of experience required. Check the requirements of schools and programs in your home state and any other schools in which you might be interested.

What You Can Learn
  • The responsibilities of a physician or health care person during a normal working day
  • The working conditions and lifestyle
  • The challenges and rewards in this area of health care
  • The people skills required to be effective
  • The medical and psychological needs of patients
What You Can Gain
  • Better sense of your strengths and weaknesses
  • Confidence that this is a career you are suited for and are passionate about
  • Ideas on how to interact with patients of different ages, ethnic groups and backgrounds
Things To Do While Shadowing
  • Keep a journal of your experiences, observations, reflections; add them to AdviseStream
  • Keep track of the individuals you work with, their names, titles and contact information in case you want to contact them later on or use them as a reference
  • Read books by or about physicians, articles on health care, and internet blogs on health
  • Your experience may give you ideas for classes at Duke or research that you might become involved
  • See if can you extend your experience by attending grand rounds, seminars, patient conferences

Use best practices (be respectful of patients, know proper procedures, when to ask questions, show up on time or early, follow through with your commitments and cancel only for emergencies) and send a thank-you note or email when you are done.

Note that shadowing physicians outside the U.S. usually has little relevance to health care in U.S. It may give you experience in global health, but it will not replace the need for shadowing within the U.S. health care system, as this is where you will study and work. Be wary of programs that advertise international clinical experience that you pay for, as some may be poorly supervised, require you to interact with patients without adequate training, expose you to infection, or allow you to be accused of ethical lapses for performing medical care without proper education and credentials.

** This program is only available for current Duke undergraduate students  **

You may wish to shadow a health care provider at Duke Hospital or other Duke location. You will need to go through fire and safety training via AdviseStream, and also provide immunization data. Shadowing usually runs for 6 weeks, and is renewable for another 6 weeks. Training has to be completed each year. Sophomores, juniors and seniors are eligible; it is competitive. Remember that if you are unable to shadow at Duke because of class schedules and commitments, do your shadowing during the summer at home.

This is briefly how shadowing at Duke works:

  1. Go to AdviseStream, watch the tutorials, do the quizzes, and be sure you are in compliance with immunization requirements
  2. The HPA Shadow Coordinator will check and approve
  3. The Shadow Coordinator will notify the Student Health Center, where someone will confirm your immunization records and TB status
  4. When you are approved, the Shadow Coordinator will send an email to the Clinical Education Director at Duke Hospital, who gives final approval
  5. You will then be given available times and specialties for shadowing. You choose an area, find out who the physician or other person is, and contact them directly to make arrangements. Shadowing usually runs for 6 weeks, and is renewable for another 6 weeks. If you have a physician in mind who is not in the database, you will need to have that person notify the Shadow Coordinator that he/she is willing to allow you shadow, and the Shadow Coodinator will manually match him/her with you. 

Note that HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) training is required of volunteers at Duke every year beginning in the fall; it is not transferrable elsewhere and there is no certificate or other confirmation of your approval. If you decide to shadow at home during the summer or elsewhere, keep in mind that each hospital is likely to require their own training.

Clinical Experience and Shadowing in International Settings

There are many programs that advertise internships, shadowing, and/or clinical experiences outside of the U.S. These programs can vary greatly in organization, supervision, duration, community involvement, expense and safety.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind when thinking about participating in one of these programs:

  • Who is running the program? Is the program transparent in its goals of serving others? Is it a long-established program with strong community involvement and beneficial results? 
  • Do you need to be fluent in a foreign language to participate?
  • Would you be participating in an observer role, or is there an indication that you would have the “opportunity” to actually participate in patient care? There are significant ethical and safety considerations to you and to patients as well if you are asked to provide health care without training, which, as an undergraduate, you do not have. Please see the articles below for more information on this particularly important issue.
  • Are there risks to you in terms of exposure to infectious disease or unsanitary living conditions, living with families whom you do not know, or traveling to unsafe areas of a country?
  • Does the program appropriately address issues such as vaccinations, cultural competencies, personal behavior, security, sexual harassment, insurance, local laws, etc.?
  • Do you know how you would communicate with the organization or your family in an emergency?
  • Does your participation in the program require a fee, and if so, how much? Is it worth the expense, considering that you may find volunteer experiences in underserved communities in the U.S. for which you do not have to pay large sums of money, that may last over a longer period of time, and in which you might be able to establish a long term relationship with the organization or mentor.
  • Are you planning to use this abroad experience as a health care experience for medical school? Be aware that clinical experience in a foreign country may be useful for the study of global health or your own personal interests, but U.S. health professions schools will always expect to see clinical experience in the U.S., as this is where you will presumably go to medical school and eventually practice. Foreign experiences cannot replace the need for experience in this country.
For examples, details and advice, see the following articles:

You have three summers during your undergraduate education, so use them wisely. Things Duke students often do include the following:

  • Take courses in Duke summer school, at the Duke Marine Laboratory, or at home. A course or two in the summer can make fall/spring semesters easier to manage. However, be sure not to fill your summers with all courses, as most students need a break from academics and there are often other, more meaningful things to do.
  • Studying abroad in a first or second summer term can give you an international experience and time to travel; it also allows you to use your fall/spring semesters for coursework at Duke.
  • Duke Engage can give you a chance to do community service, often abroad, and the experience may correlate well with a major or interest.
  • Research can be done at Duke or at home, paid or volunteer, in programs or independently.
  • There are some summer science programs specifically for premed students.
  • Many students will spend the summer at home, where they can volunteer, shadow, do community service, work in camps and businesses, or follow interests that are more difficult to accomplish during fall/spring semesters. 
  • Health professions schools will also understand if you need to work full-time during a summer to pay for your education.