Finding Experiences

Life experiences outside of class are especially important in preparing for a health career.   Clinical experiences shows you what medicine is like.   Community service helps you understand the many factors that can affect health and well-being.   Research provides critical thinking skills.  Campus involvement helps you develop your teamwork and leadership skills.  All help you develop the competencies that health professions schools look for.

Clinical Experience

Clinical experience is generally two types - one where you engage with individuals who are ill or need health care and the other where you observe/shadow a health professional.  Both are meaningful and essential. 

When you interact with patients or individuals who are ill or who need health care, you will begin to understand what health care is like for the individual.  This might include access to doctors or appointments, how to find their way around a strange hospital or clinic, how they cope with chronic illnesses or deal with stress and anxiety.   You may find that you genuinely enjoy helping individuals who are sick, or you may find that you do not, and this can lead you to re-evaluate your career goals.  An important outcome is learning that serving others in a health care setting will be an important part of your life.  There are no minimum number of hours.  Most students will volunteer or work with patients/individuals over several semesters.  Sustained activities are appreciated, as are roles where you can actively engage with individuals.

When you shadow or observe a physician or health care provider, you see what health care is like for a provider.  You can begin to understand their responsibilities, how they communicate with patients and staff, the medical and psychological needs of their patients, the challenges and rewards of their specialty, and how they work with and lead a team of health care professionals.  Shadowing in several different areas is recommended so you can compare and contrast them.  Most students shadow for at least 50 hours and many will shadow for many more. 

You might also gain experience by working in a health care setting or as an EMT.  Note that physical therapy and physician assistant programs can require a much larger number of hours of documented clinical experience of very particular types.  Please see the Other Health Careers section of our website for program information. 

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A Note About International Clinical Experience 

You may be interested in international health experiences, perhaps part of a study abroad program, research fellowship, global civic opportunity, or sometimes fee-for-participation programs focusing solely on providing health care experiences.  Working with health care providers in rural areas or on mission trips, and seeing health care outside the U.S. may be useful to you, especially if you are interested in public health, global health, health care delivery systems, health care policy, research, or if you wish to incorporate the experience as part of your major.

However, be thoughtful.  International health care experience will not replace the need for experience 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.  Be careful in that some programs may ask 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.  As with any international program, be sure the program appropriately addresses issues such as vaccinations, cultural competency, personal behavior, security, insurance, local laws, and how to communicate with the program or with the US if there are problems. 

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Community Service

Medicine is a profession based on selfless service to others.  As a result, medical and other health professions schools will want to know that you are genuinely motivated to help others of all ages, backgrounds and cultures, especially the underserved.  There are many things you will gain from service:  good communication skills, knowledge of people and confidence in working with them, the ability to work with a team, leadership skills, an ability to organize, and knowledge of social issues that impact health and well-being.

At the time of application to schools, you will need to describe and reflect on your service to others.

You can find opportunities for service at Duke as well as in your hometown and elsewhere.  For instance, you might tutor disadvantaged youths or children in local schools; work in English-as-a-Second-Language programs, be a big sister/brother, volunteer in camps for children or in programs that assist immigrants, migrant workers or deal with issues of social justice. Choose activities that are important to you as an individual. A long-term, sincere, and deep commitment to one or two activities is preferred rather than a long list of things in which you are only superficially interested or which you “picked up” just prior to the application process.  When you find a service activity that is meaningful to you, continue it. 

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Research Experience

Health professions schools value research.  Participation does not need to be in bench research - it can also be research in the humanities or a social science.  You will gain critical thinking skills, an ability to find, read and evaluate data, analyze published articles, and an ability to work as a member of a team.  These are all important skills.  A research experience will sometimes result in your participation on a paper, abstract or poster.  Research mentors often write a letter of recommendation as they know you and your work personally. Students who are particularly attracted to research and who wish to combine research and medicine may consider a MD/PhD route.

For information on research experiences, at Duke and elsewhere, see the Undergraduate Research Support Office website and the following.  The prehealth advisor for students considering MD/PhD degrees is Dean Chris Roy.

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