Finding Experiences

Finding Clinical Experience

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

(1) 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 environment will be an important part of your life.

(2) When you shadow or observe a physician or health care provider, you see what health care is like for a provider.  You will begin to understand their responsibilities, communication skills, the medical and psychological needs of the patients they treat, the challenges and rewards of their career, and how they work with and lead a team of health care professionals.  Shadowing in several different areas or specialties will allow you to compare and contrast them and see different sides of medicine.

If you are just beginning to gain experience, then your first activities may just be to volunteer.  As you gain experience, you can pursue more direct care roles and understand health care in greater depth.

Medical, dental and veterinary schools generally do not have a minimum number of hours required.  Most premed students will shadow for at least 50 hours, but some will shadow for many more.  The goal is to gain competencies and to be able to reflect on your experiences.  Note that Physical Therapy and Physician Assistant Programs may 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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Finding 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 well-being. At the time of application to schools, you will need to describe and reflect on your activities.

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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Finding 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 Donna Kostyu.

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