Work experience at a hospital: why does it have to be so difficult?

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work experience in a hospital

Work experience at a hospital is really pretty essential to your medical application.
Fail to mention work experience on your section 10 and you may a well post your application form straight into the bin.

Despite this, many applicants tell me they are having difficulty arranging suitable work experience in good time for their application.

Why is it so difficult?

After all, students applying for medicine are actually some of the keenest, brightest students and are well liked by the medical teams to which they are attached.

I’ve made a few phone calls to hospitals (not my own) to work out what actually happens and I’ve spoken to students to get an idea of why some people run into problems.

So, here are my main reasons for why students fail to get hospital work experience.

  • They (especially year 10 students) expect the school to arrange it. Schools don’t often try very hard. Sorry.
  • Places get booked up by the keenest students months in advance.
  • Places are arranged informally by people who have ‘contacts’ within the medical profession.
  • It’s difficult to know who to speak to within a hospital. You end up getting passed between lots of confused people.

Apart from doctors and nurses, hospitals are full of confused people in “admin” who aren’t quite sure what their job actually entails. Consequently they often try to transfer any call they receive so that they can continue updating their Facebook status.

If you want to get into medical school you cannot let these reasons stop you getting crucial work experience. Ideally you need more than one attachment at separate points in time.

Here is my strategy to help you succeed.

At the end of the post I’ll attach a hospital work experience request letter to help you get things right without wasting time.

1. Call the hospital switchboard.

Call the switchboard and (usually after waiting half an hour) ask the operator to speak to the work experience coordinator. Some hospitals won’t have one so if the operator starts to stumble or says, “er let me look that one up..” and puts you on hold you should politely ask him to instead put you through to Medical Staffing.

In some hospitals they are also known as personnel or recruitment, so modify accordingly if you’re met with more confusion.

2. Make your request
Introduce yourself as a pre-medical student. Speak clearly and confidently. Tell them you are seeking a brief 1-2 weeks work experience attachment to see how the doctors do their work and what is involved in the day to day running of the hospital.

Keep your request general at this stage. Do not ask for specifics.

3. Name drop (if you can)
If you are lucky enough to have spoken to any medical staff informally before initiating contact with the hospital formally, you ought to mention the name of the doctor or nurse when you make your initial request.

Something along the lines of,
“I’ve been in touch with Dr Morton, one of the consultant physicians. He was very keen to have me as a work experience student and advised that a chat with you would be the most suitable way to arrange things”

Mentioning a name makes your request more tenable and more difficult to fob off.

4. Be flexible
State that you are flexible in terms of dates, times and departments. If your ideal week is already booked up by other students there will be other weeks that are available. Being attached to an elderly care ward might not be as exciting as casualty or neurosurgery but it doesn’t matter. Any relevant work experience is fine. You can spin any experience into an amazing story for your interviewers eventually!

5. Write a letter (use our free template)
During your initial phone call you may be asked to put your request in writing which you will then have to do.
Try to get some sort of verbal confirmation before you do this. It will allow you to mention the name of the person you’ve spoken to in your letter, stating that they have agreed in principle to allow you to attend an attachment. this makes your letter much harder to ignore, or refuse.
If you can’t get any tacit agreement over the phone, don’t worry. Send the letter anyway and mention the person you spoke to thanking them politely for their time.

Attach a CV to your letter.

Our letter template is at the end of this post.

6. Keep trying
Expect refusals and repeat the process until you succeed. Try all the local hospitals before moving out to other hospitals in nearby towns. If you are still getting refused try smaller towns further afield. Even if you have to book some accommodation for a three or four day attachment in a far away hospital it simply doesn’t matter. As a junior doctor you will often be working nights, far from home in some horrid hospital accommodation. If you’re truly committed to medicine, a little inconvenience shouldn’t bother you at this stage.

7. Try other local avenues for work experience
You should also try GP practices. These are generally easier to negotiate work experience with.

work experience in a hospital

8. Overseas work experience
This can look very impressive on a CV but is best combined with at least a little UK experience.
The developing world offers some excellent opportunities and if you are travelling abroad for other reasons, it is always worth contacting some local hospitals to arrange an attachment even if it’s only for a few days. It will probably be the most memorable part of your holiday and will give you insights into another healthcare system. If you play your cards right on your personal statement and at interview, this can really give you an edge over the rest of the competition.

Although overseas experience is best arranged by yourself, there are organisations such as gapmedics that can do alot of the organising for you. I can’t vouch for such organisations as I’ve never used them myself. In my view you can learn alot more and save a huge amount of money by avoiding such companies and doing the arranging yourself. However they are an option if you’re having difficulty arranging things. If you must use one of these services make sure they are reputable and shop around to make sure you aren’t being ripped off.

9. Voluntary work
Some voluntary work can count as work experience. It just depends on how well you can spin things in your statement and interview. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities available and these are easier to get than a typical work experience attachment. Be picky.
There are plenty of opportunities here.


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Have you managed to get work experience yet?? How did you do it?  Comments below!


Need a sample request letter? Click here:
work experience sample letter doc eat doc –  

(Don’t forget to use your own words and amend to fit.)

10 Comments + Add Comment

  • In addition to these suggestions, I found trawling the hospital websites and looking for specific contacts if you have an idea of the department you wish to get experience in. I emailed a lot of consultants directly and found this approach worked really well. I found they are usually very helpful and then you just arrange all the paperwork through the hospital voluntary/work experience dept/admin staff. I arranged 4 placements this way with mainly just email.

    Also some hospitals have a specific department that deals with work experience placements, this can also help, but as a mature student I found usually places had already been allocated/reserved for local school children.

  • I’ve had little luck getting anything with hospirals in London. I must admit not trying further afield yet. I have an aunt in Wales who might put me up if i get something near her town so that’s my next option.

  • The sample letter is really good. Thank you.
    I contacted some hospitals last year but all the work experience opportunities were overly booked. Fortunately, one of the hospitals was taking names down in advance for this year so I got a place for February half term. However, this was only for two days (I didn’t know about this until two days before the set dates). I am really not sure how much work experience is needed. I’m not really satisfied with this two-days placement only and i know its not but how much experience is sufficient? I’m trying to arrange some attachments with local GP as well.
    I also did a placement in a medical research project. How useful can that be?

    • Get as much mileage (interms of CV and interview) from that two days as possible.
      Ideally you need another stint -there’s no upper limit. A GP placement will be very useful and allows you to compare different roles within medicine.

      The medical research project definitely counts. If it was clinical research it can be spun as research plus clinical work experience which is pretty unique.

      In any case the insights into research that you can mention will give you something that not many candidates will have.

      • Thanks. It was a clinical research project so hopefully it’ll be useful for my personal statement and interview, especially since it opened a whole new era of interest in medicine and a career in research as well as a doctor.
        I am not sure if it would be advisable to talk about careers in medical research in a medical interview as it may suggest that I’m not interested in working in hospitals and am more inclined towards research work (although I think I’d love to do either) which might put the interviewer off who may think I’m not as keen towards the role as a doctor and that people can still do medical research by doing other courses such as Biomedical science, thus resulting in me not getting an offer. Is that possible?

        • Hi Roobs. You needn’t worry.
          Make it clear that you understand that all the best clinicians are involved in research at some level. “Evidence based medicine” needs doctors to write things up and produce the evidence!
          You could also say that your experience taught you that as a doctor you’re in a unique position of being able to perform research and see its effects directly on your own clinical practice. Most medical scientists don’t have that privilege. That might not have been your main reason for wanting to study medicine but it’s something you learned from work experience and were inspired by it.

  • Thank you so much for this. Much needed guidance. Wish i had it a year ago.

  • Letter sorted me out.

    Plenty of hospital outside London to aim for too!

  • I have had this issue recently. I have spoken to on the phone and have kept contact via email to the admin in 9 different hospitals within London. I sent my applications very early (Oct 2011 for Summer 2012) by which they have told me they would get back to me before May. I have also sent 4 emails to Doctors at Barts for work experience including a strong CV and also an intriguing cover letter (it was not yours, but one I had personally written) however I have had no replies. Shall I take the more direct approach, visiting hospitals HR departments and find these people I have sent emails to and speak to on the telephone. I am gregarious by nature, audacious, and I feel this may have more of an impact as I could get my message across purely by my communication skills. What is your opinion? I already have a 4 days of work experience in Germany from which I have learnt plenty about this profession, however I understand how crucial it is to understand the workings of the NHS. Would this be enough or shall I stay persistent with getting what I want?

    • Find out who is in-charge of work experience and speak to them. I know Barts and chaos probably reigns in HR. Go visit them if you can and try and work your charm. If they already have your CV you should at least get a fair answer. Otherwise apply again outside of London.
      Well done on getting the German work experience.