Getting Experience

Medical and health schools will want to see that you have tested your commitment to medicine, and that you're aware of what you're entering into. More importantly, you'll need to make sure for yourself that you've tested your commitment to the profession. 

Since you're not yet a physician, it is (of course) impossible to practice as one, but there are plenty of other ways to get a better sense of the field. Many components of medical and health professions overlap with other experiences, such as empathizing with people when they're vulnerable, listening to their stories, and being of service. Volunteer or internship experiences allow you to assess how you feel while doing these tasks; shadowing (watching physicians work) will also give you some idea of whether you could see yourself enjoying the field. In addition, undergraduate and postgraduate research can further inform and enhance your preparation and decision to enter a medical or health profession.

Beyond Harvard

Read guidelines for students providing patient care during clinical experiences abroad.

  • Consider applying to formal volunteer and internship programs (in hospitals or clinics, for instance) or creating your own clinical internship by contacting practitioners and organizations directly. 
  • Consider opportunities outside your comfort zone.
  • Identify what you want out of the experience and what your responsibilities will be. 
    • In larger organizations or formal programs, you may have less flexibility in what you do. In smaller or more under-resourced organizations, you may find more “hands-on” experience, though you may need to be more proactive and demonstrate a higher level of confidence in a clinical setting. 
    • What you will do is often more important than where you will be. Even if you didn't get into the particular department you wanted, you will still gain exposure to important aspects of healthcare regardless.
    • Be aware that many volunteer and internship programs have mandatory orientation programs and health screenings before you're permitted to work. Many of these programs have minimum requirements for the hours per week and the length of commitment.
    • Read the guidelines for students providing patient care during clinical experiences abroad.

Finding Opportunities

  • Leverage your network of health providers to find shadowing and clinical opportunities. Speak to physicians at your local community hospital about clinical experiences.
  • Academic medical centers often need summer help; check their human resources websites for temporary positions.
  • Community health clinics that serve underserved populations often need volunteers.
  • Think broadly about healthcare-related opportunities and types of settings.

Sample Opportunities

  • For sample programs and opportunities in the Boston area, download our list of programs.

Shadowing provides you with the opportunity to explore medicine in the clinical setting. Remember to act in a professional manner: arrive on time, professionally dressed and well groomed, and be prepared to respect patient confidentiality. Make sure you are not ill and that you have had a flu vaccine.

Finding Shadowing Opportunities

  • It takes time. It can be helpful to shadow a variety of physicians over time, so it is best to work on this gradually throughout your college career and to really use shadowing to help figure out if medicine is right for you. There is no required number of hours and what is right for each medical school and each applicant will vary, but we suggest aiming for 40 to 50 hours of shadowing over your college career. More than 100 hours is almost certainly not necessary and you can use your time in other ways more productively.
     
  • Ask your own physician, dentist, nurse practitioner, or other healthcare professionals in your hometown.
  • Use your existing contacts. Reach out to professors of yours who are doctors or who work with doctors, and ask for an introduction. You can ask the principal investigator in your lab if you are in a clinical setting. Even if they are not physicians themselves, they may be able to introduce you to physicians. Your House Premedical Tutors (both resident and non-residents) are excellent resources for shadowing opportunities.
     
  • Find Harvard alumni through the Harvard Alumni Association. Alumni are listed by their home address, so just searching “Boston” will yield you some physicians who work in Boston, but you will find many more physicians by searching surrounding cities and towns as well (like Cambridge). That holds true for many metropolitan areas—search the names of suburbs where doctors might also live. You may want to look for Harvard alumni near home to shadow when you are at home. Students should only contact alumni who have said they are willing to be contacted by students. You can also consider signing up for the HAA Shared Interest Group—Harvard Alumni in Healthcare. They are eager to have current students and recent alumni join the group.
     
  • Consider the Harvard Premedical Society’s Physician Mentoring Program, providing Harvard undergraduates with first-hand knowledge of a physician’s daily life. The application is in the fall and it is open to students in all four years. About 75 students a year get matched with a mentor and this usually also involves shadowing.
  • If you are a varsity athlete, consider the Harvard Athlete Medical Mentoring Program (AMMP), which connects current student-athletes with alumni athletes in medicine.
     
  • Shadow where you volunteer. Physicians at that site will know you have a name badge, a flu shot, a PPD, CORI screening, etc. so it makes it easier to say “yes” to someone who is already a volunteer. Volunteers will encounter a few or many physicians depending on their role.
     
  • Cold email. Make sure you identify yourself as a Harvard college student. If you have a very particular interest, then feel free to target physicians in that specialty. For the Harvard hospitals you can find the emails of the physicians in Harvard Catalyst. We would generally urge you to shadow in a variety of areas.

 

Over 75% of Harvard applicants take at least 1 gap year before applying to medical school.  Medical schools welcome applicants who have taken some time out before applying to medical school as they bring additional experiences, maturity, and perspectives to their application. Alumni will do any variety of activities during a gap year including research (basic, clinical, social science, etc.), work with a non-profit, healthcare consulting, teaching, etc. There is really very little you could not do in a gap year.

Each year OCS holds workshops to help students think about taking a gap year: one about non-profit options in the Fall and one about private section options in the Spring. See the event calendar.

 

For some students with less clinical experience, full-time clinical research assistant (RA) or clinical research coordinator positions are great opportunities to get paid while acquiring experience working directly with patients in a research setting.

Timeline for RA Positions

Most RA positions are advertised in late spring, when labs know about available funding, and when current RAs give notice that they are leaving (usually for medical or graduate school). Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find many listings in the fall or winter. Update your resume by showing it to your House Tutor and by coming to OCS daily drop-ins (Monday through Friday, 1:00 – 4:00 pm); begin talking to professors, teaching fellows, and clinical mentors; and start searching for clinical labs that fit your interest. Most importantly, cast a wide net. Many of these positions will prefer (and many require) a two-year commitment.

Finding Opportunities

Harvard Resources

  • Crimson CareersJob listings for Harvard students and alumni, updated every day with new listings. See our Featured Jobs and Internships for a sample of jobs available.
  • Harvard Jobs & Careers: Job board for administrative/staff positions across the university, including the Harvard Medical, Dental, and Public Health Schools.
  • Catalyst Profiles: Directory of Harvard researchers including those involved in clinical translational research.
  • Harvard contacts: Professors, teaching fellows, premed tutors, clinical mentors. Ask if they know of researchers who may be hiring. Sometimes a word-of-mouth referral leads to the best opportunities, which may not be listed anywhere.
  • Harvard teaching hospitals’ and academic departments’ employment listings.

Resources Outside of Harvard

  • Local university and hospital websites: Job listings and researchers in relevant academic apartments.
  • Contact the principal investigators of clinical trials and studies regarding possible positions. For example, you can search the government’s clinical trials site for current trials of interest to you.
  • The NIH Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA/CRTA) Program is a fully funded one- to two-year biomedical research program at the NIH. Although primarily a resource for basic lab positions, there are an increasing number of opportunities for clinical research.

Participation in research is not a requirement for admission to medical school, but it can enhance your understanding and learning of science. The research can be in any discipline (including basic science, social science, and the humanities) or format (including wet lab, computational, or clinical research). Through the processes of formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, and collecting and analyzing data, you develop scientific inquiry skills and hone critical thinking skills that will be beneficial to your future career as a physician. Many medical schools value these skills, as they demonstrate competency in your ability to manage the various streams of data and input that one receives as a clinician.

For general information including advice regarding both the research opportunities and funding, please visit Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (URAF). If you are interested in pursuing research in the life sciences, visit Life Sciences Research and meet with the Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Adviser, Anna Babakhanyan (ababakhanyan@fas.harvard.edu). Additional information is available in the Student Handbook for Undergraduates in Life Sciences Research (pdf).

There are many summer opportunities available in the Boston area, throughout the U.S., and internationally. The Summer Planning & Funding team at OCS is able to help with your summer plans. The Premedical and Health Careers Advising team is also happy to help you think through options. There are many funding options at Harvard including at OCS, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (URAF), and the Harvard Global Health Institute. There are many options beyond healthcare and biomedical sciences that may be of interest to you as well, but we have not included those on this list. Remember to check Crimson Careers frequently, since new postings come in daily.

Here is a sample of internship opportunities at Harvard and around the country.