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.

  • 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. If you have worked with children, perhaps consider working with the elderly. If you have never worked in a hospital, it might be helpful to see what it’s like.
  • 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 over 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 (e.g. pediatrics versus emergency medicine). Even if you didn't get into the particular department you wanted, you will still gain exposure to important aspects of healthcare.
    • 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. 

Finding Opportunities

  • Leverage your network of health providers – pediatrician, internist, dentist, nurse practitioner, etc. – 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 health-related opportunities such as chemotherapy clinics, public health organizations, refugee health centers, women's health programs, HIV/AIDS outreach programs, hospices, art therapy programs, child life units of hospitals, Planned Parenthood (recovery room, counseling), adolescent clinics, rehabilitation centers, homeless shelters, Alzheimer's units, Latino health centers, mental health settings, rape crisis centers, VA health care systems, health education programs, nursing homes, and elder services.

Sample Opportunities

  • For sample programs and opportunities, download our list of links (google sheet).

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. It works less well both for a variety of reasons if it is all completed in the semester before you apply or over a couple of weeks on one occasion. There is no magic 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, or nurse practitioner. You may be able to ask to shadow colleagues of your primary care physician at home or to shadow physician parents of your high school friends.
  • 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 principle 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 will find many more physicians by searching surrounding communities like Brookline, Newton, Weston, Wellesley, Belmont, Cambridge, etc. as well. 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 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 through a working relationship with a physician in the medical field. The application is in the fall and it is open to students in all four years. About a 100 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. This can work for some students and may be more effective outside of Boston where there are fewer college students. Make sure you identify yourself as a college student. If you have a very particular interest, then feel free to target physicians in that specialty. For example, if you are interested in oncology, look up the physicians in the oncology department on a hospital website. 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, but an individual doctor may be more interested in a student with an interest in that field.

Full-time clinically related research assistant (RA) positions after graduation 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 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. You may need to send 20, 30, or even 40 introductory emails in order to find a position. Most of these positions require a one- to 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.
  • The Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health sites provide detailed information about basic and social science departments, clinical departments, centers, divisions, and institutes. While the scope of possibilities can seem daunting, the best way to find an RA position is to contact a researcher whose work interests you.
  • Catalyst Profiles: Directory of Harvard researchers involved in clinical translational research, updated regularly.
  • 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 generated by someone you already know leads to the best opportunities, which may not be listed anywhere.
  • Harvard teaching hospitals’ and academic departments’ employment listings: For example, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston hires numerous recent graduates and hosts a job fair in late spring every year.

Resources Outside of Harvard

  • Local university and hospital websites: Job listings and researchers in relevant academic apartments. For example, Brown Medical School sought a full-time research assistant for a longitudinal study of depression during pregnancy. The RA’s role was to conduct behavioral exams on newborns, collect biological specimens in the delivery room, code fetal behavior, and provide data analysis.
  • 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. For example, there was a recent listing for RAs to conduct research on the pathophysiology, treatment, and prevention of childhood mental illness, with an emphasis on bipolar disorder in children. RAs are involved in all aspects of the clinical research process, including analyzing data and interacting with patients.

 

Sample Opportunities

 

  • For sample programs and opportunities, download our list of links (google sheet).

 

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 (science, social science, humanities) or format (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).

Sample Opportunities

  • For sample programs and opportunities, download our list of links (google sheet).