Gaining experience during your undergraduate career serves two important purposes. It allows you to explore the health care sector to determine if it is a good career path for you, and it enhances your credentials for applying to a professional program. Many programs require that you complete a minimum number of volunteering or shadowing hours to be considered for admission.
Shadowing is a vital component to understanding more about a professional field of interest. Shadowing involves following a professional throughout his or her day, observing the ins-and-outs of the profession as a whole.
Most graduate and professional programs in health sciences require a minimum number of hours of shadowing experience.
Keen observation followed by personal reflection after each experience will help you get the most out of your shadowing hours. Ask yourself:
- What is the most surprising thing you learned or observed today?
- Why did it surprise you?
- How does this experience shape and mature your understanding of the health care field?
Volunteering is another vital component to understand more about a professional field of interest. While shadowing involves simply observing, volunteering allows you to actively perform tasks and make contributions to a workplace or organization. Experiences where you have direct patient contact are highly regarded by most admissions representatives.
Most admissions representatives want to see that you give freely of your time to support your community as well.
Research experience is encouraged but not required in all health care disciplines or professional programs. If you are interested in attending a research-focused institution or applying to a research-heavy program, obtaining significant experience performing research will be an important part of your application.
Contact faculty members who are undertaking research that matches your interests and volunteer in their labs. The VCU Office of Research offers additional information on undergraduate research opportunities.
Health care experience
Some healthcare opportunities required certification or additional training in order to obtain employment. While others do not.
Certification not usually required
- Patient care technician
- Nonmedical patient transporter
- Medical scribe/medical transcriptionist
- Patient services representative
- Dispensing optician
- Research/laboratory assistant
- Home care aid
Most health care opportunities require certification prior to employment, even internships or part-time positions. Some certification programs can be completed throughout the semester or over summer break. Each program has a different application process, cost, and time to complete.
Opportunities that require certification include:
- Certified nursing assistant
- Dental assistant
- Medical assistant
- Pharmacy technician
- Surgical technician
- Personal care aid
To find opportunities to obtain health care certification explore these resources:
- The Allied Health Education/Certification Program listing has over 2000 CAAHEP accredited programs that prepare entry level practitioners in 25 health sciences professions
- The Community College Workforce Alliance prepares individuals with quality curriculum and job placement support required for a successful career in the health care industry
- Our Common healthcare certifications listing [EXCEL]
Students who do not plan to transition directly into professional programs upon graduation have a variety of options to stay connected to the health care field. Admissions representatives expect students to stay connected to their field of choice and participate in shadowing, volunteering, interning, part- or full-time work, international experiences or academic programs.
Our science and health career advisers can help you learn more about gap year options for health care.
Health care abroad
Some students gain health care experience while visiting or studying abroad. For those who travel, it is imperative that students understand the differences between health care policies and guidelines in the U.S. and those abroad. Gaining experience by participating in practices that are not legal in the U.S. will not be acceptable to admissions representatives.
While getting health care experience abroad, reflect on the differences between medicine in the U.S. and abroad.
- How are resources, doctor/patient relations, responsibilities, etc., different?
- How does culture affect patient care?
Leadership/student organization involvement
Developing skills in leadership, teamwork and interpersonal communication will help you succeed in all health care fields. Many students gain these skills in student organizations or through part-time or full-time work. Admissions representatives often prefer to see leadership experience both in- and outside of health care settings.
Having significant involvement and experiences in a few organizations is preferred over shallow experience in a multitude of organizations. Explore MyOrgs@VCU for a complete list of student organizations.