Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
I was recently asked to give advice on finding clinical opportunities. Here’s the short version: show up, ask, and follow through! This is an exciting and supportive profession you are entering. Physicians not only remember what it feels like to be in your shoes but they are eager to support you. Part of our responsibility in medicine is to educate and mentor the next generation. This applies to everyone from a first-year medical student all the way to the most seasoned attending. I’ve had opportunities to tutor my classmates, write for Elsevier, deliver a heart from its pericardium, coordinate a helicopter landing and practice my old fashioned medical skills on the 7th continent all because I have shown up, asked for opportunities, and followed through when given the chance. Here are a few notes on how I approach gaining these clinical opportunities.
This is not about being in the right place at the right time. Of course you can maximize your chances for serendipitous opportunities by getting up early, staying up late and physically putting yourself out there, but you also need sleep and it’s not entirely under your direct control. What I want to address with “showing up” is your presence. If you are not engaged with the people around you then you’re going to miss out. If you prefer to hide in the background you may need to develop a stage presence. If you prefer to be in the spotlight you should practice directing that spotlight to the people around you and especially the ones teaching you. You’re entering a field that requires a unique balance of leadership and humility. You must have the courage to speak up for your patients and the dogged desire to keep learning every step of the way.
Most physicians are smart and perceptive—by controlling your attention and demonstrating your abilities through your work you save yourself the awkwardness of trying to tell people who you are and what you’re about. Just show them. Of course you should practice articulating your ideas and desires for your interviews, but if you find yourself saying “again” or “as I said” you should probably stop talking. 🙂 If you’re checking your phone you’re going to miss a chance to engage. If you don’t seem to care, then why would someone (who likely has just as much on their plate as you do) spend their own efforts to help you? You can set yourself up for success by turning your attention to the things that matter.
If you’re interested in something, there is someone (who knows more than you do) to ask about it. Think you’re interested in a specific discipline in medicine? Ask around until you can find someone in that specialty to shadow. If you don’t know many doctors start with your own! If that doesn’t get you anywhere most doctors associated with teaching facilities have their institutional email published online, so send a single, polite, brief email. If they don’t reply don’t take it personally just ask someone else. Be creative and respectfully persistent. Since not all hospitals or specialties are as easy to get a foot in the door as others, be prepared to consider alternatives like volunteering at the hospital or even applying for a job.
Medical conferences often have discounted rates for students or even formal work exchange programs where you can help with set-up, clean-up, social media, or filling water glasses in exchange to attend the lectures. Don’t expect a red carpet to roll out for you but with a humble attitude and willingness to work you’d be surprised with the overwhelmingly positive results you will get. I’ve helped in all manners of prestige from mopping floors to manning twitter feeds and they have all been great experiences. So check your ego and ask how you can help.
While I was helping with UCSF’s High-Risk EM Conference Dr. Jacqueline Nemer gave me some of the best advice I’ve been received on this subject. In generously passing down advice she received from her mentor, she was modeling just the kind of educator and doctor I’d like to become. I’ve held this advice closely and used it often—she said ‘Don’t say yes unless you’re going to hit it out of the park’. This is how she ensures that everything she agrees to take on reflects her best work.
Remember when you’re seeking out these opportunities that quality > quantity. You may be surprised with the number of positive responses you get and you need to be sure if you say you’re going to do something that you do it. That goes for everything from school leadership roles, volunteering, and clinical experiences. A title on your CV doesn’t mean much. A good story about hours of your hard work, though? Tangible evidence you’ve made a difference? That’s what people want to hear about! Not only is it much more interesting but it allows people to cut through the fluff and get to know you. Choose to contribute something significant through your actions and you will get incredible opportunities and experiences out of them yourself.