Questions About Internships and Volunteering
Contact Names for Your Activities
Question: Hi! I've been doing some volunteer work with the Student Volunteer Council as well as the recent Down Syndrome Conference. Will I need (for medical school applications) signed or written recognition of this service or is keeping record of it sufficient? As a freshman, I'd like to get started on this as soon as possible so I don't end up panicking my junior year when I realize I have no verifiable service.
Answer: Glad you're planning ahead. When you complete your AMCAS application some day--this is the generic, online application for medical school--you'll need to list a contact name for every activity you list. It is wise to keep track of who's in charge of these experiences as they happen. Ideally the contact person would be a University staff member of faculty member if it's a University-related activity, or if the experience happened away from Princeton the person would generally be a supervisor. In some isolated cases, the person who led your activity might even be an upperclassman, although try avoid listing a fellow student if at all possible. Even if that person is long gone by the time you apply to medical school, you will be asked to supply their name. That is the only 'recognition' you'll need. Don't worry, medical schools do not typically contact these people (or even attempt to), the only exception being cases where something else (perhaps comments in the personal essay, in the letters of evaluation, or the interview) raise suspicions as to the veracity of what you listed as an activity. ♦
Finding a Summer 'Internship'
Question: I am a freshman and I just want to make sure I don’t miss the chance to find an internship for the summer. I don’t see specific internships listed on the HPA website. Am I missing something? Can you give me advice about where to look and what kinds of internships are a good idea to consider?
Answer: You are right that we don’t list specific internships as job postings on our website. Instead, we make sure any health-related internships we know about are posted on Hire Tigers, the Career Services online system for current postings of all internships as well as full-time jobs. We encourage pre-health students to become familiar with the Career Services website, including the page devoted to finding internships and the Alumni Career Network, where you can find alumni who might be willing to host you as an intern, or give advice about where you might look. In addition, we do provide links to organizations where many Princeton pre-health students have interned over the years in the Gaining Experience section of our website. These may or may not have current opportunities at any given time, but we encourage you to learn about these and similar organizations at home and abroad, and check on what might be available if you are interested. Of course, not every internship you do as a pre-health student needs to be specifically health-related. You can also gain valuable service, leadership, teaching, and research experience—or pursue other talents-- that will be relevant for a future in the health professions. Internships are one great way to gain exposure to medicine, but just don’t forget about shadowing, volunteering during the summer and/or the academic year, coming to “The Doctor Is In” and other presentations, and just keeping an eye on healthcare in the news. Good luck! ♦
How important is volunteering?
Question: How important is volunteering for pre-med students? Is a student who works at a hospital or lab and shows interest in medicine less competitive than one who also volunteers? If volunteering is crucial, how much of it should be done?
Answer: This is a very difficult question to answer--an all-too-common question, but a hard one. No one should make you volunteer. If you're not sincerely interested in serving your community in some way then you should not do it. However, many pre-meds cite a desire to help others as one of their main reasons for pursuing medicine. If you are asked at a medical school interview some day why you want to become a doctor (and someone is sure to ask you that question) and you tell them that you take satisfaction in helping others, you have very little credibility if you've never volunteered your time in service to other people less fortunate than yourself, or if your most recent volunteer work was in high school. Why would anyone believe you if they don't see evidence of volunteering during your college years? Generally, your clinical experiences in college should include some volunteering, but we cannot quantify the amount - how much of your health-related experience is for pay, or through an internship, or shadowing, or true volunteer work is all up to the individual. In addition to clinical experience, volunteering in other relevant ways - tutoring, coaching kids, helping the elderly - all "count," so don't turn down those opportunities just because you don't think med schools will be interested in them. Hopefully you chose Princeton with full knowledge and appreciation of its motto re: being "in the nation's service"....right? ♦
Making the Most of Hospital Volunteering
Question: I've been volunteering at UMCP here in town and to be honest I don't find it very interesting. I'm wondering if you could help me. Why do med schools insist that we volunteer in a hospital? Can I do something different? It's pretty frustrating.
Answer: You probably want to focus on the things you do enjoy about being in the clinical setting and not the things that are tedious or uninteresting. Medical schools do not “insist” on hospital volunteering per se, but they do value applicants with experience interacting with patients, and before one goes to medical school and obtains proper qualifications and skills, one is left with volunteering as the main means for gaining patient contact. A few things to remember:
- If your frustration comes from a lack of contact with physicians, and the patients you see are asleep, then you're volunteering at a less than optimal time of day. When scheduling your volunteer work, think beyond what is best for your schedule. Volunteer in the mornings or afternoons, possibly on weekends if you have to, not late in the evening when the docs have gone home and the patients are sleeping. And remember: we have a list of local physicians who have volunteered to have you shadow them--it's on our website. You might try contact some of these physicians in order to have more interaction with doctors.
- Students often experience more than they realize when serving as a volunteer. Write down your experiences. Spend a little time recording conversations you've had with patients or conversations you've overheard between doctors and staff. The more detailed you are with your note-taking, the better equipped/informed you'll be when asked to discuss your volunteer work. (It may even help you better understand why you're volunteering in the first place.)
- Lastly, remember this isn't about your doing something you find interesting as much as it is about backing up your desire to work in a profession where serving others is at the heart of all you do. To be blunt, it's not about you, it's about what is needed to be done in order to help a hospital help its patients. Tasks like comforting patients, talking with them and their families, transporting them, etc. are essential experiences in your development as a caregiver. ♦
Question: Hi HPA – I am a freshman and I am trying to make plans for this summer. I want to remain in the states and I’d really like to get some clinical exposure, and maybe have a chance to do some clinical research. I don’t have enough money to pay for housing to be out of my hometown… Are there any domestic Princeton programs or resources that you can recommend?
Answer: In the fall semester, the PICS (Princeton Internships in Civic Service) opportunities are announced. In 2012, among the offerings were 23 different paid internships in 13 hospitals or medical/health policy organizations! A PICS internship will have you working closely with terrific physicians and healthcare teams, with alumni as your mentors. Details about each organization and position are posted on the PICS website. The PICS Application is due in January. Keep in mind that non-clinical, and non-health related PICS opportunities can also be relevant and meaningful pre-health experiences. After all, medicine is about being in the service of others, so getting experience working in these kinds of settings can help you to develop your helping skills, empathy, and leadership potential. Of course PICS is just one option for getting clinical experience. You can also always feel free to use the HPA Physician Shadowing List, the Alumni Career Network, or contact physicians or other healthcare professionals, or hospital volunteer offices close to home. ♦
Physicians in the Alumni Career Network
Question: Hi HPA - Next summer I am hoping to be in San Francisco working for a nonprofit organization. If all goes right, I’ll get this job I’m hoping for. I’ll have some time after my employment finishes, and maybe even before it starts, to do something else. I was wondering if you knew of any job shadowing or clinical opportunities in the Bay Area or maybe in Chicago, since that’s where I’m from and I could stay with my parents. I’d like to secure a short term (1-3 weeks) shadowing position.
Answer: We recommend that you use the Alumni Careers Network (ACN) available on the Career Services website. You should be able to find a Princeton alumnus-physician in San Francisco or Chicago who has volunteered to host/mentor/talk to Princeton students. This avenue has worked well for many other Princeton students. The alumni in the ACN are hoping to be mentors to current students. Also, don’t forget that the HPA site has a list of local Princeton-area physicians to shadow during the regular school year. ♦
Pursuing Research Opportunities
Question: I heard that medical schools value science research experience in applicants, so I feel like I have to get involved. If I want to do research over the summer, either at Princeton or somewhere else, what’s the best way to find opportunities?
Answer: Medical schools value many things in applicants, but what they really want, when you boil it down, is someone with a compelling narrative who made choices based on following their passions, which they could then tie back to their future as physicians. These narratives may or may not include basic science research (the kind of research everyone seems to assume is necessary). If you have no interest in working in a basic science lab, then don’t do it! There are other ways to demonstrate intellectual curiosity, teamwork, and other competencies that pursuing research may show (plus, your thesis is likely to be an intense research experience within your chosen concentration, so you’re likely to “do research” at some point at Princeton without having to look for it in the summer). Or, you might look at doing clinical research, which is more closely tied to patient care than most basic science research.
That said, if you’re truly interested in trying your hand at basic science/biomedical research, there are a number of places to look. At Princeton, the Office of Undergraduate Research compiles all opportunities and happenings on campus, and has a search engine that you can use to locate internships and funding options. Since you aren’t exposed to an academic medical environment at Princeton, we strongly encourage students to look into summer undergraduate research programs at medical schools, which may be sponsored by the MD program, the MD/PhD program, or both. If a program reaches out to us, we advertise their opportunity in Vitals, and if one of our students has a particularly good experience in a research opportunity, we will include it on the Research page of our website.
Aside from formal programs, some students have had luck inquiring about research with faculty at colleges and universities near home. To do this, you would start by reading faculty members’ research webpages to find faculty of interest. You would then craft a professional email introducing yourself, describing your interest in their research area and why you’d like to get involved, and asking if they have any openings in their lab for the summer, and if not, whether they know anyone who might. To this email, attach a copy of your resume, which should highlight your past lab experience and familiarity with techniques (even if it’s only from introductory science classes and you have no other prior experience). The key to this kind of “cold emailing” is to sound enthusiastic, specific, and professional. You can use a similar method of seeking potential opportunities in your home area by using the Alumni Career Network or your personal network – asking your faculty who they may know, roommates or friends who have family members in health care, your personal physician, campus speakers (including our Doctor Is In presenters), etc, may also provide promising leads. For more advice on networking, refer to the Making Connections page of the Career Services’ website. ♦
Shadowing a Physician
Question: I’m interested in shadowing opportunities for the break. What should I expect to get out of the experience? Do you have any recommendations for how I should go about finding a shadowing position?
Answer: Shadowing can an excellent way to gain exposure to and become informed about the everyday practice of medicine. Working closely with a healthcare provider and his/her staff in an office helps you to learn about expectations in the field and the challenges and rewards of practicing medicine. A shadowing experience also allows you to build a relationship with a mentor in the field and ask questions, ultimately helping you to decide if this path is the right one for you.
You also might want to check out your peers’ Princeternship blogs to get a sense of what they have gained from shadowing experiences in the health professions.
In terms of locating shadowing opportunities, HPA has a list of local physicians in the Princeton area who are open to having students shadow them. If you’re going home for break, you might reach out to a Princeton alumnus physician by first looking at the Alumni Career Network available on the Career Services website.
When you contact a physician, tell the person where you found him/her, give a brief introduction of yourself, and what in particular interests you about his/her background, position, or organization. Let the doctor know that you'd be interested in any shadowing opportunities that he/she can provide. Try to have an idea of what you're looking for when you shadow in case you are asked. Have your calendar available in case the physician wants to schedule something right away.
If the doctor can't accommodate you for shadowing, you might see if he/she would just be willing to talk with you for an hour or so, and then put together a list of questions you might like to know more about in pursuing your interests in medicine (this is often called an "informational interview"). Career Services has a great list of starting questions you may want to ask here.
Question: I shadowed a physician over the fall break. Do I need a letter or other documentation to provide proof of the experience?
Answer: No – you sign a statement of integrity when you apply to medical school stating that you are portraying your experiences honestly, and this will suffice. You will be asked to provide contact information for each activity that you report in your application so that schools could follow up on the experiences if desired, but for the most part, they will trust that you are being truthful in your application.
Question: I have some family friends who are doctors and they’ve agreed to let me shadow them over break, but they haven’t had students shadow before and asked me what to expect. What should I tell them?
Answer: Excellent question! We want shadowing experiences to be positive for students and for the physicians who are providing this valuable opportunity. A group of medical school personnel, pre-health advisors, ethicists, and others have collaborated to developed Guidelines for Clinical Shadowing Experiences for Pre-medical Students. We encourage you to read through them so that you can provide a summary for the physicians, and you can also provide them with a copy of the guidelines, or a link to the document.
As an aside, we answered a Question of the Week about finding physicians to shadow last year, so those of you who are still looking to find shadowing experiences can find the answer online in our archives. Career Services also offers “Princeternships” with pre-identified alums, and you can apply to participate in these shadowing opportunities through TigerTracks. The deadline to apply for January Princeternships is November 5, and the deadline for Spring Break Princeternships is February 10. ♦
Question: I am in the process of setting up some shadowing with an orthopaedic surgeon, and his assistant has asked me how many hours I wanted to shadow for. What is typical?
Answer: It depends on what you’ll be doing as you shadow and what you want to get out of it. Generally, if you’re just observing and asking a few questions, about 3-4 days full time will give you a good sense of what’s going on. Spreading your time out across a few different shadowing opportunities with physicians or other health professionals in different areas may maximize the learning experience. There’s some additional guidance regarding shadowing in our archived Questions of the Week: Shadowing. ♦
Summer Camp Job
Question: I am a pre-med freshman. I know it is suggested that we do medically-related summer programs, but is it absolutely necessary the summer after freshman year? I love kids, and would love to work at a camp this summer, especially since it will probably be the last summer that I would be able to do this. Would this be discouraged? Should I try to volunteer at a hospital or something like that at the same time?
Answer: Go ahead and work at the summer camp. It’s nice to love kids! Medical schools think so, too. Maybe you could hang out with the camp nurse a bit? Some people do their medically-related activity during the academic year instead of the summers. Do what works best for you. ♦
Using Summer Vacation Time Productively
Question: I’m a freshman and I’m thinking about engineering and medicine as my top career options right now. Is it better to take an internship in engineering, or to do some shadowing and hospital volunteer work over the summer?
Answer: Why not do both? The Princeton summer is a luxurious twelve weeks, which means that you have more time than many of your peers at other schools to engage in numerous activities. Many internships last eight to ten weeks, which would still leave time to do some full-time shadowing. It may be worthwhile to let your internship supervisor know that you’re considering a medical career, and see if they have any contacts who you could shadow or know of nearby places where you could volunteer. Once you know your internship site, you can also start googling for nearby hospitals and see if you can do a weekend volunteer shift, an evening EMT training class, spend time at an animal shelter, or take part in a similar endeavor that doesn’t take up too much time. Remember, internships are usually about forty hours a week, so that leaves 128 hours of time – even after adding in commuting, meals, sleep and socializing, you should be able to spare a few hours to gain some medically-relevant experience. Look through our archived Questions of the Week for more advice on finding summer opportunities and reaching out to physicians to shadow.
Question: I ‘m a freshman and applied to a few internships, but didn’t get any of them, and now I don’t know what to do this summer. Help!
Answer: First of all, don’t despair – we’re glad that you put yourself out there as an applicant. The process of finding internships, crafting your resume and cover letter, asking for letters of recommendation – all of this is great practice for future applications, and will give you a head start in future years, when you’ll have more experience under your belt as an internship applicant.
Many students encounter this issue, especially in freshman and sophomore summers. This is a good time to turn to your personal/family network: do you have friends’ parents who are physicians, or friends of physicians? This could be a good excuse to visit a roommate or Princeton friend for a couple of weeks over the summer, hang out with them at night, and go to work with their parent during the day. Did you work in a lab in high school? Maybe your supervisor has some connections that will help you find a new opportunity, or some colleges or universities that they might recommend where similar work is being done – we’ve had students find research opportunities just by writing professional emails and attaching their resumes, and sending this information to researchers in fields of interest. Don’t forget to use the Princeton network: reach out to alumni who might be in your area, and see if they’re willing to have you shadow, or maybe even assist on a research project, if they’re in a lab. Use the Alumni Careers Network and the Career Services guidelines for networking to make contact with alums. Also, don’t limit yourself to learning about medical careers in the summer. Maybe you’re still considering interests from high school, or maybe you’ve discovered something new through your courses and activities here – now is the time to explore! If you’re still trying to decide whether you’d rather be, say, an engineer or a doctor, reach out to some engineers and do some shadowing with them, too.
Many hospitals also have summer volunteer programs for college students – we’re starting to compile a list of links to Volunteer Services offices at hospitals. If you’d like some help locating hospitals in your area, email us and we’ll do some scouting near your home town. If you don’t have access to a hospital, consider other ways that you can show your dedication to your community, and improve your cultural competence (exposure to people different from yourself) through volunteering – working with veterans, the elderly, people with disabilities, people who are homeless – there are many sectors of society that you will be serving as a physician, so gaining an appreciation of their experiences on a personal level now can help you think about your career in the future.
We also encourage you to revisit the Question of the Week: “What pre-health things can I do during Fall Break while I have some free time” – many of these things also apply to Spring and Summer breaks! ♦