Getting Hands-on Experience

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Succeeding in academic coursework must be the primary focus for competitive applicants; however, co-curricular activities are essential when applying to graduate school. Admissions committees look for students who have explored and tested their motivation for a career in healthcare by gaining knowledge of the field and engaging in service experiences.

Beyond these basic requirements for admission, candidates should seek out opportunities that motivate them, teach them, and inspire curiosity (like research!). This List of Hands-On Experiences includes programs targeting students looking to explore research, clinical roles, and beyond. Most deadlines are in January through March.

Knowledge of the Field

Graduate schools seek candidates who have basic experience in the field-something meaningful and sustained-as well as a letter of recommendation from a professional in the field. This looks different for each program:

  • Dentistry: Applicants must shadow a general dentist for at least 100 hours. They must also continuously work to improve their manual dexterity—needed for completing precise procedures in small mouths—through making art, playing an instrument, building models, doing nail art, performing lab procedures that require fine motor skills, etc. Some schools incorporate manual dexterity (carving) tasks as part of their interview process.
  • Physician Assistant: While each school may define acceptable activities differently, most programs seek applicants who have, at minimum, 500 to 2,000 hours of direct patient care experience in a paid position such as an EMT or CNA. Some programs also require shadowing of a PA for at least 30 hours.
  • Medicine: Strong applicants demonstrate they have experienced medicine at its worst—been thrown up on, yelled at, etc.—and still seek to enter the field. EMT and CNA are common paths, as they guarantee a challenge. Some applicants find volunteer positions or other roles that offer direct patient contact and afford a challenge.

There are countless ways to gain clinical experience, but here are a few that our students frequently pursue:

Role Training Required (Approximate Cost) Considerations Possible Settings How to Find Job (Entry-Level Pay)
Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) *4-8 week course at community college or ambulance service (~$1100) Challenging role when done in an urban setting where calls are numerous. Can involve intense situations. Ambulance company, ER, fire department Check local job boards ($12)
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) *4-8 week course at community college, medical facility, or Red Cross (~$1400) Challenging, often unglamorous role that affords sustained patient contact. Highly in demand. Assisted living or mental health facility, hospital Check local job boards ($12)
Volunteer Typically no formal training; instead, on-the-job training Only roles with direct patient contact—patient escort, patient companion, etc.—are clinical. Since most positions are not demanding, candidates should seek roles that may increase in responsibility or that inherently push the boundaries of their comfort zones. Hospital, hospice, assisted living facility Check the organization's website and contact the volunteer coordinator ($0)
Clinical Research Varies from no formal training to CPR to EMT, CNA, or other training Roles where applicants interact with patients are clinical. Positions vary widely in level of challenge; those that push the applicant are most valued. University, hospital Check job boards on hospital websites and pre-health email list ($15)

*Certification processes can vary by state. Fees and exams may be involved in transferring a license from out of state.

In addition to traditional clinical experience, applicants can enhance their knowledge of the field in the following ways:

  1. Shadowing
    • Provides an understanding of the field and helps in deciding if a health career is a fit by allowing candidates to follow a health provider and ask questions.
    • Starts, most commonly, with a personal contact or networking.
    • Fulfills requirements for dental schools and some PA programs. Strengthens applications to DO medical programs when applicants have shadowed a DO.
    • Offers flexibility—can vary in formality, be any length of time, and affords the chance to create personalized learning goals with the healthcare professional. Since most shadowing is observing, not doing, it is primarily non-clinical. Candidates should seek as much hands-on and patient interaction as possible.
  2. Internship
    • Tends to be more formal with specific learning goals for the experience but compensation, length, and responsibilities vary widely.
    • Can be available in clinical work, research, and many other medically-relevant venues. Only those with direct patient contact are considered clinical.

Service Experience

Graduate schools will look for a sustained commitment to service both to the UMass community and to the community at large. Serving UMass—through clubs, CMASS, Residence Life, a TA role, band, etc.—exhibits an interest in being an active, engaged colleague. Serving the community beyond UMass by making time to volunteer at least two hours each week demonstrates compassion and empathy.

Moreover, service is an opportunity for applicants to show an admissions committee the things that drive them toward a health profession-addressing poverty, serving children, advocating for the elderly. It also offers a chance to highlight their personalities, whether they like sports, music, teaching, etc. Students should be thoughtful about the activities they pursue, seeking experiences that they enjoy and that resonate with them.

As students engage in service, they should be mindful of finding opportunities to grow their skill sets. Graduate schools value those with experience in leadership, teamwork, and an ability to work across cultures. Direct, hands-on work with people—as opposed to philanthropy—is especially valued.

Research Opportunities

While medical, dental, and PA schools do not mandate research experience, having some can be extremely enriching and allow a person to gain a better understanding of how knowledge is discovered. It can also help applicants to develop persistence, teamwork, and other invaluable skills. Moreover, research can be a wonderful opportunity to connect with faculty, which is important as all applicants need faculty recommendation letters.

Those seeking to learn more about research opportunities should speak to departmental advising offices, look at the list of undergraduate research opportunities on the CNS website, review individual faculty members' web pages, and meet with someone at the Office of Undergraduate Research & Studies. Once prepared, they should then follow up with a visit to faculty members during their office hours or at their laboratories.

For summer research opportunities and beyond, students should use the List of Hands-On Experiences, which includes the following biomedical research programs along with many others:

  • GREAT group SURP programs: Participate in cutting-edge MD-PhD-focused research through a participating AAMC medical school, often with free room and board.
  • The NIH Clinical Center (CC) Summer Internship Program: Work with mentors who are researchers and health professionals at the nation's largest hospital devoted entirely to clinical research. Participate in the NIH Research Poster Festival and attend weekly lectures presented by NIH investigators.
  • The Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP): Engage in academic enrichment activities and gain clinical exposure at a program targeted at first- and second-year college students from underserved backgrounds who are pursuing medicine or dentistry. Enjoy free room and board while gaining intensive, personalized graduate school preparation.