What is good volunteer work?

Whether you have wanted to become a doctor your whole life or you are now thinking of applying to Medicine, you are probably aware that work experience comes with the territory.

Let’s play a word association game – ok? First up: Applying for Medicine. Most people would cry out, ‘Work experience!’

There is an abundance of different types of work experiences out there, however, in this blog post, I’m going to focus on volunteering. If you would like to learn more about other types of work experience, do check out my previous blog post ‘How to secure your workplace experience?’ and Gerens Cunrow’s blog ‘What type of work experience should I do?’.

Many universities understand that work experience within a hospital setting is extremely hard to come by and instead will accept voluntary work. Voluntary work is an excellent way for you to develop personally, acquiring many new skills in communication, empathy, time-management and teamwork. So it helps you to develop great skills for life and it looks great on your application – win-win! It can also be extremely rewarding. A key part of being a doctor is showing that you care and that you are not just in the job for money (if you’re in it for the money, I think you’re looking at the wrong job). Voluntary work will show that you have a ‘heart’ along with your ‘brains’ (yes, as you can tell, I have revised my anatomy). However, ‘What is ‘good’ volunteer work?’, I hear you ask. This is the same question I asked myself many times during my Medicine application, but I have come through the other side and I’m here to share some top tips!

To break volunteering down, we must answer these two questions:

  • What area is best to volunteer in?
  • What is a suitable length of time for volunteering?

What area is it best to volunteer in?

There are many different types of volunteering and all volunteering is GOOD! However, we want you to be GREAT! Yes, volunteering for an animal charity is great and a very worthwhile cause, however, top this up with volunteer experience which is somewhat related to healthcare. Have your volunteer experiences stand out from the crowd and be creative when choosing your volunteer work. The great thing about volunteering is that no matter where you do it, you’ll gain skills which are relevant to a career in Medicine. However, the most important point about volunteer work is whether you’ll enjoy it. It will become very apparent during the interview if you have just chosen something to ‘boost’ your CV. It will be much more impressive for an interviewer to see that you are passionate about your volunteer work. Also, if you enjoy it you are much more likely to commit.   

Here I will discuss some of the key volunteering opportunities you can get involved in, however, do not be limited by this list. There are far too many opportunities out there for me to discuss them all but use this list as a foundation for your research. Another excellent site to check out is ‘do-it.org’.

1. Charity shops

Charity shops are a great way to boost your communication skills and are a relatively easy way of securing a volunteering opportunity. During the years coming up to my UCAS application, I volunteered in a Northern Ireland Hospice Charity Shop. Although this did not give me direct exposure to medicine, it enabled me to gain confidence in dealing with many different customers and teamwork skills working alongside my colleagues. I absolutely loved working in the charity shop and I continued to do so for 5 years post application in my university summer holidays. In order to maximise the benefits of your volunteering opportunity you must put your all into it, then you are much more likely to see the benefits.

2. Hospital Volunteering

A great way of getting work experience in a hospital setting is by volunteering. Many hospitals now run their own volunteer service. These opportunities are great because they can offer you exposure within the clinical setting.  Hospital volunteers help to complement the work of hospital staff offering patients an extra person to talk to. Duties required of a hospital volunteer may be making cups of tea and coffee, talking to a dementia patient, singing to patients or playing board games with patients.

For example, the Royal Free Charity in London run a ‘Young Volunteers Programme’ for 16-25-year-olds. Many of their young volunteers are interested in pursuing a career in healthcare or many just want to give back to the NHS. To find out more about this programme click here. However, these volunteering opportunities are becoming more and more attractive to medical students and they also require a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check which can take up to 6 months to process. Therefore, you must apply as early as possible to increase your chances of securing a placement. In order to find these volunteering opportunities check out your local hospitals’ websites. To get you started click here for a link to all of the NHS trusts in England.

3. Care Homes or Hospices

If you are unable to find volunteering experience in a hospital, care homes or hospices are the next best thing. Often, care homes come with the stigma that they are full of boring old people and not very nice places to work. However, this could not be more wrong. Care homes are full of fascinating individuals who have great stories to tell and are looking for someone to have a chat with. In a similar vein to hospitals, care homes can provide an environment for you to improve on your communication skills, developing a rapport with the residents. Also, you may have the opportunity to learn some practical skills, offering hands-on care to the patients.

4. Charities

There are hundreds of charities out there, all with many different ways for you to get involved. There is no excuse for not being able to secure a volunteering opportunity. To make it a bit easier for you, I’ve listed some of my favourite charities for you to get started on your search.

  • Alzheimer’s Society- Dementia is quickly becoming ever more prevalent in our aging population and Alzheimer’s is a condition which you most certainly will be dealing with as a future doctor. The Alzheimer’s society offers many different volunteering opportunities such as Dementia Cafes, telephone volunteering, fundraising or helping to raise awareness of dementia.
  • British Red Cross- The British Red Cross is known for helping people in crisis. They offer volunteering opportunities such as helping lonely people, volunteering in their charity shops or providing information and health to refugees and asylum seekers.
  • GoodGym- If you enjoy fitness and volunteering, this charity is for you. This charity involves you going on a run with other volunteers and midway through the run you will take part in a volunteering opportunity in your local area. This may be visiting an elderly person at home, helping at a nursery or helping to do some gardening.
  • St John Ambulance Cadets- Young people aged between 10-17 can join one of St John Ambulance’s cadet units. As a cadet, you will learn first aid and can take part in volunteering in the community offering first aid at public events. These first aid skills would be very beneficial in your medical career and very impressive at interview.

5. Volunteering abroad

If you like to travel and you are struggling to find a volunteering opportunity you enjoy, why not look at travelling abroad? Organisations such as Projects Abroad, PlanMyGapYear and GVI offer medically related volunteering opportunities in countries such as Thailand, the Caribbean, India, Tanzania and many more. Not only will you get to shadow doctors but you may also be able to take part in basic medical care such as taking observations, dressing wounds etc. However, you don’t have to wait until you get to the country of interest to start your voluntary work - you can start from home through fundraising and raising awareness.

Whilst in Sixth Form, I travelled to Romania with the charity School Aid Romania to volunteer in the orphanages, care homes and hospitals. This was one of the most unforgettable and rewarding experiences of my life. Prior to my trip, I took part in a lot of fundraising activities such as coffee mornings, organising a masquerade ball and bag packing. If you have the chance, I’d highly recommend taking part in one of these trips.

What is a suitable length of time for volunteering?

The simple answer is no time is too long to volunteer! Just be sensible and make sure that your volunteer work won’t interfere with your studies. Start early and rack up those hours! The importance of volunteering is a dedication to the cause. Medicine is a life-long commitment and it is important to show that you are able to commit to something. In my opinion, it is much more impressive to do as little as 1 to 3 hours a week of volunteering over 3 to 6 months rather than one month of volunteering over your summer holidays. It shows that you are committed and you are able to have a balance in your life and coordinate your studies alongside volunteering. Also, choose only 1 or 2 places to volunteer. If you have lots of short volunteer experience, interviewers may question your commitment or your ability to work alongside others.

I hope now I have answered the question ‘what is good volunteer work?’. All volunteering is good but it is up to you to make it GREAT!. I will leave you now with my final key tips for volunteering. If you find that you are still struggling do not be afraid to contact theMSAG and we will happily be your guide.

Key tips while volunteering 

  • Don’t give up! If you don’t get the volunteering opportunity you want straight away, try and try again.
  • Say YES! Say yes to everything they ask you to do, no matter how tricky or new it is to you (within reason).
  • Keep a reflective log diary. This will come extremely handy when it comes to writing your personal statement and at interview. Reflections are a key part of being a medical student and a doctor. It is important that you are able to reflect on your experiences and understand what you have learned from your experiences.
  • Stay committed - dedication is key! Choose something you enjoy so that you are much more likely to commit. Also choose somewhere which is easy to get to i.e. near to home or school.

Take a sneak peek into our guidebook 
"Get into Medical School for Undergraduates 2019-20"

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