Preparing to enter a health profession school takes time and careful planning. Health profession schools are interested in applicants who demonstrate academic excellence, research competence, clinical experience, leadership, professionalism and compassion. Strong qualifications in these areas are built through a wide variety of experiences over time.
STEM Fields and Research at Smith
At the heart of Smith's learning is active engagement, coupling innovative teaching with real opportunities for in-depth research. Information about on-campus research in STEM fields can be found on many academic departmental websites, as well as in centralized information on the STEM at Smith page.
Students who have already gained some research experience and would like to further develop their skills may wish to consider off-campus experiences in the summer months. The links below will direct you to several well-known programs, but this list is not exhaustive. Many undergraduate summer research programs are highly competitive, and students are advised to apply broadly when seeking these off-campus experiences. Another Smith program, PRAXIS, affords students a one-time stipend that can be applied towards an otherwise un-funded research internship.
The benefits of undergraduate research are many. In addition to gaining experience with research technologies, you will practice applying learned knowledge to answer specific scientific questions. You will also learn to think critically, work independently and collaborate with others. Many students enjoy the opportunity to manage their own project and will gain experience discussing their work with other members of the academic community. For prehealth students who find themselves passionate about a project, undergraduate research is an opportunity to demonstrate a sustained interest in one area of science.
If you find yourself drawn in by research, you may wish to pursue a career as a clinician-scientist and explore dual degree programs such as M.D.-Ph.D., D.V.M-Ph.D., D.M.D.-Ph.D., or Pharm.D.-Ph.D. Alternatively, you may decide not to attend professional school and to look at other careers and advanced degrees, instead.
Many prehealth students arrive at Smith College eager to conduct research, and there are numerous ways to get involved. Faculty conduct research and may have room for student assistants. To learn about on-campus research opportunities, talk to other students, including student academic advisers; ask Smith faculty, including your liberal arts adviser; or contact a member of the Board of Health Professions Advisers.
Students should also listen to faculty research talks and attend departmental events. The Sigma Xi lecture series is a great opportunity to hear about what is happening on campus. Many faculty share information about their research interests online. You can explore this by visiting the "Faculty and Staff" pages of the academic departments and programs at Smith.
Formal research programs at Smith include SURF, Smith's Summer Research Fellows program, which provides a 10-week, full-time stipended research experience to approximately 150 students each summer. Students may also conduct independent research for academic credit through the special studies program, or by completing a senior year research project in the departmental honors program.
Clinical experience offers exposure to the daily activities of health care as well as to healthcare professionals. Many prehealth students gain clinical experiences by volunteering in a healthcare setting and shadowing practitioners. It is also possible to pursue training that will allow you to provide a limited amount of direct care, such as becoming an EMT, Certified Nursing Assistant or phlebotomist. Other jobs in healthcare settings may require on the job training such as working as a medical scribe or veterinary assistant.
Clinical experience is critical for applications to most health profession schools. Professional schools want to feel confident that applicants have a strong understanding of the field they hope to enter and that they have demonstrated the ability to interact effectively with patients in healthcare settings.
Some health professions, such as public health and pharmacy, do not have the same expectations of clinical experience, though experience related to those fields remains important. Pre-public health students might pursue entry-level public health summer internships, for example. Those interested in pharmacy can obtain paid or volunteer positions in pharmacies.
There are few formal shadowing programs, so seeking such opportunities requires good networking skills. You may want to start by talking to personal or family contacts such as your own doctor, dentist, veterinarian, physical therapist, etc. Ask other contacts (such as a prehealth adviser!) for additional recommendations of practitioners to contact.
- Guidelines for Clinical Shadowing Experiences for Premedical Students (useful for any profession)
- Useful FAQs on shadowing from University of Washington School of Medicine
Private practices, hospitals, clinics, public health agencies, nursing homes and volunteer hotlines are some examples of common places to volunteer. Where you look may depend on when you hope to volunteer and where you hope or need to be.
Paid Clinical Work
Some students and alumnae work in professional roles such as clinical research assistants, medical assistants, nursing aides, emergency care technicians, home care providers, phlebotomists, certified nurse assistants, EMTs, or laboratory technicians. If you have the relevant training, consider starting your job hunt at the Lazarus Center for Career Development. If you are currently working as an unpaid volunteer, watch for job openings within your company.
How much clinical experience is enough?
This depends in part on the profession you hope to enter. Schools for physician assistant training may require up to 2,000 hours of direct patient care experience, and veterinary schools similarly have high expectations of substantial animal experience. Most other professional schools will not have such substantial requirements, though it is wise to check admission information for the schools you are interested in, as some will be very specific in their expectations. Seek meaningful experiences where you will learn and be challenged. Continue with clinical experience over time. (A few weeks of volunteering prior to submitting an application will not suffice!) And discuss your growing qualifications with a prehealth adviser.
Making the most of clinical experience
Treat any clinical opportunity like a job (or perhaps it is one!): work hard, learn as much as you can, exercise a positive attitude, and honor your time commitments. The people you work with may be future letter writers, employers, or, after you matriculate, perhaps even colleagues or teachers. Consider keeping a diary to help track hours worked, as professional schools may request this information on applications. You can also use the diary to record interesting experiences to reflect on later.
- AAMC fact sheets on gaining clinical experience
- Summer opportunities for prehealth students
- Information on HIPPA
- More information on HIPPA
- AAMC guidelines for students participating in clinical experiences abroad
- ADEA guidelines for students participating in clinical experiences abroad
- Global Ambassadors for Patient Safety (online training for students participating in clinical experiences outside of the U.S.—highly recommended)
Meet With Your Adviser
Pursuing a study abroad opportunity requires careful academic planning, particularly if you are also completing requirements for a health profession school. For example, if you want to spend your junior year abroad and intend to complete the two-year chemistry sequence, you should start this in your first semester at Smith. Students considering a study abroad experience should consult with their liberal arts adviser in their first year. Check the course offerings available abroad to ensure that you can complete your major. Taking prehealth courses abroad is not recommended, as health profession schools may not accept credits earned at a foreign institution.
Consider Academic Preparedness
In deciding whether to go abroad, contemplate your academic preparations holistically. Consider how to balance time devoted to basic research, extracurricular activities, clinical experience and entrance examination preparations along with your international experience. Do not consider a study abroad experience simply because you think it will help your application to professional school. Study abroad is a serious undertaking, and it is unlikely to supplement your application if it does not also fit with your personal interests and goals.
There are many ways to gain international experience, and you may want to consider different possibilities before settling on one plan. While a large portion of Smith undergraduates spend one or more semesters abroad, there are also opportunities for international experiences in the summer months, during interterm, and between graduation from Smith and matriculation at a health profession school. You may consider Praxis and International Experience Grants for funding opportunities.
- The US Department of Justice has tapped the Forum on Education Abroad to set guidelines for providing hands-on patient care or for seeking to do activities that are not legally/ethically allowed.
- The University of Minnesota has put together the GAPS modules for students, which stands for Global Ambassadors for Patient Safety.
- The Working Group of Global Activities by Students at Pre-Health Levels raises awareness of unethical/untrained activities.
- The book Preparing for International Health Experiences: A Practical Guide is also a useful resource for students.