How to Handle an Unsatisfactory Clinical or Research Experience

Premed students know how important extracurricular activities are to their medical school application. Not only are they looking to gain invaluable insight into the medical field, but they want to have meaningful experiences that will enhance their application.

However, not every experience goes as well as hoped.

I remember starting a volunteer position as a premed in a local emergency department. As a sophomore in college with no medical training, I was anxious to get started, observe everything I could and help where needed. But there was one nurse in particular who, for whatever reason, was determined not to let that happen.

One night as I was observing a trauma at the perimeter of the trauma bay so as to not get in the way of any medical practitioners, a nurse came right in front of me and closed the curtain to block my view. I was appalled. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was being respectful of the patients and health care staff and was only there to observe and learn. I walked away feeling very defeated and hoped it was a one-time occurrence.

But I was wrong. On a subsequent shift, I was listening to several practitioners discuss a patient when the same nurse came and stepped in front of me to block me out of the conversation. I was shocked.

[Read: 5 Ways to Develop Strong Clinical Experiences for Medical School.]

I don’t know why this nurse was so resistant to my presence. I hadn’t ever talked to her or interacted with her, but I was discouraged and not sure what to do with the rest of my time at the hospital.

Fortunately, my rotation in the ER ended and I was moved to the labor and delivery unit. My experience in this unit was drastically different, and for the better. A nurse took me under her wing and let me help her with all of her tasks. I was able to assist her with the postpartum patients, and in bathing and feeding newborns. My experience was completely different and I learned so much during that rotation.

Premed students can feel limited and sometimes even shut out from getting fully immersed in their clinical or research experiences. However, the important thing to remember is that not every experience is going to be that way, and being resilient and sticking it out through a particular experience will likely pay off in the end.

If an experience is not going as planned, here are some tips on how to make the best of it.

Get What You Can Out of it

Although you may be just observing, sitting at a welcome desk or wheeling patients out of the hospital, there is always some value you can glean from the situation. Think about being positive in all your encounters, and even though it can feel small, you may just make someone’s day by being a bright light.

[Read: 4 Ways to Make Premedical Research Experience Count.]

Pay attention to the things happening around you. If you are stuck observing, pay attention to the conversations of physicians, write down terms that you hear and look them up later. Or chat up patients when you are wheeling them to meet their families. Making sure to make the most of any experience, albeit sometimes small, will ensure value from the experience.

Be an Advocate for Yourself

It’s OK to talk to someone if the experience is not going well, especially if you feel you are being mistreated. If you are taking a passive role on a research project, doe example, you can approach your principal investigator in a respectful and professional manner to ask for a more meaningful role.

The key to asking for a different position is to make sure you substantiate your reasoning. For example, if you want a more hands-on role in volunteering, talk to your supervisor about the skills you have and the experiences that make you qualified for that role. Most supervisors will be willing to listen, and if you can provide enough evidence to show you are ready for a different role they will help make it happen.

Be Aware of Situations That Are Not OK

No matter your role, sexual harassment, racial or ethnic discrimination, or other forms of harassment should never be tolerated.

I once worked with a student whose supervisor threatened punitive action after she declined his sexual advances. Fortunately, the student recognized this as inappropriate and reported it to the supervisor’s boss.

[READ: How to Make Premed Nonclinical Experiences Relevant to Practicing Medicine.]

As a volunteer or paid employee, you should never have to tolerate this behavior. If you feel you are in an inappropriate position, remove yourself from the situation and report it right away.

Get Help on How to Address a Bad Experience on Your Medical School Application

Premed students often don’t know if they should include a poor experience on their medical school application and, if they do, how to describe it.

It’s not wrong to include an experience that didn’t turn out well, but it needs to be finessed to ensure that the focus is appropriate.

Talk to an adviser or professor, or consult professionals — such as physician advisers — who can help you.

More from U.S. News

4 Ways Premed Students Can Make an Impact in Nonclinical Settings

How to Make Sure You Fulfill Medical School Requirements for Admission

How to Use AMCAS to Apply to Medical School

How to Handle an Unsatisfactory Clinical or Research Experience originally appeared on

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