Choose Your Own Adventure: Gap Year Jobs
Updated: Apr 21, 2019
The gap year: a mysterious twelve months (or more) before medical school, where students are temporarily thrust into the “real world” away from the safe embrace of academia.
As someone who actually took one of these gap years, I had to personally weigh the pros and cons of different options. The issue is that each job is vastly different from one another, so if you don’t know what you're walking into, you may have a less than fulfilling gap year. I personally chose to be both an ER Technician and EMT for a medical transport company, so I could tell you a lot about those jobs. However, I wouldn’t be able to give much advice about being a scribe or research coordinator.
Thankfully, many students in our MedPrep network have participated in diverse gap year experiences, so I have combined all of our valuable insights into this guide to help you choose what you want to do during your mysterious twelve months (or more).
Disclaimer: These experiences are subjective, but we have told our contributors to be as impartial as possible. Therefore, there should b a lot of valuable insights to each gap year experience.
1) EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT SCRIBE
(written by Ji Whae Choi)
For the past year, I worked as a scribe in the emergency department at a community hospital. There were three major requirements that I had to meet prior to my start date: a completion of at least one year at a regionally accredited university or college, commitment of 12-months to the program, and willingness to work rotating shifts such as days, evenings, nights, weekends, and holidays. My typical week varied a lot in terms of hours. For example, I could work 24 hours one week and then 36 hours another week. I was paid $14 per hour and offered benefits. However, these specific requirements, work schedule, and compensation are different from program to program, so I would carefully research into as many programs as possible before choosing.
My primary responsibility was to electronically document a patient’s visit at the hospital in order for physicians to focus on providing a high-quality patient care. Every shift, I was assigned to a physician whom I followed around and communicated with throughout the day. I organized the chart by summarizing patient’s symptoms and history, noting exam findings and consults, and submitting discharge or admission orders.
The positive aspect about my job is that I worked in the closest proximity to a doctor, allowing me to view patient care from a physician’s perspective. During each shift with a doctor, I witnessed patients’ arrival, examination, medical decision making, treatment, and discharge/admission. By the end of my first month as a scribe, I began making differential diagnoses by myself and considering the necessary lab work and/or imaging on each patient. I also enjoyed working with different members in the ED team, such as nurses, technicians, and unit secretary. While the physician was temporarily occupied for a procedure, reevaluation, or other task, I had the opportunity to receive and relay critical information and facilitate teamwork. This experience helped me to better understand the role of each member in the medical team.
One negative aspect about my job is that I did not have much direct patient interactions or clinical duties. My patient interactions consisted of asking the patients if they need blankets or water and bringing them. Since our major goal is charting, scribes are not allowed to do anything clinical such as CPR.
In conclusion, I absolutely loved my time as a scribe and would recommend it to a person who is searching for a job that allows you to interact with a physician as frequently as possible.
2) OUTPATIENT SCRIBE
(Written by Surya Gourneni)
Since August, I have worked for an orthopedic clinic and began at a heme/onc clinic in January. I applied for a scribe position with ScribeAmerica (SA), who hired and trained me in July of last year. Training includes an online portion and on-site training. There were a few requirements to apply with SA: high school diploma, decent typing skills, and a commitment of 12 months (more on this later). I work with doctors and their assistants. My hours vary significantly based on the schedules of my doctors. Since my orthopedic clinic is privately owned, my schedule revolves around a regular work week with a couple days off because the surgeon is in surgery with his assistant. I usually log around 25 hours over two and a half days of work, unless the surgeon and his PA are out of town. The heme/onc clinic is located in a hospital and I work regular hours there. On my off days from the orthopedic clinic, I work a normal 8-5 at the heme/onc clinic. The pay is from ScribeAmerica is usually minimum wage depending on where you work (i.e. $13.25 in DC, $7.25 in VA, etc). Occasionally, it will be a little bit higher based on your merit/length of work. You get paid for training as well. In general, your hours are regular but may change based on your doctor’s schedule. It always best to be proactive and ask your physician or the clinic coordinator about the schedule. There is not a lot of inherent flexibility, but you can always request time off with ScribeAmerica and they will attempt to find you a replacement.
Since I have taken a proactive approach to learning from the physicians and helping with the overall clinic workflow, I believe the work is incredible. It took some time to get used to each clinic’s EMR but after crossing that hurdle, the work was pretty smooth. My ortho clinic gets busy, so there is never a dull moment. However, my heme/onc clinic has some down time, so I can read a book or work on some projects in my off time. I listen to the physician while in the patient room, obtain the patient’s HPI, and work with the medical assistant if they need help. I found that the added responsibility helps keep the job fresh.
There are a few pros to being an outpatient scribe. You have more patient interaction, learn about your field in depth, and form closer friendships with your colleagues and bosses.
The cons are a bit varied. Sometimes, work can be boring if you see multiple similar cases (i.e. knee osteoarthritis 6 times in a row) and occasional high stress when you see a complicated patient or the clinic is falling behind schedule. Other cons are more logistical, as some weeks you don’t have a lot of work because your physician may be out of the clinic. You might be required to stay after clinic to finish and fix notes.
Being an outpatient scribe has taught me a lot about the fields I work in. Every day, I see at least one new case that offers me a different perspective on the patient experience. I learned how a clinic functions and ways to improve the workflow. The connections I’ve formed over my time at the clinics are invaluable.
3) MEDICAL ASSISTANT
(Written by Alexa Noronha)
I began working in a cardiology outpatient office as a medical assistant in January after my fall graduation date. My training for this job was on-site, and lasted about 3 weeks in total in order to be able to handle most responsibilities on my own. Overall, I ended up working around 50 hours every week Monday-Friday, with my pay starting at $15/hour. There were not that many people working in the office, so time off required a few weeks notice to coordinate with other medical assistants in the office.
As a medical assistant, I was responsible for a lot. Patient intake, phone calls, vitals, and blood draws were among my main duties. I also had to do some billing and get in touch with insurance companies about various patient issues.
One great part about this position was my ability to build a relationship with patients who came to the office and learn about what it takes to run an outpatient clinic. There are many key people to the process of having an office run smoothly.
One aspect of this job that I would change is that sometimes the expectations were that I could do it all, from blood draws to billing and squeeze that into a 10 hour day. It could get exhausting at times.
In conclusion, working as a medical assistant can be very rewarding, but make sure the office you work for has clear expectations of you from the start.
4) HOSPITAL (FLOOR) TECHNICIAN
(Written by Skanda Setty)
During my gap year, I spent a few months working as a Floor Technician in the Progressive Care Unit of a local hospital. Although I worked part-time (two 12-hr shifts per week), the training and on-boarding process was full-time for 3-5 weeks. Besides the training that the hospital provided, the only requirement to start working in the hospital was CPR Certification, but a CPR class was offered free of charge if you were not already certified. I was paid approximately $14/hour and the shifts were from 7AM – 7PM (day shift) or 7PM – 7AM (night shift). The shifts were self-scheduled and, if necessary, I could switch shifts with the other technicians.
As a floor technician, I was assigned 8-10 patients per shift and I worked with charge nurses and the registered nurse to provide direct patient care. This included checking and reporting vital signs and blood sugar levels, as well as inserting urinary catheters, placing IV catheters, and performing EKG’s. Depending on the needs of the patient, I also had other tasks such as assisting them to the restroom, cleaning them, feeding them, or fetching them food, water, and other necessities.
The best part of working as a technician was the opportunity to interact heavily with patients. Given that many volunteer opportunities in hospitals do not allow any physical contact with patients, this opportunity was unique because I had the opportunity to directly provide care to the patients I was assigned to. Working in a hospital also exposed me to relevant information that healthcare providers are familiar with, and taught me more about the healthcare system that I was planning to be a part of. I also learned and became proficient in certain unique skills, such as placing IV catheters. In my unit, it was often said that the technicians (most of whom had never been to medical school or nursing school) were better at placing IV catheters than the nurses were.
There were drawbacks to the work, though. The 12-hr shifts were long, and I was constantly busy since there were different tasks that had to be done for different patients at different times. Some of these tasks also had strict time frames for which they had to be completed. In the meantime, patients or nurses were asking for help as issues came up. Although I appreciated being kept busy and not feeling like I was wasting my time, it was draining. Daily tasks such as assisting patients to the restroom, cleaning patients, and inserting catheters also requires being comfortable with getting your hands dirty. In hindsight, the biggest drawback was that I worked primarily with nurses, and I rarely had the chance to interact with physicians.
All in all, I considered this experience very beneficial for anyone who wants/needs a lot of clinical experience and direct patient contact.
5) EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT TECHNICIAN
(Written by Charith Ratnayake)
I spent about eight months as an ER Technician in a community hospital. In order to be hired, I needed to have my EMT certification and (presumably) an undergraduate degree. My typical work week was about 36-48 hours per week and I had to work five weekends every two months. I was paid about 14$/hour with a little bit more money on weekends and night shifts. The job was also generally pretty flexible because you could schedule your own shifts, switch shifts with other technicians, and accrue a lot of paid time off (PTO). Therefore, if you need to go to interviews or vacations you can take time off easily.
As an ER technician, I acted as a phlebotomist and probably started about 5,000 IVs. I basically completed all the orders with the nurses (other than giving medicine). This includes splinting, insertion of foley's, CPR, taking vital signs, EKGs, and even assisting intubations or central line insertions. The main difference between an ER technician and a hospital (floor) technician is that the former does less daily care activities, such as bathing, cleaning, and feeding. I also personally liked being an ER technician more because of the sense of urgency and excitement of emergency medicine, which you don't really get on the floors.
Obviously, the coolest part of my job is the patient interaction, especially as someone who never really put my hands on a patient before. I also really loved being in a hospital environment because you passively (or actively) absorb a lot of healthcare information, such as which medications doctors give for different conditions or what symptoms warrant a chest tube. Finally, the skills I learned on the job (like IVs and splitting) are going to be taught in medical school, so it is nice to be good at them already.
However, there are also a few negative aspects about being a technician. Primarily, you don’t get much interaction with the physicians because you only really work with the nurses. It is also a job that requires a lot of physical energy. As a technician, you are constantly running around the department, doing CPR, and even extricating patients out of vehicles. It can also be pretty tense a times if you are dealing with aggressive patients, difficult IV sticks, or nurses who are not having a good day.
Overall, my experience was very positive and I would recommend it to anyone interested in good clinical experience.
6) MEDICAL TRANSPORT EMT
(Written by Charith Ratnayake)
I worked as a BLS technician in a medical transport company for about 6 months. For this company, you need to have both your EMT certification and a EVOC certification. However, the company does provide EVOC training if you do not have a certification at hiring. My typical work week was a 36 hour week with no mandatory weekend shifts. The typical shift is a 12 hour period either during the day or night. The pay was pretty meager at 13/hr, but they bumped the pay to 19/hr for every hour past 36 hours in a week. These medical transport companies have dedicated scheduling managers that determine your shifts for you. If your manager is flexible, you should have no trouble changing or calling out for shifts. However, my manager was not, which was the reason I had to leave the position.
As a BLS technician, my main responsibility was to transport patients between hospitals or to residences. I drove the ambulance and wrote patient reports in the back of the ambulance. I gave report to nurses when we dropped patients off at different hospitals. I also took patient vital signs in the back of the ambulance while we drove.
The main positive aspect about the job was that I was able to find a paid position to use my EMT certification. Another benefit of the job was that I had a lot of verbal patient interaction. I also worked with very fun and interesting partners. I made friends on that job that I still keep in touch with today.
The worst aspect of being an EMT for a medical transport company is that you don’t get to do much. Ultimately, I just felt like Uber Health, moving patients back and forth without doing much. BLS technicians are only allowed to move patients who are not very acute, think minor falls and dementia. The company reserves the really sick patients for the paramedic level. Therefore, other than take vital signs, I did not do much with the patients. There would also be situations where the company did not give us enough resources to take care of the patients we did transport, like pulse oximeters for patients with respiratory distress. Working on the back of the ambulance can be very stressful if you have an aggressive patient or family member riding with you. Finally, the company does look down upon you if you call in to say you are not comfortable transporting a patient, which can be very dangerous.
Honestly, I did not enjoy my experience here very much, and there were many times that I would have quit if I didn’t need the money. I think it would be a better option to just volunteer as an EMT and find paid part time work.
7) RESEARCH (WET LAB)
(Written by Sindhura Kolachana)
During my gap year, I worked in a wet lab at the NIH through the postbaccalaureate intramural research fellowship. The NIH IRTA program is popular among students applying to professional and graduate schools. Along with the lab experience, the program provides students with a medical school application office where they can meet with advisors for mock interviews and essay review.
I specifically worked in a primate lab in the National Institute of Mental Health where I worked to optimize a procedure to produce a transgenic marmoset monkey so that further models of psychiatric illnesses could be produced in the future. The job was mostly benchwork and molecular biology techniques such as gel electrophoresis, PCR, microbiology and ELISA. The other large component of my lab experience was animal care and procedures such as surgeries, behavioral training, and gamete collection. Since this is an animal lab and our lab relies heavily on the veterinary staff, the hours were not extremely flexible. I would generally work from 8 am to 4 pm and would have weekends off. The stipend for the program is generally fixed and can be found on the NIH website based on one’s number of degrees and the number of years they have been engaged in NIH research.
I enjoyed working in the lab and through this program for many reasons. I had never been able to work with advanced animal models such as monkeys before and becoming skilled in handling this kind of work has set me up well for almost any wet lab experience in medical school now. Furthermore, the postbac program hosts a number of students each year and I enjoyed meeting all the other students at the NIH.
Benchwork and wet lab comes with the obvious con in that it can be very tedious at time. I often found myself repeating the same procedures for days on end to get a single result. Animal care is also somewhat like babysitting at times. However, I imagine any animal/wet lab is similar and I found the positives greatly outweigh the negatives for my time at the NIH.
For those who are interested, I recommend this program. However, I would carefully seek out PIs and labs early and find one that actually interests you. Gap year(s) can be long and sometimes lonely and it is easier when you enjoy coming to work and interacting with interesting people!
8) RESEARCH (DRY LAB)
(Written By Kunal Debroy)
For my gap-year job, I have spent about 10 months conducting dry-lab research through the National Institutes of Health postbaccalaureate intramural research training award program or NIH Postbac IRTA program for short. To apply for the NIH IRTA program, you have to have a bachelor’s degree (from within three years of applying). You have to submit an online application and have three references who will write a letter of recommendation for you. Once you submit your application, you can start emailing researchers whose work you are interested in to see if any have an opportunity to join their lab.
My job itself was incredibly flexible overall. I was paid about $2500 per month regardless of how much I worked that month. Asking for time off due to illness, vacation, or interviews was simply a matter of emailing my principal investigator and requesting permission to do so. The hours were also, more or less, up to me - I had biweekly meetings with my principal investigator but otherwise I could use my time as I wished.
As I previously mentioned, in a dry-lab, your work consists of creating and analyzing computer simulations and models to determine potential specific translational studies. I primarily have worked on two projects with large datasets and have used programs like Excel and R to perform data analysis and visualization. However, the exact type of work and programs you use will depend on your specific project.
There were several pros, in my opinion, to working on dry-lab research and participating in the NIH IRTA program. Since all my work was on the computer, my hours were flexible and I could also work remotely if I had to take a day off or needed to get ahead on something. It can often be quicker to complete a project and potentially publish results in dry-lab research. As part of the NIH IRTA program, you have all federal holidays and a minimum of 14 days off, giving ample opportunity for taking time off to attend interviews or travel. The NIH hosts fascinating and free talks from eminent biomedical scientists almost daily and offers a variety of graduate-level classes, providing a variety of educational opportunities outside your lab. Finally, the NIH IRTA program provides advising for medical school applications and mock interviews.
I honestly didn’t find too many cons to either dry-lab research or the NIH IRTA program. This didn’t pertain to me but it is possible that some may enjoy a more hands-on research or work that is more directly clinical in nature. The NIH also pays a lower amount than research assistant positions at universities. I am living at home while working at the NIH so this also has not affected me as much, but this could make it a bit more difficult to afford rent if you would need to get a place in the D.C. area.
On the whole, I have greatly enjoyed my experience working in dry-lab research and at the NIH. Dry-lab research offers flexibility and a relaxed working atmosphere and the NIH offers several opportunities for networking, education, and career advising. For me, the pros of working in my lab and the NIH overall far outweigh the cons.
9) CLINICAL RESEARCH COORDINATOR
(Written by Harry Nanthakumar)
For my gap-year job, I worked at The Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital up in Boston as a Clinical Research Coordinator 1. The qualifications for a CRC may vary slightly between institutions and fields of research, but for me, all I needed a bachelors. They had some prefered coursework in the biological sciences, but again that varies per institution. The job was set for 40 hours per week and I was paid $15.30 an hour. As an MGh employee, I was offered health and dental insurance, but you can waive that if you are still on your parent’s insurance. The MBTA(train/bus) services were subsidized as well. In my particular case, I was an hourly employee, which was MGH policy for CRC’s in their first year, thus I had to be present at work for 40 hours at a minnimum, whereas salaried employees had more flexibility. That being said, if I needed to stay longer at work and I worked longer than 40 hours, I was paid overtime( 1.5x normal rate.)
I was tasked with running and monitoring a clinical trial involving low-level infrared light therapy and cognitive function of healthy volunteers. My job entailed recruiting and screening potential subjects, conducting all of their visits and analyzing all data obtained. As the focal person on this trial, I also had to work with MGH’s Institutional Review Board(IRB) to submit appropriate amendments to our protocol and fill out an annual Continuing Review of our work to ensure all ethical standards were met. Outside of the study, my department has me do some administrative work, such as ordering supplies and paying participants their agreed upon compensation.
I have enjoyed the work here because it has given me a really in depth insight into clinical research that I never had the ability to see and understand. A lot of universities and summer programs do more bench work or dry lab work, but I personally have found clinical work very enjoyable and can see myself being involved in it in the future. Another big pro of this job was the ability to see different kinds of work and meet various people who you can stay in touch with. The Wellman Center for Photomedicine is staffed with a number of dermatologists and they were all extremely open to me shadowing them for more clinical experience. By being efficient with my time, I found it easy enough to shadow once a week for several months. Also, they invited me to come to grand rounds and some of the rotations, which was incredibly insightful into the dynamics between medical students, residents, attendings, etc.
On the other hand, the pay was not amazing, and i lived outside the city, so my commute was around an hour to and from work. I lived at home, so my expenses were low, but if one was to live on their own in a city, make sure you get paid appropriately for you to do so. Furthermore, clinical trials can get a bit stagnant, because there will be times you are doing monotonous procedures and activities for weeks at a time, so boredom can set in no matter how interesting the research really is.
Overall, I really liked my time here. I made connections at MGH that I hope to stay in touch with going forward and got a unique look into clinical research. Make sure you find a field of study that interests you and you can find actual interest in following.
10) HEALTHCARE/LIFE SCIENCES CONSULTING
(Written by Varun Jain)
I worked as a consultant for a life sciences consulting company for about a year. Being a consultant means that I worked with team members to help guide CXO executives towards solving their strategic problems. This can range widely from helping them to prioritize their product portfolio to assessing the commercial potential of a drug or medical device. My parents are consultants in the tech world so I was always interested in the industry as an opportunity to build my business acumen before pursuing an MD/MBA.
The day to day activities of consulting vary widely but can largely be categorized into 3 groups: secondary research, primary research, and analysis. To first answer a company's strategic problem, you have to do secondary literature to build an understanding of the business, the market trends, and the medical literature. For example, if I were helping an oncology company choose which of its pipeline products to fast-track, I would need to research existing treatments, upcoming products, and the company's competitive advantage. Once you have this information, you can speak with key opinion leaders such as leading physicians, medical directors of major insurance companies, and even other executives to understand their perspective and garner a real world lens. Finally, with all the information accrued, you would work with your team to develop recommendations and a strategic action plan for the company.
To be frank, I would not describe the application process as easy. To begin with, most consulting companies are somewhat elitist and will typically hire only from a handful of top universities. Even after that filter, there are multiple rounds of interviews including “case interviews” that require applicants to quickly and effectively solve business problems on the fly. Most universities will have resources/clubs offering resources for preparation. At the end of the day, consulting firms are looking for very smart, sociable, and pedigreed applicants.
As a gap year option, I think that consulting is great for anyone who is looking to bring a business perspective to their medical practice in the future. The job offers enough PTO and pay (high 5 figures depending on the company) to make attending interviews very doable. In fact using the miles accrued from business travel, I was able to fund a few of my interview trips. I have learned an amazing amount of information about the healthcare system and how it overarching business of medicine interacts with our clinical care of patients and how to use both to optimize the quality of treatment. Additionally the opportunity to work with CEOs and other executives of some of the largest Healthcare companies in the world at 22 has been an equally eye opening and formative experience that is unlikely to be obtained elsewhere. However, hours can be quite long (50-60 hours on average) and I've definitely found myself envious of my peers who chose more relaxed gap year jobs.
For people who are interested, I would suggest building some business experience sooner than later and connecting with your school's career office to develop a plan for your application. If you're interested in the business of medicine and can hack the long hours of a demanding job, I highly recommend this option.
11) TEST PREP TEACHER/TUTOR
(Written by Surya Gourneni)
I worked as a test prep teacher and tutor as both a full time job for three months and a part time job for 9 months. I primarily taught the MCAT but also cross-trained into the SAT. As a teacher, I worked with Kaplan but I have friends who worked with Manhattan Prep and Princeton. As a tutor, I worked with Kaplan and did freelance tutoring at my local libraries. There are a few ways to get into teaching and tutoring. If you want to work for a professional company, there is an application process that includes at least two rounds of interviews. In general, they are pretty straightforward and I haven’t met anyone who had trouble as long as they prepared properly for the technical interview. Freelancing is a little more difficult in some aspects as you will have to grow your own client base. There are many ways to do this through marketing, but often times word of mouth is the most efficient.
The processing of hiring is generally quick. You do have to score in at least the top 10% of the MCAT (minimum 514) for most companies and in the top 3% (517+) for higher end companies. The rest of the application process is holistic; they want to see that you’ll be a good teacher. You’ll be asked to teach a lesson and interact with a manager who is posing as a student. There are some stages of orientation and on-boarding that are tedious but required (you’ll be paid for this usually).
The best logistical part of teaching and tutoring is that your hours are very flexible. Your only true hours of rigid scheduling is teaching time, as classes are usually set for you. However, you can prepare your classes on your own time. I’ve prepared multiple lesson plans from my bed in my PJs (comfortable af). With Kaplan, you’re given a lesson plan skeleton that you can fill out however you like (I often went off script, which was fine). Other companies might just tell you to teach general lessons; I would look at forum posts on teachers’ experiences with a company before you apply.
Other bonuses of working as a test prep teacher/tutor is all the benefits of being a teacher with minimal side effects of bad students. Most students pay a lot of money for these programs, so they’re engaged and respectful. Seeing students improve is an incredible feeling and helping them through issues is a challenge worth taking. If you’re up for the challenge, the rewards are unique and plentiful. There are the intangible benefits as well. I’ve been better at explaining, studying, and taking responsibility and leadership amongst improving in other qualities of my personality. Medical schools have asked me about my experience and are often impressed by what one can learn by teaching. As a freelancer and a tutor, the benefits are similar.
There are a few cons with this gap year job. If you’re a freelancer, you need to grow your business, which brings its own host of challenges. As a company teacher/tutor, you’re bound by what classes and students the company has available. Often times, that may not be enough to sustain a full time job unless you cross-train into other fields. In addition, being a teacher/tutor requires maturity, responsibility, and openness. Students are putting their trust in you, so you need to do well most of the time (admitting mistakes is alright). I believe most people can be teachers with training and time. You need to know the material better than ever (extra studying) and be able to answer enthusiastic students’ questions. The pay is not great as it is usually minimum wage for most tasks except actual teaching/tutoring time. You might also have weeks where you don’t teach a class, as it is in between class sessions.
For people who are interested, I suggest this job as a part-time opportunity rather than a full-time job unless you are willing to go full steam as a teacher for a year. Different weeks will present different challenges. As a part-time job, being a teacher/tutor is incredible and unparalleled while minimizing the negatives. I learned and loved my experience so much that I am now considering doing academic medicine as a career path.
Ultimately, your gap year job should allow you to learn new skills, bolster your application, but also (sometimes most importantly) relax. Each job is extremely different, so it is important that you find one that fits your personality type and reason for taking a gap year. Hopefully, this article moved you in right direction to find a gap year job that does just that.