Undecided about where to go and what to choose for your elective? Alexa Cunningham from The Electives Network explains what to consider to cover your bases and make the right choice.

Organising your elective is never a straightforward experience. There is no one-size-fits-all, and the planning often feels like an exercise in balancing competing priorities – especially if you are unsure what you’d like to specialise in, or where to explore. And yet, there are still some general rules of thumb that allow most students to cover all the bases and make sure they have a rewarding and unforgettable experience.

Team up

Going on elective with your friends can make the experience more comfortable while you are there, and you will have someone to chat to about the experiences you are having.

Keep in mind that planning for more than one person can be tricky if everyone has different ideas about their perfect elective, and finding a placement or even a location that is attractive to everyone concerned can be challenging. Even if you can agree on one location, reconciling competing budgets can often further complicate the process.

So the best options can sometimes be the ones that are more versatile to everyone and, although they may be a compromise, these placements can still deliver the once-in-a-lifetime experiences everyone dreams of.

Small, locally run hospitals are a great opportunity to gain experience in a number of different areas. Somewhere like the Good Shepherd Hospital, Swaziland can allow you to experience various disciplines and is more likely to accommodate a number of students and their wish-list of procedures and specialties.

Alternatively, you could apply to a medium-sized hospital with a friendly coordinator who is well placed to arrange for you a varied experience. Students who have returned from Noble’s Hospital, Isle of Man were lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to work in several departments during their elective. By choosing these more versatile placements it's possible to plan as a group and accommodate most specialties and clinical priorities.

elephant swaziland

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Good Shepherd Hospital, Swaziland

Be adventurous

If you are confident enough to attempt an elective on your own, then the possibilities are only really limited by your budget. When you are thinking of an elective tailored to your own interests, thinking about location and specialty are the obvious first steps.

If location is your main priority, use your elective as an opportunity to see and experience corners of the world you have always dreamed about – from Papua New Guinea to Peru, Tanzania to Vanuatu. Your placement can serve as a base to explore the local area, and weekends can be used to follow well-worn tourist trails or find some hidden gems.

Don’t be afraid to travel further afield; with a little common sense and a good deal of forward planning and research, there are few places that can’t be reached. Always remember that being culturally sensitive and informed about the locations you visit can make a big difference, not just to your safety but also to the quality of experience you have.

There is no reason to limit your ambitions.

Career steps 

Much has been written on the pros and cons of using your elective to gain experience in your chosen specialty, and it is true that your elective offers a unique opportunity to work in some of the world’s leading institutions with some of the pioneers of your chosen specialty. If you’re prepared to apply in advance and put time and thought into your applications, there is no reason to limit your ambitions.

Do something different

Yet, there is also a chance to experience something completely different on your elective. That could be a specialty you don’t intend to practise, or even something non-clinical. Options include working at a publishing house, with management consultants, charities, or at a pharmaceutical company – all opportunities available to students who are willing to consider a placement outside the normal parameters (though you might want to check with your university first if you decide on a non-clinical placement).

Tailoring your elective to your own personal interests is the most assured method of success. Think about those extracurricular interests that might not seem immediately pertinent, but that could lead you to doing something amazing – like sailing down the Amazon on the Amazon Hope Medical Boat, or skiing while on placement in the Alps or the USA. There are a number of ways you can merge your wider interests with your elective, so make sure you explore your options.

An elective is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the more you are able to invest in the planning stage, the more you will get out of the adventure. Don’t leave it until the last minute and always remember that whatever experience suits you, The Electives Network is a great free resource that helps you plan the details of your trip as well as give you some great ideas.

This page was correct at publication on 08/11/2016. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.