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Volunteering in Medical School: A Waste of Time?

“Are you going to sign up to volunteer this quarter?” I asked my classmate after hearing about an upcoming volunteering opportunity for a homeless shelter clinic.

“Volunteering? Why?” came a brisk and seemingly astonished response from her.

“Uh, well, it’s a good opportunity to gain some clinical skills,” I responded, “and don’t you wanna have some volunteering experience when you apply for residency?”

“It’s a waste of time! Residencies only care about good grades and board scores,” she retorted.

I could not disagree with my classmate’s perspectives. In fact, I might even understand her viewpoints. My classmate’s reply was due to, perhaps, the fact that she was just trying to survive her didactic years (I am sure all medical students have been through those constant barrages of weekly quizzes and examinations!) and dismissed volunteering as a less important priority at the moment. But her seemingly dismissive response, that volunteering in medical school is a “waste of time,” made me wonder: do most of us think that way? I recall that volunteering during our pre-medical years was something some of us did to look good on our medical school applications, but I am certain the underlying reasons that all of us declared–gaining clinical experience, reaffirming our passion for medicine, and devoting our life to help the ill–went beyond the purposes of having a check mark in the right category to be considered for medical school.

I know most of us continue to commit to these philanthropic acts during medical school: conducting national and international medical missions, providing physical examinations at free clinics or feeding the homeless. But why do we volunteer? What strikes our interest to continue to do so? What drives us to sacrifice our time, and sometimes our finances, to provide services to those who are less fortunate than us? Are there underlying motives?

In fact, individuals volunteer for a myriad of motives. Two classes of motivations exist, altruistic and utilitarian motives, and sometimes a third, social motive, can coexist. The altruistic notion includes religious beliefs, supporting an important cause and satisfaction in helping others. Utilitarian motives involve enhancing human capital, such as work experience and job training, developing new sets of skills, exploring different career paths, enhancing our resume or building a professional network. A possible third class of motive, social motive, comprises reasons of extending one’s social networks or of being under social pressure to do so (Handy et al. 2010).

Regardless of motivation, I am certain that the main reasons that we chose the medical profession–the path less chosen–are because we want to improve the quality of life for humankind, to service the underserved and to advocate for our patients who need us most. These are the ideals for which we strive to be excellent medical students and compassionate physicians. And so volunteering in medical school will never be a waste of time.

Jimmy Tam Huy Pham Jimmy Tam Huy Pham (4 Posts)

Columnist and Editor Emeritus: Former Medical Student Editor (2012-2015)

Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine

Jimmy is residing in Phoenix, Arizona. He received his undergraduate degrees from California State University of Long Beach. Actively involved in research, his interests include internal medicine, cardiovascular medicine, and medical humanities.

Jimmy also volunteers at local community events and non-profit clinics in the Phoenix, Arizona and Orange County, California areas. Web: