The choice of a medical specialization can feel daunting. Here’s some guidance for making this major life decision.
As you enter medical school, you have a wide range of options before you. Should you decide to study hematology, musculoskeletal oncology, or pediatric cardiology? Maybe neurology? While a few people know exactly what they want to do from the very start, most students wrestle with the choice of which field to specialize in.
Keep an open mind as you advance through your studies. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) Report on Residents in 2017, most students change their idea of what they wish to specialize in—often multiple times—during med school. The speciality field that turns out to be the best fit for you may be one you never considered when starting out.
One word of caution: be wary of making your choice based on the desire to be like that one ‘medical hero’ you look up to. Regardless of what field you choose, that person’s success will always be there as a source of inspiration.
Here are some key considerations that med students should walk through as they determine the best field for them. Gaining clarity on these points may help you narrow down your options.
Reflect on your interests
Answering these key questions often gives students a better sense of what career path to follow.
- Do you have a strong interest in working with a particular population, such as babies, children, women, or the elderly? Then you might prefer working in geriatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, or pediatric medicine, or a sub-field with one of these populations.
- Do you feel fascinated about a particular bodily system and able to imagine working in that area, long-term? Ask yourself if you feel excited about the idea of what physicians in that field do on a day-by-day basis, rather than just in one exciting story you’ve heard.
- Do you gravitate toward doing medical procedures, or do you prefer behind-the-scenes work?
- Do you prefer thinking broadly about how systems work together, or do you prefer a more narrow focus? While a surgeon has a depth of knowledge in a highly specific area, an internist must engage in broader thinking.
- Do you have a strong desire to form long-term relationships with your patients? If so, you might feel more fulfilled in a field like family medicine.
Be honest about your abilities
No matter how much you love the idea of a particular speciality, ask yourself if you have the specific skill set that will make you adept in that role.
Assess your greatest strengths as well as your weaknesses. You may want to create two lists for easy reference as you consider options for your career path.
“While this sounds somewhat trite – we have all seen individuals that love the ‘idea’ of a specialty, but early on it is clear that they do not have some of the basic natural talents, no matter how assiduously they study and master the content,” Dr Rob Smythe, an international acclaimed surgeon and current chief executive of SomaLogic, told US News.
Ask yourself whether you’re up for the fierce competition in certain fields, too — and be sure to have a backup in case things don’t quite work out with your first choice.
Consider your personality
Med students often wonder what specialties best suit their individual personality. The following questions might help you make that call.
- Do you enjoy working directly with patients throughout the day, or would you rather be in a lab? Introverts might enjoy having more physician-to-physician interaction with a team of people they know well, while extroverts might enjoy working with new patients continuously. Remember: during your rotations, you’ll get a better sense of whether a given specialty is the right fit for you.
- Are you comfortable making decisions quickly, or do you prefer having more time to reflect? Do you prefer to make decisions based on hard evidence (like a radiologist or surgeon)? Are you more intrigued by complex decision-making scenarios that require nuanced thinking (like an internist)?
- How much control do you want to have over the hours you work? According to Stanford University’s ‘Roadmap to Choosing a Medical Specialty,’ fields like radiology, dermatology, ophthalmology, anesthesia, and neurology offer greater control over what hours you work, including time off.
Do your homework
- Read firsthand reports from doctors in particular specialties, not only those in academic hospitals but also community settings, where the daily lives of doctors may look very different. Here are a few to check out.
- Talk to or shadow physicians, if possible.
- Join clubs at school in your areas of interest.
Compensation should play a more minor role in your decision rather than being a deciding factor. Most medical fields provide a high level of compensation — after all, you’ll need to pay off those student debts. At the end of the day, other factors will have a far greater influence over your quality of life.
After narrowing down the options to two or three specialities, it’s common for med students to feel the pressure to make the final call. Making the final choice can feel rushed, no matter how much research they put in, and, at the end of the day, more than one field might suit perfectly well.
Making this choice is one of the biggest challenges students experience in med school, and after making it, they often feel a sense of relief and clarity — though it’s also extremely common to experience uncertainty and imposter syndrome as they step into their chosen career! Remember that your peers are feeling the same things, and so did nearly every physician who has ever entered the medical profession.