Choosing a Medical Specialty
From the moment you enter medical school, you will be asked, “What specialty are you most interested in?” Determining your specialty, the specific area of medicine in which you intend to practice, is the most important step in your career – and no easy task.
Medical students in their third and fourth years go through clinical rotations, which provide experiences of various areas of medicine. This is usually the best time to explore and cultivate your interests and begin to narrow your specialty choices before you apply to residency programs. Understanding yourself is the most crucial aspect of making the right decision for your career.
Know What You Want
Choosing the right medical specialty for you begins with understanding your personal and professional desires, needs, and goals.
Get clarity on what it is that you want for your medical career by reflecting on questions such as:
- What were your original goals when you decided to become a physician?
- Have your goals changed during medical school? If so, how?
- What do you value about the role of a physician? Consider things like intellectual challenge, the ability to help others, the respect it commands from others, the security of the lifestyle, the luxury of the lifestyle, or the ability to work autonomously.
- Which aspects do you value the most?
- What type of doctor-patient relationships do you find the most rewarding?
- Are there particular clinical situations or types of patient encounters that make you uncomfortable or for which you feel unsuited?
- Would you prefer to concentrate on patient visits, surgical procedures, or a combination of both?
Lifestyle & Income
- What pace of life do you envision for yourself (time for family, time for other interests, vacation, etc.)?
- What is your goal in terms of income? How quickly do you want to pay off your student loans?
- In what type of community do you see yourself practicing? What type of clinical setting?
- Do you have a preference for community, academic or hospital settings?
Skills & Personality
- During medical school, have you displayed an uncanny knack for a particular aspect of medical care?
- What skills (interpersonal, analytical, technical, etc.) do you value the most in yourself, and how do they affect your perception of the specialty or specialties to which your abilities are best suited?
Residency Training Requirements
- How long is the required training for the specialty?
- What does residency training prepare you to do?
- How many residency positions are available?
- What are the differences between training programs within the same specialty (e.g., geographic or institutional differences)?
- What potential is there for further training following residency (e.g., subspecialty training or fellowships)?
- What practice opportunities are available (e.g., demand for physicians, competition for patients or practice sites)?
- What current trends or recent changes in practice patterns impact the specialty (e.g., cost of professional liability insurance, changes in Medicare reimbursement policies, healthcare legislation)?
- What are the foreseeable additions to the repertoire of the specialty (e.g., new models of practice, new technologies, new drugs, new techniques)?
Ask for Input
There is a danger of either overestimating or underestimating yourself, so get feedback from people who know you personally and professionally. Mentors are a good resource during this phase of the specialty selection process.
Answering these questions takes a great deal of maturity and insight. Be completely honest with yourself so that you will be confident about your choices.
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Updated for 2020: Strolling Through the Match
This practical resource from the AAFP is a must-read for students interested in a career in family medicine. Get your copy now for updated information on navigating the Match process, access to helpful timelines, and tips on applying to and ranking programs.