10 Tips on Choosing a Specialty

Posted on 14 December 2016 by Pei Jun Zhao

In undergrad, you’ve spent countless hours studying for exams, perfecting your immaculate GPA, and preparing for the MCAT – to become the ideal candidate for medical school. Now that you are medical students – congratulations! – you are studying to become the best doctors. But what type of doctor do you want to be?

Some of you already know the answer before entering medical school. You may have heard your friends say “I’ve always wanted to be a cardiologist”, or “I was born to do neurosurgery”, or “I came to medical school to become a family physician to serve my community”. But no matter if you are set on a career path, or are undecided, keeping an open mind is perhaps the most important. Through personal experience in medical school, I’ve compiled the following 10 tips on choosing a specialty:

1. Keep an open mind, as discussed above. This is a point worth emphasizing. About half of my friends changed their specialty of interest through the course of medical school. A few announced a new interest at the end of each inspirational block.

2. Explore each specialty that interests you. For example, do an observership, take a summer non-credit elective, or participate in research (SRTP, SROP, SWORP)… But if you do not find an opportunity to do so, there is still Year 3 Clerkship where you will rotate through the major areas of medicine.

3. Ask yourself, what do you like about this specialty? You might have seen an exciting procedure such as stent-deployment in the cardiac cath lab, or enjoy talking to people about their struggle with depression and mania, or gain satisfaction by identifying features of nuclear atypia on a pathology slide that lead to the diagnosis.

4. On the other hand, what are the undesirable aspects of the specialty? For example, will you still be happy, at the age of 50, to be paged at 3 am for an emergency appendectomy? Will you be bored of titrating furosemide in the heart failure clinic? On the contrary, some people find these aspects of their job the most rewarding.

5. Will you enjoy the “bread and butter” work of this specialty, and not just the rare and exciting cases? After all, you will be doing this job every day for rest of your medical career. While it’s theoretically possible to “see the light” and change your specialty mid-career; it is generally not advised.

6. If you are unsure, use the process of categorization and elimination. Some common contrasting themes are: Generalist vs. specialist. Primary care vs. consultant. Doctor’s office vs. hospital care. Medicine vs. Surgery. Procedural vs. non-procedural. Adult medicine vs. Pediatrics. etc. Here is an algorithm from the BMJ.

7. If you are still undecided, like many students, then reflect on what fits your personality. Some people prefer working with their hands such as in orthopedic surgery, while others enjoy contemplating complex concepts such as hormonal pathways in endocrinology. Each year, the Learner Equity and Wellness (LEW) Office offers the Myers-Briggs personality test that may help you determine a suitable specialty.

8. Sometimes there are more than 1 path to becoming the doctor you want to be. For example, the family medicine 2 + 1 residency program is an attractive but competitive career path. For example, you can do 2 years of family medicine + 1 year emergency medicine, obstetrics, or anesthesia, to name a few.

9. If you are torn between 2 (or more) specialties and it’s almost 4th year, some students split their elective time in both subjects. Others choose multidisciplinary electives, such as ICU which involves internal medicine, anesthesia, and surgical critical care. But it’s riskier to match into a competitive specialty, that may sense your ambivalence.

10. Although it’s never too late to decide on a specialty, ideally you want to make a decision before applying for 4th year electives, and at the latest before the CaRMS residency match. Never be afraid to seek help. Talk to your peers, upper year students and residents, or make an appointment at the LEW Office, if you would like more guidance.

Choosing a specialty is a career-defining decision. You came to medical school from diverse backgrounds, for a variety of reasons, to become a doctor. I hope that you will soon find the specialty that suits your calling! This blog post covers the main points, but is by no means an exhaustive list. To the upper year students, if you have other considerations that helped you choose a specialty, please feel free to comment below! To the junior students, you will be surprised at how quickly medical school passes, despite the lengthy lectures, mountain of notes, and seemingly endless exams. So may the wind be behind your sails as you set off on a voyage of discovery in the vast ocean of medicine!

Pei Jun Zhao

Meds 2017

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