5 Tips For Choosing Your Medical Specialty

Kristy Crowley - Aug 28, 2017

Choosing your medical specialty is a huge decision which requires diligent research and lots of personal reflection. Atypical to many other professions, changing medical fields as a physician can be a bit tough - potentially requiring additional years of training, adding to the time spent during med school and residency. While it isn’t impossible, it’s just much easier to get it right the first time around! 

In this article, we interviewed Laura Henry, a third-year medical student at UPenn, who will discuss factors to consider when choosing a medical specialty. While this article is based on the American medical system, we hope all med students, regardless of location, will find this information beneficial!

1. Explore Different Possibilities

Career exploration starts early in medicine, which is a good thing. While clerkships afford medical students the opportunity to explore different specialty areas through structured rotations, pre-clerkship students gain valuable experience in interacting with practicing physicians on a daily basis. During this time, much of the curriculum is taught by physicians from the specialty area pertaining to that particular course, while clinical skills sessions are typically taught by doctors in simulated clinical settings using standardized patients. Medical students can and should seize the opportunity to shadow the hospital doctors as often as possible. Making the most of the numerous clinical opportunities offered through your medical school (e.g., volunteering in clinics or shadowing in the emergency room) will give you an early introduction to the nuances of the different specialties. 

2. Talk With Attendings From Different Specialties

The chance to work with physicians in a variety of settings during medical school affords you the unique opportunity to learn about various specialties. So, pick their brains. Ask questions. Get involved. Additionally, seek advice from mentors (e.g., medical school deans and attendings) to assist you in your pursuit of choosing a specialty that is right for you and your skill set. As you start to decipher which specialty area fits you best, try to identify trusted mentors that would be willing to provide you with unbiased viewpoints. Schedule meetings with program directors in your specialty area and interview residents and fellows to gain insight into a specific area of interest. Be proactive and willing to ask a lot of questions. 

3. Improve Your Skill Set

It is time to be honest with yourself. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What do you excel at? In what areas could you improve? 

Know yourself! Start to pay attention to when you feel really excited about the procedure you are participating in and be aware of when you start to lose interest. Figure out if you like to be surrounded by people all day long or if you prefer to work more independently. Get a feel for if you like a specialty that is more research- or clinic-focused. 

If you are a MS3 or MS4, understand that your skill set will increase within your residency, but start preparing early. For example, interests in surgical or procedural specialties (i.e., dermatology, surgery, anesthesiology, emergency medicine) require a certain amount of tactile skill. Take sutures home and practice knot tying and sewing at home.  

4. Consider The Lifestyle You Desire

A great way to determine what your life as a physician will look like is to contact a doctor working within the specialty area you are interested in pursuing. Talk to physicians in your medical school but, if possible, try and get in contact with physicians in non-academic settings to see how their day-to-day differs from that of those in academia. Talk to doctors of every level (e.g., residents, new attendings, physicians towards the end of their career) and ask them if they could do it over again, would they do it differently. You will probably be working as a physician for a long time - soak up as much information as you can. 

5. Increase Your Competitiveness

Matching into a specialty area is becoming more and more competitive. So, you must ask yourself the following question: What can I do to separate myself from other applicants? Here are some options you might consider: 

  • Have an honest conversation with someone about your chances of matching into your desired specialty. 
  • Have a backup plan if you don’t match. 
  • Take the time to boost your application by gauging which components could make the biggest difference in getting into your desired specialty. Things to consider include:
  1. Personal development (e.g. extra-curricular activities, well-being, health)
  2. Research-related tasks involving publications within your preferred specialty area
  3. Clerkship grades
  4. Step I and II scores
  5. Away rotations
  6. Letters of recommendation from respected professional sources
  7. Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society (AOA) status

Choosing a specific medical specialty is challenging for most students, but staying proactive and asking the right questions will allow you to make an informed decision. Your medical school training provides you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain exposure to different specialty areas and learn from experienced physicians. It’s important to make the most of these opportunities, which ultimately help shape your future career. It’s also never too late to start a list of things you saw that excited you as well as experiences that proved less rewarding. While it is easy to get caught up in the competitive nature of choosing a specialty and applying to residency, it is of paramount importance to remember that your happiness will be the ultimate tool for prosperity and success in your career. Best of luck!

Thanks to Laura Henry, a third-year medical student at UPenn, for collaborating on this blog. Her experience and expertise in choosing a medical specialty was validated by her incredible tips. Be sure to check out our recent interview with Laura for #anatomyofamedstudent on our Instagram handle, AMBOSS_Med