Choosing a medical specialty can affect the rest of your life. Since there are so many factors involved, many students are conflicted. Rather than being overwhelmed, here are some tips you can use to help you narrow down your selection.
Making a decision that will impact every facet of life from the amount of time you get to spend with your family to whether you can afford a vacation home can be pretty intimidating for a student already burdened by the stress of a demanding schedule. Some students luck out, they go into medical school with a clear vision of the future and nothing happens to cause conflict in their resolution, their grades and scores meet requirements, and they feel confident that they made the right choice.
For most students, however, the decision looms large. If you’re conflicted about what specialty to choose, here are some tips to help you narrow down your selection.
Lifestyle and career goals
We’ll start with some questions about your career goals and skills:
1. Make a list of your life goals. Some specialties allow more family time and are less stressful, with predictable hours and rare emergencies. Other specialties are highly stressful and more prone to an unpredictable schedule. Being a podiatrist is quite a different career than being an OB/GYN or a cardiac surgeon in a busy hospital. If your dream future includes spending plenty of time with your spouse and children, travel, hobbies, and sports, predictable hours and low incidence of emergency calls are a good fit. If your ambition is entirely career driven and you love the adrenaline inherent in high-stress situations, a surgical specialty might suit you. Finding the right work/life balance is a challenge for every working adult.
2. Where do you see yourself practicing? Is your dream practice a big city hospital, a rural practice in a small town, a nursing home, or a clinical lab?
3. Where do you shine? Be honest with yourself. What skills seem most natural and easiest to learn? Make note of your best skills. Later in the decision process, you can match your skills to a specialty.
4. What level of patient involvement are you most comfortable with? Would you like a long-term relationship like that of an endocrinologist with diabetes patients or the limited interaction of emergency surgery? You can also choose almost no patient interaction by being a teacher, an anesthesiologist, or a researcher.
5. Do you have any physical limitations that would rule out certain specialties? Strength and stamina come into play for some situations, less so for others. Physician in private practice who can set their own hours may need less physical stamina than surgeons on their feet with long, complicated surgeries.
6. How much money are you comfortable making? Every physician makes a good living, but some specialties are far more lucrative than others. Consider the cost of your education, figure out what your ideal lifestyle entails and the cost of living in the area of your choice, and write down a figure you feel comfortable with a few years down the line. Money should not be your highest priority, but it deserves a place in the considerations.
Next, we’ll talk about specialty options.
||Read: What To Expect In Medical School: Part 2||
● Print out a list of all viable medical specialties.
● Cross off all specialties that don’t appeal to you. Don’t overthink it. Not everyone is cut out to be a proctologist, and you might be drawn to a certain area due to family history or familiarity.
● From the remaining specialties, pick six to ten that most appeal to you.
● Do some career research. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) offers a ton of information. You’ll be able to explore salary ranges, employment outlook for your area of the country, and more.
● Consult your lifestyle and career goals list. How well do your choices match up with the specialties on your list? Cross off any choices that don’t fit.
● At this point, you are probably down to a short list. It’s a good time to consider what your school has to offer in your potential specialties. Visit the residency program coordinators and explain that you’re trying to choose a medical specialty. It’s important to know what residency opportunities exist. Some programs in higher demand can impact your chances of being accepted.
● Ask the program coordinator if your USMLE Step 1 score is within range. Some specialties are more competitive than others.
● Consider your relationships with professors. Letters of reference in the specialty are an important component to your residency application. Can you build a beneficial relationship with the professors who can impact your career?
● Using the information you’ve gathered, make a list of pros and cons. List all the things that are important to you and how each specialty fits your ideal career.
● Once your list is narrowed to a manageable two or three choices, talk it over with family and friends. Explain your options and list the pros and cons. The simple act of articulating your choices may help you find additional strengths and weaknesses in your choices, and the people closest to you may be able to point out things you’ve overlooked. You may consider yourself detail oriented and organized, but your mother may have good reason to disagree. Find out if your view of yourself and your strengths agree with those of your family and friends. Bear in mind that the views of people with whom you have long-term relationships may not see you as a competent adult. Your mom may be basing her opinion on the high-school version of you with the moldy pizza under the bed, and not the new grownup for whom organization has become a med school survival skill.
The final decision belongs to no one but you. It’s your life. Don’t pick a specialty based on someone else’s desires or to follow in anyone else’s footprints. Your decision should leave you feeling relieved and excited.
Sherry Gray is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida. Science, medicine, and politics are her favorite topics to write about and obsess over.