When it comes to choosing a medical specialty, there is no magical sorting hat. Making this decision can involve a lot of soul-searching about the type of career you want. Here are a few reasons why I think this decision can be challenging:
1) It can be difficult to know whether you would like practicing a specialty based on text book material – I think real clinical experience is one of the best ways to figure out quickly what kind of work environment you want.
2) There is not much exposure to some fields in medical school, so you may need to actively seek out experiences in these areas if you think you may be interested.
3) Medical school is really busy, so finding time and energy to ask yourself these big questions or seek out clinical experiences to answer them can be tough.
To help make this process a little less challenging, I shared some steps you can take to start thinking about it.
#1 Keep an open mind
Keep an open mind initially and try a bunch of different clinical and shadowing experiences early in medical school, and have fun with it. I think this helps because: 1) you get exposure to some specialties which are otherwise not a big part of the medical school curriculum 2) figuring out what you don’t like can be just as important as figuring out what you do like. Be active about seeking out different clinical experiences.
#2 Talk with people a few steps ahead of you
Talk to older students and residents about how they picked their specialties. They are close to the decision-making process and can be amazing resources.
#3 Use your resources
There are some excellent tools available to help you. You should use them! This is a very informative website with some self-assessments you can take to help you decide best fit. This is an awesome resource one of my MS1 friends found recently. It’s a podcast / website called “The Undifferentiated Medical Student,” and it was created by a medical student trying to figure out what he specialty he wants to pursue. In the podcast, he interviews different doctors about their careers and how they chose them.
#4 Ask yourself the important questions
Ask yourself questions about what you want in your career, and try to answer honestly. Breaking down the process into more simple decision branches can help make it more manageable:
- Do you want to do surgery? If so, do you want procedures to be 100% of your work or 50%? Here’s a useful diagram of specialties sorted into categories of “surgical,” “mixed,” and “medical”: http://www.med.stanford.edu/md/student-affairs/student-wellness/_jcr_content/main/panel_builder_2/panel_1/download_1095234323/file.res/Roadmap%20to%20Choosing%20a%20Medical%20Specialty%20.pdf
- Children or adult patients? Preferred age range of adult patients?
- Do you want to treat acutely-ill patients?
- What are your personal strengths? Hand coordination for surgery? Keeping calm in emergencies? Analyzing complex problems and synthesizing lots of information to make diagnoses?
- Down the road, what setting and work schedule do you envision? For example, do you thrive on shift-work, enjoy clinic, or love the OR? Linked to this question too is do you want to treat the same patients over many years or instead care for them in a more acute setting over a shorter period of time?
#5 Remember you're not alone
Making this decision is a process, so don’t worry that you don’t know exactly what you want to do on your first day of school or in the middle of your clerkships—you’re definitely not alone! Also, you’re allowed to change your goals and dream specialty during medical school as many times as you want. There is no right or wrong decision – whatever you feel is the best fit is the way to go, and that is different for each person.
Are you having a tough time settling on a specialty, and would like to talk to Lucy about your options?