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5 Tips to Help You Choose a Medical Specialty

Discussion in 'Medical Students Cafe' started by Egyptian Doctor, Dec 14, 2013.

  1. Egyptian Doctor

    Egyptian Doctor Moderator Verified Doctor

    Mar 21, 2011
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    It’s never too early! Some students know what they want to specialize in even before medical school, others figure it out relatively early in the first two years of medical school, and most medical students figure it out later, when you start working on the wards.

    Remember to keep an open mind along the way. Even if you are 100% sure that you want to become a general surgeon when you start med school, this could change when you actually get experience. Don’t neglect fully immersing yourself in each and every rotation because you’ve “already decided” – you want to learn as much as you can in every rotation along the way, and you might actually find something that you like even better. Many med students change their minds lots of times before they make a final decision.

    Remember that it’s not set in stone – you can always transfer to a different specialty while in residency later on. This can be a bit more challenging, but we know multiple people who switched fields, one of whom even switched from Surgery to Psychiatry (which apparently isn’t that uncommon)!

    Keep in mind that different specialties are practiced slightly differently depending on what setting you are in (i.e. academic medical center vs. community hospital, and inpatient or outpatient), depending on patient volume and the nature of your job responsibilities (do you need to be writing grants and working in the lab or devoting 100% of your time to clinical practice?) So, the experience you have in a given rotation may be completely different than a friend of yours who is a medical student elsewhere and doing that same rotation.


    You should get exposure to different fields as you try to figure out what kind of physician you want to be. In your 3rd year of medical school, you will have 5-6 required core clinical rotations: Internal Medicine, General Surgery, Pediatrics, OB/GYN, and Psychiatry. Most medical schools also have required rotations in Neurology and Family Medicine, and many have required Emergency Medicine and Radiology rotations. However, you might be interested in Oncology or Gastroenterology or Radiation-Oncology – if so, get exposed and do it early! Spend time shadowing a physician in that specialty in between your 1st and 2nd year of medical school, or squeeze it into your 3rd year. Don’t wait until your 4th year to explore an interest. The only way to truly figure out if a field is for you is by experience.


    Here are some key methods of helping you narrow down your list of possibilities:

    For students who get interested in lots of things and are not sure how to narrow their interests, use the process of elimination – start crossing things off as you go through your 3rd year rotations.

    Ask yourself: do you want to be a surgeon or a diagnostician? Do you want to spend a lot of your time doing procedures and working with your hands, or do you want to spend your time problem-solving and solving puzzles? Keep in mind, dexterity plays a role here: if you don’t have very good manual dexterity or spatial sense, you may be able to become a surgeon, but the ultimate goal to become a master of your craft. We referenced a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine from October 2013 which stated that “the technical skill of practicing bariatric surgeons varied widely, and greater skill was associated with fewer postoperative complications and lower rates of reoperation, readmission, and visits to the emergency department.”

    Figure out if you want to work with kids or not. Unless you pursue a Med-Peds or Family Medicine residency, you have to decide whether you want to be spending time taking care of adults or children. Be aware that dealing with a child’s parents can be one of the most challenging aspects of Pediatrics.

    Ask yourself: do you prefer caring for patients who are generally well or patients who are critically ill?

    Ask yourself: Are you an adrenaline junkie? Some people thrive on making quick decisions with little information and like that thrill. Some people get very nervous in acute situations – see how you feel in the Emergency Department and the Intensive Care Unit.

    Reflect on the emotional toll that certain specialties can take: Oncology, Neurology to name a couple.

    Figure out if patient contact is important to you – if you don’t want patient contact, you should look at Radiology or Pathology.


    The importance of finding a mentor. It is very important to find a mentor in the field you’re interested in. Such a mentor will broaden your exposure to the field, introduce you to others in that field, and potentially become a letter writer for you when you apply to residency. Find someone who you look up to and who is also passionate about the field and has the time to devote to helping you carve out your path.


    Research…If you are interested in a field in which research experience is expected (Neurosurgery, ENT, Rad-Onc), make sure that you find a research mentor and get involved in a project as early as possible. Some residency programs will expect that you have research experience and even publications, so you need to devote time in medical school to research in the particular specialty you are interested in.

    Try Our Quiz : What Is The Suitable Medical Specialty For Your Personality



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