One of the toughest decisions for medical students is deciding what specialty to practice for the rest of their lives. A tough decision that requires a commitment to the chosen field and enough passion to strive to always improve your skills as a physician. I know I had a hard time choosing the field I want to pursue. However, answering the following questions gave me some clarity and confidence to cement my decision.
- Which rotations excite you the most in your clinical years?
- Level of patient contact and continuity
- Work-life balance
- Assess your own skills
- What level of training do you want to achieve?
Which rotations excite you the most in your clinical years?
One of the ways I knew what I wanted to practice was going back and remembering the rotations I looked forward to the most. I usually placed my favorite rotation last in the academic year just so I can have something to look forward to. Think about the rotations that actually make you want to get up in the morning instead of abusing the snooze button.
In addition, it’s critical to analyze why you enjoy these rotations. Is it because of the nature of the field and work environment? Or because of the patients? One piece of advice that always stuck with me is to exclude those once-in-a-while anomalies of cases that really draws people in and really look into the “bread and butter” of the field. Could you imagine yourself doing this for decades to come? Will it be a field you’d want to excel in and stand out? Keep these questions in mind.
Another point is to ask the physicians you rotate with. What do they like about their field? And most importantly, what don’t they like? This will give you an edge to make unbiased decisions when choosing a specialty knowing the pros outweigh the cons.
Take Emergency Medicine for example. Do you like the fast-paced nature of the field? You essentially admit, analyze, stabilize and refer all day long. How do you deal with constant interruptions? EM is a field that requires efficient communication. Do you see that fitting with your personality? Now looking into the bread and butter of EM, do you see yourself enjoying treating common symptoms like headache, nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain? EM requires skillful hands and quick thinking skills. Would you describe yourself as such?
Level of patient contact and continuity
This can be the breaking point for many future doctors. If not directly dealing with patients sparks interest in you, then try looking into surgical fields, pathology, and anesthesiology. Similarly, if long-term patient care and continuity excite you, you should look into primary care specialties like family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics. If not, the specialties that involve immediate care and an outcome like emergency medicine might be the winner.
Many students, including me, often negate this point. We make medicine our whole world in medical school and residency. As we should. However, once you are independent and start practicing individually, topics like marriage, having kids, and even for some, going back to long-forgotten side hobbies as a way to diversify your lifestyle slowly become important. Find out your short-term goals but don’t forget your long-term ones. Some medical specialties have better hours and/or lower burnout rates than others.
Assess your own skills
Don’t be afraid to tap into your personality for clues. Your skills, personality, and overall aura have a greater impact than you think when choosing a specialty. For example, I’ve been told that I’m a people person and that I have a warm aura *blushes*. Not only that, but I found myself enjoying clinical medicine, history taking, and examination pretty often because that’s when I’d challenge my problem-solving skills. Because of this, prioritizing primary care as a serious option was easy. I know that I can bring a peaceful and inviting energy to my office setting and will create a comfortable environment instinctively for the patient. What skills do you bring to the table and how does your personality affect patient care?
A study was made by several physicians showing how a doctor’s personality affects their decision in choosing a medical speciality. It concluded that several personality types can have an inclination to more than one speciality.
The MBTI (Myers–Briggs Type Indicator) personality test is a self reporting questionnaire that evaluates how individuals perceive the world and make decisions. Your personality will be classified under one of the 16 “Types,” based on the different combinations of 4 pairs of letters (My own type is INFJ if you’re wondering).
The four pairs of letters are:
- I/E: Introverted vs Extroverted: Where do you get your energy? From solitude (introverted) or from surrounding yourself with people (extroverted)?
- N/S: iNtuitive/Sensing: How do you gather information? Through observing your surroundings or looking into the future?
- F/T: Feeling/Thinking: How do you make decisions? Through your values and emotions or logic?
- P/J: Perceiving/Judging: How do you like things to be? Do you like your options open or things planned out?
Based on this; you’d probably be inclined to land in one of these specialties:
Medical speciality selection guide for medical students by Dr. Mohammad Al-Onazi
What type of outcome would you be comfortable seeing with the majority of your patients?
Not everyone can stomach broken bones, severe burn traumas and near-death situations all the time. On the other hand, treating general complaints like headache, fever and the annual flu can be just as morbid for some individuals. If scrubbing in every day and performing complex neurosurgeries tickles your spine (no pun intended) knowing the lack of precision and poor outcomes then maybe you are looking at the right field. Be realistic with what you’d be comfortable seeing in your speciality.
Overall, choosing a medical specialty can be sometimes daunting. But actively learning, asking physicians, and tapping into your talents will most definitely give you some clarity. Don’t be afraid to ask doctors to shadow them if you still can’t make up your mind. Once you’ve chosen your field of desire, make sure to go all-in by being a pro-active member, further strengthening your application.