How Physicians Decide Which Specialty to Pursue

Choosing a specialty is a major step for an aspiring physician. For every student who enters medical school already knowing which type of medicine they want to practice, there are many others who are undecided and open to the myriad possibilities. Fortunately, the medical education process allows students to ‘test drive’ different specialties before selecting one in which to specialize.

It’s during these medical school rotations that students are exposed to the nuts and bolts of the various specialties. While all medical schools require third-year students to complete rotations in internal medicine, pediatrics, OB/GYN, and surgery, others also require specialties such as neurology, emergency medicine, and radiology. With so many specialties and subspecialties available, many times it’s up to the student to pursue an elective rotation, usually in the summer periods during med school. Giving students hands-on experience in different specialties goes a long way in helping them determine which specialties they may want to pursue, and just as importantly, those they do not.

Many times, choosing a specialty can be as simple as a student asking themselves what they enjoy. Do they like working with their hands and doing procedures? Then a surgical specialty may be the way to go. Do they like solving puzzles and figuring out a diagnosis? Then internal medicine may be the right choice.  Other key questions that young physicians consider include the amount of time they are willing to spend in their training:

  • Residencies for surgical specialties can last a minimum of six years, plus fellowship may also be required
  • The amount of stress involved—ER docs must make split-second decisions that can literally be the difference between life and death
  • What type of setting suits them—a large organization may be right for some, while others prefer a small private practice

With so many options, it’s by having the opportunity to work in various settings and disciplines, that physicians are able to narrow down their choices and find the one that suits them best. The shortage of, and competition for, residency slots make it less practical to pursue a specialty solely based on individual preference. Instead, physicians’ decisions may be more influenced by what’s available. Learn more about how what the residency slot shortage means for the future of healthcare—and opportunities available to future physicians—here.

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