As you begin your medical school journey, your medical specialty might be the last thing on your mind – it could also be the first. Whether you’ve been thinking about your specialty for your whole life or you’re just entering medical school now, keep an open mind. Your medical degree can take you down many different paths – which one you choose will depend on what is the best fit for you.
Here are some questions to guide your decision-making:
1. What did you enjoy in school?
The key to finding a great career in medicine is focusing on where you are most passionate. As a doctor, you will be at your best when you’re excited, interested, and engaged with the work in your field. To find the best area to do this, focus on what you like to study. Are you interested in certain parts of the body or groups of diseases? Did you find an area of your medical school coursework particularly interesting or engaging? If you’re just beginning medical school, think in broad terms – if you liked your anatomy classes, you might find a surgical field to be a good fit. If you enjoy learning about the brain, you might pick a career in neurology. If you’re already in medical school, focus on the classes you have already taken. Which ones did you enjoy? Which parts of the body do you find interesting? Let your natural skillset and interests guide your decision-making, and you’re sure to end up somewhere you really thrive.
2. Who do you want to serve?
For many medical students, their main drive into a career in medicine is a desire to help people get better – so to choose your specialization, figure out who you want to help and why. Do you enjoy working with patients, or are you more interested in the specialized procedures? Are you comfortable with having long lasting patient relationships, or would you rather work with patients on a case-by-case basis? The answers to these questions will impact the field you choose to work in. If you thrive under pressure, you might consider a career in emergency medicine. If you are a great people person, family or internal medicine might be the career path for you.
Make sure to balance the topics you love to study with your attitude to your patients. If you enjoyed your pharmacology classes but love working with patients, it might not make sense to choose a career in anesthesia. The right career path will balance all your skillsets, so keep an open mind.
3. How do you like to work?
Do you prefer working in a surgical field, a medical practice, or a little bit of both? Thinking about the kinds of patients you want to work with and the type of learning you like to do will be a big help in making this decision. If you prefer to work in surgery, choose a specialization where this is a priority, like neurosurgery or orthopedics. If you like to work in medical practice, choosing something like internal medicine or family practice will help you to see as many patients as possible. If you enjoy both areas, choosing a specialty that is mixed – like OB/GYN, ENT, or anesthesia – will allow you to have the best of both worlds.
Focusing not only on what you are interested in but the practical aspects of what you like doing will help you to pick a field where you can really shine. Being the best doctor for your patients means doing work you enjoy, and the setting you will be working will make a big difference. This is something you’ll want to really pay attention to when you enter medical school – you may have big plans to become a surgeon, but if you’re happier in the doctor’s office than the auditorium, you might rethink your options.
4. What are you comfortable with?
In medical school, you will likely experience a wide variety of different medical settings, from the emergency room to the surgery to the patient care clinic. Because of this, you will be exposed to an equally wide variety of patients, all of whom need different levels of compassion and care. Some fields have a greater risk of life-threatening illnesses, or the risk of traumatic situations, and you’ll need to balance your emotional readiness for these situations with the level of passion you have for the job. For example, if you want to work in emergency medicine or oncology, your patients will likely face life threatening illnesses, which is a difficult experience for both doctor and patient. However, if you’re passionate and fired up about helping the world through your work, then taking these risks will be part of your job.
5. What do you want in terms of work life balance?
It may be tempting to focus your decision solely on your patients and your work, but it’s also important to think about your life after school ends. Do you see yourself settling down into regular hours? Do you have a spouse or kids who are depending on you? The realities of many of the specializations, including surgeons who are on call or doctors required to pull long shifts in the ER, is that work life balance might be a long ways out. This is another area where you will have to think carefully about balancing your passions, abilities, and talents with the rest of your life. Are you willing and able to devote most of your life to pursuing a medical specialization? Are you capable of working the hours you need?
If you want a more relaxed experience, working as a family doctor, in internal medicine, or in a specialization like anesthesia, psychiatry, or neurology might allow you to set your own hours and make for a more relaxed career. However, if you’re deeply passionate and committed to your field, the long hours might be worth it – once you’ve considered some of the other factors, try to weight them against your ideal working day. Are there sacrifices you’re willing to make as part of your commitment to your job?
6. How competitive is the residency program?
Figuring out your passion will play a big role in helping your commitment to the job, your motivation, and your grades – all of which will help you land a top residency position in your chosen specialization. But what if the rosters are full? While your final decision shouldn’t be made by how many other students are competing for spots, it will give you a general indication of the level of competition in the specialization you want to work. If you’re making your choice because you’re deeply passionate about your practice, this level of competition won’t matter. But if you’re choosing based on more practical factors like work life balance, job fit, or patient care, choosing the most competitive slot might not be the best choice. If you’re choosing a specialization that you know has heavy competition for residency slots, it may be a good idea to have a backup plans in case you don’t get your first choice option.
7. What do you want to earn?
Earning potential can be a key factor in your decision, especially if you have student loans. Howe
ver, new physicians should keep the other items in mind first – if you pick a specialization you don’t enjoy, the money you earn could become a prison instead of a relief. Instead, add pay as one factor into your overall decision. Generally, surgical specializations tend to be more highly compensated then medical specializations, although they do require more time in school.
If you’re seeking work life balance, you may need to be more flexible on pay. The highest earning doctors tend to work the longest hours, and have the most on call time. That being said, there are plenty of opportunities for doctors in Canada to operate out of their own medical practices and earn more money. There are also plenty of specializations, like plastic surgery or psychiatry, which allow you to set your own hours and still earn a higher rate of pay.
8. Do you want research or teaching opportunities?
The opportunity to conduct your own studies or research projects can be exciting – but only some specializations cover it. If you’re interested in doing plenty of research on the side, you might choose a field like neurosurgery, oncology, or psychiatry instead of becoming a family doctor. If research is something you enjoyed in school and have a talent for, don’t forget to include it in your choice of specializations.
Whichever you choose, remember that as the doctor, you come first. Rank the factors that are most important to you, and make your decision based on these. Don’t let yourself be dissuaded by harder options that you are more passionate about because of the level of work or competition. When it comes down to it, if you follow your interests and make a logical and informed decision, you will be on a path you truly enjoy!