How to Choose Your Medical Specialty

Choosing your medical specialty is not easy. There’s a lot to consider, from money to passion to your personal goals in life. And since choosing a medical specialty is a long-term goal, you want to be careful to avoid problems later on.

From the third year of medical school, students start thinking about what to do. There are a lot of choices to make. Usually, the best way to see what you’re suited for the most is to identify what area is easy enough for you and if you get along with the residents. Also, it’s best to choose the specialty you enjoy daily and not the exciting parts.

To identify what area you want, you can ask yourself these questions:

1.  Do I like working with patients?

Whether or not you want to deal with patients is very crucial. Dealing with patients is more than diagnosing and treating them. You need to want to be around them and want to take an interest. You need to have the capacity to deal with rude patients as well as nice ones, scared patients as well as brave patients. You must be ready to see them in pain and at their worst. You also have to be ready to work with their family members. So, you should know what working with patients is like.

However, this question goes more than just about interaction with patients. If you want to stay in clinical care and interact with physicians but not necessarily engage with patients, fields like radiology and pathology work for you. But if you don’t want clinical interactions at all or don’t want to be delayed by residency training, you may want to go straight to PhDs. For those who have business interests, then maybe you should consider hospital administration or consulting.

2.  What is your patient relationship style?

The next step in determining the type of patient relationship he desired. For example, in family medicine, doctors work with patients ranging from children to adults and care for them over time. In contrast, acute care surgery requires quickly building relationships under extreme circumstances such as critical illness or trauma, and patient follow-up is minimal after hospitalization.

Most other medical specialties fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Patient relationships are a significant factor in why people may be drawn to specialties like oncology. For some people, supporting patients through the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, a life-changing event for even the most resilient individuals, is immensely challenging and rewarding.

3.  Are you time-oriented or task-oriented?

Students pursuing medicine must determine if they prioritize tasks or time. Task-oriented specialties focus on a specific task in a particular frame, while time-oriented specialties focus on managing time itself to treat a patient. For instance, surgery focuses more on completing specific tasks within a designated time frame. Surgeons cannot leave the operating room until they complete the procedure.

On the other hand, medical specialties prioritize managing time with patients and keeping up with note-writing to maintain a consistent schedule. Larger tasks, such as grant writing or patients with multiple health issues, can be resolved over multiple appointments. So it’s important to envision exactly what you want.

4.  What are my personal interests

Finding a field that aligns with your goals outside of clinical practice is crucial. These goals include involvement in global health, research, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and interest in business.

For instance, oncology is a particularly interesting field for global health work due to the increasing need in low and middle-income countries and complex infrastructure requirements. However, this work is also entwined with research, and the field of oncology presents many compelling unanswered questions. It would be best if you also considered the lifestyle associated with the specialty and how it aligns with one’s personal goals. Surgical oncology, for example, has a demanding lifestyle despite being in the oncology field.

Understanding how your medical specialty will impact your life and knowing whether it will bring happiness and satisfaction is the most important factor in choosing a specialty.

5.  What do I want?

After all the noise and objectivity, there’s always room for subjective decision-making. This informs your decision when you have to be split between two fields. What you want is usually affected by certain factors like personal choice, family members, and even a mentor.

However, your personal choice should always be among the final things you consider and not first because what medical specialty you want may not even align with your goals. Note that your scores can even affect that, such as your USMLE Step 2 scores.

Factors to consider when choosing a medical specialty

Here are some factors to consider when choosing a medical specialty

1.   Job Market

The demand for physicians is high due to nationwide shortages of healthcare providers. However, the number and distribution of available employment opportunities for each specialty are determined by a specific market. Therefore, it is crucial to research whether the specialty you are considering can provide opportunities that align with your interests.

2.   Practice Expenses

When choosing a medical specialty, it is crucial to consider the costs and potential liabilities involved in practicing there. Certain specialties, such as obstetrics and gynecology and some surgical fields, may have higher professional liability insurance premiums and practice expenses and may be more susceptible to liability issues.

3.   Lifestyle

Imagining your ideal life after medical training can help you select a specialty that aligns with your lifestyle goals. Consider factors such as the amount of family time you desire, stress levels, work hours, and physical demands associated with each specialty. For instance, dermatology is often considered a top choice for those seeking a balanced work-life due to its lower stress levels and more reasonable work hours.

4.   Salary

Many medical students are burdened with significant levels of student loan debt, and therefore, the potential income that comes with different specialties is a crucial consideration when evaluating employment opportunities. It is essential to assess your average debt load, the type of lifestyle you desire, and future financial goals to determine the income you need to achieve them.

5.   Fellowship Requirements/Residency Training

You must consider the specific training requirements and challenges of each medical specialty. As a medical student, you should reflect on what you want regarding training and when to start practicing. Some specialties may require more extensive training, while others allow for earlier entry into practice.


Picking a medical specialty is such an important time in the lives of medical students that you can’t afford to falter. Always consider what you want, the job market, and the salary range, and ask yourself what kind of patient working style you prefer.

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