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During medical school, most students will ask themselves “what medical specialty should I choose?”. Choosing a medical specialty is a big decision that will probably affect the rest of your career as a physician. The medical specialty that you pursue will affect not only what you do, but what kind of income you will have, what kind of lifestyle you are able to lead, and future opportunities that will be most likely to open up for you.

While you may have an idea of what specialty you are interested in as you begin medical school, your interests will probably change as you complete your education. According to a 2017 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, 75% of medical students will change their specialty preference during medical school, and even 20% of residents will change during their residency.

Understanding how to choose a medical specialty can help you to evaluate your different options and understand how to weigh the many different choices in a way that best suits your needs. While there is no perfect formula for how to decide on a medical specialty, there are some basic principles that we provide in this guide to choosing a medical specialty.

Tips For Choosing A Medical Specialty

When considering how to choose a medical specialty, there are several tips that may be helpful. These tips can help to guide you as you evaluate the many different options you will encounter.

Get Advice

It is impossible to fully understand what it will be like to spend your workweek in a particular medical specialty without actually doing it. One of the best ways to find out what it is like to work in a medical specialty is to talk with doctors who are actually practicing in that specialty. Most physicians enjoy the specialty they have chosen and are happy to share their experiences with the next generation of practitioners.

One of the important benefits of seeking the advice of clinicians practicing in your desired specialty is that they can provide insights into downsides and upsides that you may not have considered. Often, there are quirks or nuances of working in a specialty that you may not be aware of without having worked in that specialty yourself.

Know Your Strengths

Every medical student wonders “what medical specialty should I choose?”, but the answer will vary based on the individual. Your strongest areas will help direct you towards the specialties you are most likely to succeed in. Typically, academic strengths come from increased interest and enjoyment in a topic. This increased appreciation for a particular field of medicine will ultimately not only enhance your long-term success, but will also help your satisfaction with your specialty.

Have an Open Mind

While you may already have an idea of what medical specialty you are interested in, there may be options that you are better suited for. Don’t miss your ideal specialty because you are too fixed on a particular idea.

A good way to keep an open mind is to envision yourself working in each specialty as you are going through that particular clinical rotation. You may be surprised to find that other options you wouldn’t have considered are actually appealing to you.

Keep Your Purpose in Mind

If you are like most medical students, you have a reason that you pursued a career in medicine. It is important that you keep that purpose in mind as you explore the different specialties that exist. Your reason for becoming a physician will influence the considerations that you take while figuring out how to choose a medical specialty. 

Being true to your original purpose can help you to enjoy the specialty that you practice in and give you more career fulfillment. It is, however, important to consider that sometimes your motivations behind a career in medicine may develop or mature as you continue your educational journey. You may need to choose a specialty based on what your purpose is today instead of what it was when you were 18.

Choosing The Best Medical Specialty For You

While it is easy to be interested in one of the most in-demand medical specialties, there are many different specialties that may be a better fit. There are several different things you can do to decide on the best specialty for you.

Take an Analytical Approach

As a future doctor, analytical thinking will be a key tool for determining your patients’ diagnoses and treatments. It follows that taking this approach can also provide you with the best decision-making framework for choosing a medical specialty. Just as you would gradually narrow down multiple possible diagnoses to a single diagnosis, you should also narrow down your potential options by methodically eliminating options that may not be a good fit.

According to the American Medical Association, one of the first steps for narrowing your options will be to determine if you are interested in a surgical or non-surgical specialty. This first branch in your decision-making pathway will help you to begin narrowing down the myriad of options that exist and help you to start on your journey to picking a single specialty.

Consider Your Future Lifestyle

Choosing your future medical specialty includes evaluating a variety of factors about your career goals and interests, but should also include the goals for the lifestyle that you will live once you are an attending physician. This can be especially important for medical students who have not started a family, but plan to in the future.

Different specialties will have different demands on your time and affect the lifestyle that you live. Emergency medicine, for example, may require shift work that may require routinely working overnight shifts, but may not normally require you to be on call or work outside of your scheduled hours. Other specialties may not require shift work, but could require you to be on call quite often. When choosing a specialty, you will need to consider how it will impact your lifestyle.

Evaluate Your Financial Goals

While working as a doctor is much more than a paycheck, it is still what will ultimately provide you with a paycheck. You should consider your financial situation and what you hope to achieve financially in the future. Different specialties will provide you with different financial outcomes.

One of the tradeoffs of pursuing a more financially rewarding specialty is that it will typically require more time to complete your residency and may be more demanding than other specialties. You should evaluate the financial benefits of each medical specialty and determine how important the fiscal aspect of your career is to you.

Succeed After Medical School

During medical school, it can be easy to get very focused on your studies and finishing the next steps in your education. It is important, however, to consider what your long-term goals are and to plan for them in advance. It is perhaps equally important to have the support of an academic system that is committed to helping guide you through the process of selecting the right medical specialty and preparing you to succeed during your residency.

With a 92% first-time residency attainment rate for 2020-2021 graduates, Ross University School of Medicine is committed to helping our students succeed after graduation. We invite you to learn more about the unique advantages we offer our students and how we can help you achieve your career goals.

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In 2020, 91% of RUSM students passed the initial step of the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE®) on the first attempt. And in 2022-2023, results show yet another strong year for RUSM with a 97% first-time residency attainment rate* thus far. Located on the island of Barbados and with a network of more than 15,000 alumni, RUSM is one of the largest providers of doctors for the U.S. healthcare system. RUSM graduates practice in all 50 states and in Puerto Rico.

*First time residency attainment rate is the percent of students attaining a 2023-24 residency position out of all graduates or expected graduates in 2022-23 who were active applicants in the 2023 NRMP match or who attained a residency position outside the NRMP match.