How To Choose A Medical Specialty: 13 Questions To Ask Yourself

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Choosing a medical specialty is one of the most significant decisions you will make during your medical school journey.

As an aspiring doctor, it’s essential to carefully assess your personal interests, clinical experience, and the lifestyle implications of each specialty.

With so many options available, narrowing down your choices might seem daunting, but taking a systematic approach can help make this crucial decision more manageable.

As you delve further into the process, just remember to remain open-minded and adaptable, as your career goals may evolve as you gain more exposure to the wide array of medical disciplines.

What Are Your Primary Interests In Medicine?

When trying to choose a medical specialty, I think the first (and possibly most obvious) question you have to ask yourself is what do you find interesting?

It really isn’t a trick question- if you’re going to work in a specialty for 20+ years you’re going to need to have an interest in it.

It can be as simple as thinking about what departments you’ve most enjoyed working in, what lectures at medical school you find least boring or what days you were actually excited to go into the hospital for.

How To Choose A Medical Specialty Pixel Infographic

You don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to logically convince yourself that one specialty is better than another for various sensible reasons if your heart isn’t in it.

Medical training is a long old road, so if you don’t genuinely enjoy working in a specialty then you’re going to really struggle.

Are You More Interested In Medicine Or Surgery?

A good way to initially narrow down your options is to first think about whether you’re more inclined towards medicine or surgery.

These two areas have unique demands, challenges, and rewards. It’s important to identify your strengths, values, and long-term goals to make the right choice.

In medicine, physicians diagnose and treat patients with various illnesses and chronic conditions. Medical specialities can range from internal medicine to paediatrics to geriatrics.

When you choose a medical profession, you’ll work closely with patients, build extensive knowledge of diseases and treatments, and focus on preventative care.

If you enjoy problem-solving and building long-term relationships with patients, medicine might be the right fit for you.

Surgery, on the other hand, involves performing operations to treat injuries, diseases, and disorders. Surgeons can specialise in fields such as orthopaedics, neurosurgery, or plastic surgery.

As a surgeon, you’ll need a high level of dexterity, technical skill, and decisiveness. The fast-paced and high-stakes environment requires being able to manage stress well and quick reasoning.

If you enjoy a challenge and have the ability to think on your feet, surgery might appeal to you.

What Patient Population Do You Most Enjoy Working With?

When choosing a medical specialty, you might want to consider the age group of patients that you most enjoy working with.

For example, paediatrics focuses on the care of infants, children, and adolescents, while geriatrics specialises in the care of older adults. General practice allows you to care for patients of all ages.

One of my friends just absolutely loves children, so she really couldn’t see herself doing anything other than paeds.

It can also be helpful to think about the health status of your patients as well.

Some medical professionals prefer working with relatively healthy individuals, focusing on preventive care and wellness; this might lead to a career in sports medicine or occupational health.

On the other hand, you may be drawn to caring for patients with chronic or life-threatening diseases, suiting a role in oncology or critical care.

These can be some of the most mentally straining specialties, with poor patient outcomes, but they can also offer some of the greatest rewards for a job well done.

Do You Thrive In High-Stress Environments?

Are you capable of thriving in a high-pressure environment? Many medical careers are demanding and fast-paced, meaning stress management is essential for success.

A crucial step in evaluating your compatibility with a stressful medical specialty is identifying and understanding your triggers.

Pay attention to situations that increase your stress levels and consider the impact they’ve had on your mental well-being.

You don’t want to end up in a job that will ultimately degrade your mental health and lead you to burnout.

Developing a strong sense of self-confidence in your abilities can be a key factor in thriving under stress.

Remember that, in the medical field, your actions can significantly impact patients’ lives, so it’s essential to know your limitations while also pushing your personal boundaries.

Another part of handling stress efficiently is practising self-care strategies.

Maintain a healthy work-life balance, engage in activities that maximise relaxation, exercise regularly, and establish support networks.

By attending to your own well-being, you’re equipping yourself to better handle the demands of a stressful medical career.

Do You Prefer To Establish Long-Term Relationships With Patients Or Manage Acute Cases?

If you are drawn to developing long-lasting connections with patients, you might want to consider specialties such as general practice, internal medicine, or paediatrics.

In these fields, you’ll have the opportunity to work closely with patients and their families, often over many years.

Building these relationships can be deeply rewarding and lead to better patient outcomes.

With a loyal patient base, you can provide continuous care, witness the impact of your interventions, and adjust treatment plans as needed.

Student doctors train on a laparoscopic model
Students practising surgery on a laparoscopic model

On the other hand, if you prefer managing acute cases and addressing immediate concerns, consider specialties like emergency medicine, surgery, or anaesthetics.

These fields tend to focus on treating specific conditions in a more time-sensitive manner.

As a medical professional in one of these specialties, you’ll be responsible for making quick decisions, using your expertise to prioritise patients’ needs, and managing high-stress situations.

While there may be less opportunity for long-term relationships, the satisfaction in resolving acute health problems and saving lives can be just as fulfilling.

Are You A Competitive Applicant For Training Pathways?

As you embark on your journey to choose a medical specialty, it is crucial to assess whether you’re a competitive applicant for your desired training pathways.

The unfortunate reality is, no matter how dead set you are on a specialty, if you aren’t able to secure a training number then you’re never going to be able to become a consultant in that field.

Competitiveness in medicine never really goes away- from the point at which you manage to get into medical school all the way to securing your first-choice job as a consultant.

First, I’d consider your academic achievements. Your grades and performance in medical school can play a significant role in determining your competitiveness.

Having research experience and publications related to your chosen specialty can also make an application really stand out.

It’s additionally always worth networking and developing connections within your desired specialty. This can be through friends, colleagues or conferences.

Engage in conversations with consultants and registrars during your clinical rotations, as they can provide valuable insights and help you understand the culture and expectations in their specific field.

When you do decide to put in an application for a certain specialty, all these small things can add up to getting you the job that you’re after.

Would A Role With Minimal Patient Contact Appeal To You?

Although it might sound a bit strange and counterintuitive (as aren’t all doctors supposed to be super empathetic people lovers?), once you start working as a doctor you may start to see the appeal of a medical career with minimal patient contact…

Exploring these options might help you discover a fulfilling profession in healthcare without directly interacting with patients.

Specialties such as radiology or microbiology provide opportunities for professionals to focus on the diagnostic and analytical aspects of medical science.

In radiology, you interpret medical imaging studies to diagnose and monitor various health conditions, working in collaboration with other healthcare professionals.

A medical student examining a microscope slide
A medical student examining a specimen slide

As a microbiologist, you study microorganisms and their effect on human health, primarily analysing patient samples to help determine the cause of infections and advise on proper treatment methods.

A further option is a career in medical research. This field allows you to contribute significantly to healthcare advancements without necessarily engaging directly with patients.

You would conduct studies, develop new treatments, and analyse data to better understand and address various health issues.

Research can be carried out in any medical specialty, but there are some that are better suited to an academic career compared to others.

How Important Is Work-Life Balance To You?

Selecting a medical specialty is a significant decision and I think considering the work-life balance of that specialty is crucial.

Work-life balance is not only important for your well-being but also impacts your ability to provide the best care for your patients.

It’s essential to think about how much time you’re willing to devote to your profession, and how it will affect your personal life.

As a student trying to decide on a speciality, you must carefully reflect on the expectations and demands of your desired speciality.

During your clinical rotations, engage with doctors in your chosen field and ask them about their experiences.

Furthermore, observe the culture within each department you rotate through, and consider whether you can see yourself fitting in with that particular environment.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how important work-life balance should be in your decision-making process as ultimately, it comes down to your priorities and how much you value the various aspects of your profession.

Remember to assess each specialty with a practical mindset and be honest with yourself about what matters most to you.

If work-life balance is a top priority, ensure that your chosen specialty aligns with your lifestyle goals and expectations.

What Is Your Preferred Work Environment?

Different medical specialties often come with different settings, each with its unique qualities.

In a hospital setting, you’ll encounter a diverse range of patients and clinical conditions. Hospitals tend to be busy, high-pressure environments where you can work as part of a collaborative team.

If you enjoy a fast-paced atmosphere and the opportunity to work with various colleagues, a hospital-based specialty like emergency medicine, ENT or cardiology might be a good fit for you.

On the other hand, if you prefer a more personal, long-term relationship with your patients, you might be more suited to working in general practice.

As a GP, you would manage your patients’ primary healthcare needs over time while working in a relatively lower-stress environment compared to a hospital.

Clinics offer another alternative, where you may work as a specialist consultant in areas like dermatology, allergy or even sports medicine.

Clinics often provide a more focused environment where you can develop expertise in a specific area, usually with more regular working hours.

Lastly, if independent research and analysis interest you, a career as a laboratory-based physician in fields like pathology or medical genetics might be your calling.

In such specialties, you would be interpreting medical samples and data to provide vital information to other healthcare professionals, often with minimal patient interaction.

Take time to assess your preferences, be it high-energy teamwork, one-on-one patient care, focused specialty consultation, or behind-the-scenes analysis.

How Important Is Earning Potential To You?

Different specialties come with varying levels of income and it’s crucial to weigh this aspect of your job options against your personal values and priorities.

While money may not be your main motivator, it’s still a practical consideration that can impact your lifestyle and financial security.

You could begin by researching the average salaries for different medical specialties to gain a better understanding of what they offer financially.

You may also want to consider potential future changes in the job market, as some medical fields could experience fluctuations in demand which could in turn affect salary levels.

It’s equally important, however, to balance earning potential with other aspects of your future career.

Reflect on what you genuinely enjoy and find fulfilling in a profession, as well as the work-life balance you desire.

Some medical specialties may offer a higher income, but they might also come with longer hours or increased stress levels, which could impact your overall quality of life.

In considering how much weight to give to earning potential, it’s essential to look at your long-term goals, both personal and professional.

Do you have any specific financial objectives, such as paying off student loans, supporting a family, or saving for retirement?

Earning potential might play a larger role in your decision-making if these goals are high priorities for you.

Do You Prefer To Be More Independent Or Work In A Team?

While I view medicine in general as a team sport, some specialties may require more collaboration, while others allow for greater autonomy.

Reflecting on your work preferences can help you make an informed decision about which direction you might want to take your career.

Workingindependently may suit you if you enjoy taking full responsibility for your patients, making critical decisions alone, and having control over your daily tasks.

Specialties like pathology, radiology, or psychiatry often provide more opportunities for independent practice.

You may find it rewarding to rely on your own judgment and expertise in diagnosing and treating patients.

On the other hand, if you find satisfaction in working closely with others and appreciate the support and input from colleagues, then team-focused specialties might be a better fit.

Two surgeons in the middle of an operation
Surgery is always a team effort

Specialties such as transplant medicine, palliative care, or intensive care often involve teamwork to navigate complex cases, share knowledge, and provide comprehensive care to patients.

In these roles, you can develop strong professional relationships and enjoy the camaraderie that comes with a team environment.

It’s worth noting that there is a spectrum of teamwork and independence within each specialty, and your professional experience may vary depending on factors such as your workplace or individual patient cases.

However, understanding your preference for working independently or as part of a team can serve as a valuable starting point in choosing a medical specialty.

How Important Is Having A Predictable Schedule For You?

Any doctor will be able to tell you that some specialties offer more predictable schedules, while others require longer hours or unpredictable on-call shifts.

Evaluating the importance of a stable schedule in your life will significantly impact your choice of specialty.

If maintaining a balanced personal life is a priority, you may want to consider fields such as general practice, psychiatry, or dermatology.

These specialties often provide more regular working hours, allowing you to have a predictable daily routine.

This is definitely one of the main appeals of GP life to me!

This stability can be especially beneficial if you have family responsibilities or hobbies that you’d like to pursue outside of your professional life.

On the other hand, if you thrive in high-pressure situations and don’t mind long working hours, fields such as neurosurgery or emergency medicine may be appealing.

These specialities often demand irregular hours, overnight shifts, and being on call.

While these conditions can be challenging, they also offer the opportunity to make a significant impact on patients’ lives through critical care and expertise.

A mentor in your desired field can give you insights into the work-life balance that each specialty offers, helping you make a more informed decision.

However ultimately, the importance of a predictable schedule will depend on your priorities, goals, and lifestyle preferences.

Do You Enjoy Participating In Research?

As you consider which medical specialty to pursue, one aspect to consider is your enthusiasm for participating in research.

Research plays a crucial role in medicine, driving advancements and improving patient outcomes.

Ask yourself if you derive satisfaction from diving deep into a topic and uncovering new knowledge.

In some medical specialties, research is a significant component and can consume a large portion of your professional activities.

On the other hand, other specialties might not involve much research, depending on the scope and setting of your practice.

Collaborative research often unites professionals from various disciplines, giving you the opportunity to interact with experts in your field and learn from their experiences.

This can be an enriching experience, especially if you have a collaborative nature and enjoy brainstorming with others.

Some specialties focus on clinical research, directly impacting patient care and outcomes, while others may lean towards basic science research or public health initiatives.

If you think that being involved with research may be your thing, I’d suggest you choose a specialty that would allow you to fully explore this interest.

Final Thoughts

No matter the path you choose, there is immense satisfaction to be gained from helping your patients and making a difference in their lives- which you’ll do in any specialty.

Selecting a medical specialty may seem like an incredibly daunting task, but just remember there’s no pressure to rush the decision nor do you have to stick with your first choice once you’ve made it.

I’ve met plenty of doctors who started down one training pathway before deciding it wasn’t for them and switching to a different one.

I think my main takeaway message would be to just take the time to reflect on your personal preferences and strengths and let this guide you towards the medical specialty that best aligns with your values and career goals.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.