How to Choose a Medical Specialty

April 25, 2024
5 min read


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 4/25/24

Don’t know which medical specialty to choose? You’re not alone! Follow along as we discuss how to choose a medical specialty.

Choosing a medical specialty can seem like an overwhelming task, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, researching your medical specialty is all about figuring out what you like, and what will work for you in the long term—so it should be interesting! With the right approach and mindset, you can confidently make the decision that's best for you.  

Our step-by-step will provide you with expert tips to help guide you through the process of selecting your medical specialty. From exploring your individual strengths and interests to understanding the different fields and opportunities available, we've got you covered. 

Let’s get started!

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Tips for Choosing a Medical Specialty

Before we dive into our categorical approach to choosing a medical specialty, here are a few tips to consider.

Consider Your Areas Of Interest (All of Them)

Of course, when you’re choosing your medical specialty, you should consider your areas of medical and scientific interest, such as organ systems, diseases, and types of medicine that interest you. But when we say “consider your interests,” we’re not just talking about medicine and science.

If you’re here, you’ve most likely thought about your medical interests and are still having trouble choosing a medical specialty, so let’s think outside of the box. For example, are you more of an indoor or outdoors person? Do you prefer spending time alone or playing team sports? Most importantly, are you a people person?

Questions like this can help you narrow down your search to specialties that suit your personality. Take a look at your surroundings, how are you most comfortable? When are you the most productive? These are all things to take into consideration when choosing a medical specialty. 

What Don’t You Like?

Knowing what you won’t do is valuable information as well! If you’re having trouble getting started, you can list a few things that you want to avoid in your search for the perfect medical specialty. For example, if you are a person who doesn’t do well in high-stress situations, emergency medicine may not be the right choice for you.

It’s All About You

This is a big decision that you’ll have to make major time and financial commitments to, so it’s time to shut the world out and look internally. What do you want to do? What area of medicine excites you? It’s okay if there isn’t only one answer, and it’s also okay if the answer isn’t clear, but you have a vague idea of tasks you like doing a little more than others. It’s a start!

This step can be especially challenging for legacy students or children of doctors who want to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

Important Factors to Consider When Choosing a Specialty

Here’s our complete step-by-step approach to choosing a medical specialty. Below we’ll go through each consideration to help you through your specialty decision process. 

1. Consider Your Current Strengths

Beginning with specialty options may feel overwhelming, so let’s start somewhere a little more familiar. Your first step should be creating a list of what you want out of your career. Consider what you enjoy, be realistic and practical. Some examples of relevant interests include:

  • Teamwork
  • Social skills
  • Research
  • Physical activity
  • Art & Detail work
  • Puzzles
  • Childcare 
  • Independent study 

There’s so much that can inform your ultimate specialty decision. Someone who enjoys being active, teamwork, and high-pressure situations like sports might enjoy emergency medicine, while someone who prefers to stay in and have limited interactions with others may prefer radiology or pathology.

2. Learn Which Medical Specialties Align With Your Values

This table created by Stanford Medical School shows a precise, categorical approach to how to choose a medical specialty. You can use the questions in this table to help you discover what medical specialty aligns with your interests and what you’re looking for in a career.

Source: Stanford Medical School

Using the above table, you should be able to come up with a few examples of specialties that cater to your interests and values. These options are meant to help you come up with a preliminary list.

3. Create A List

Now it’s time to do research for a good old fashioned pros and cons list. After using the above table, you may have a better idea of which specialties suit your individual needs, and you can begin your research with those specialties. You can also research specialties according to the personality traits or strengths you listed in steps one and two. 

To get more familiar with specialties you are interested in, check out resources on websites like the American Medical Association, the American Board of Medical Specialties, or get advice from healthcare professionals within the specialties that can provide a firsthand look at the day-to-day work and responsibilities. 

Remember to keep an open mind when doing research and making your list. The medical field is constantly evolving, and new specialties are constantly becoming available. Keep an open mind and be willing to consider options you may not have initially considered.

Once you have done plenty of research, you can begin to piece together a clearer picture of what types of specialties would work best for you. Your list should include key points (pros and cons) about the specialty to help you quickly review each one as you narrow down your options.

4. Narrow It Down

You can narrow down your list by using more specific residency traits, such as salary, program competitiveness, your level of interest, residency options, and more. Take your time with this decision, it’s a big one! 

Once your list is a bit smaller, you can consider shadowing to help you make final decisions. Shadowing doctors in different specialties can provide a firsthand look at the day-to-day work and responsibilities of each specialty.

Consulting with an experienced academic advisor who has experience in the medical field can also provide guidance and insight that can help you make a more informed decision.

Find the medical specialty that suits you best with our Which Medical Specialty is Right For You? Quiz below!

FAQs: How to Choose a Medical Specialty

Here are our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about how to choose a medical specialty. 

1. I Don’t Know What Medical Specialty to Choose. What Should I Do?

Consider a wide variety of your personal strengths, needs, interests, and attributes. Your medical specialty should suit the lifestyle you thrive in. Consider things like work environment, level of social interaction, teamwork, physical activity, attention to detail, etc. Once you have a few specialties that fit the profile, begin to narrow down your list.

2. What Medical Specialty is the Most Needed?

Primary care physicians are constantly high in demand. According to Harvard University, The US is expected to face an increasing primary care physician shortage ranging up to 55,000 by the year 2033.

3. When Should I Decide on my Medical Specialty?

Most medical students begin thinking about their specialty choices during their third year of medical school, when they begin rotating through different specialties. This allows them to gain hands-on experience in various fields and get a sense of which specialties align with their interests and skills. Then, you can make final decisions about your specialty in your fourth year.

4. What Factors Are Important to Decide On A Specialty?

Some factors that may be important to consider when deciding on a medical specialty include:

  • Personal interests and passions
  • Career prospects
  • Lifestyle 
  • Financial goals
  • Training and educational requirements
  • Emotional and mental capacity

You should also consider the competitiveness of residency programs within your chosen specialty, and how in demand each specialty is.

Final Thoughts

Choosing a medical specialty is a major decision that should not be taken lightly. It's crucial to take the time to examine all of your interests both in and out of medicine and consider your options carefully. 

Remember, your medical specialty will play a lead role in your life, so it's essential to find one that aligns with your passions and goals. Don't be afraid to explore different specialties and talk to those in the field to gain a better understanding of what each one entails. 

Ultimately, you should trust yourself and your instincts. This decision is yours to make, so it’s time to buckle down and listen to your inner voice. Consider your strengths, what makes you happy and comfortable, and you'll be sure to find the perfect fit!

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