7 Things to Consider When Choosing A Medical Specialty

October 30, 2017

Some medical students know exactly what type of medicine they want to specialize in on the first day of medical school, but a lot of students find that they have many different interests and have a hard time deciding what type of specialty will be the best fit for them.  If you’re in a relationship with someone going to medical school, you know how important and stressful choosing a specialty can be, for them and for your relationship.  Discussing the pros and cons of the specialties your significant other is interested in can help both of you realize your future goals and what sacrifices you each might need to make to meet those goals.  Here are a few questions you can ask your significant other to get the conversation started to figure out what speciality is best for them and for your relationship. 

What were their favorite and least favorite blocks during medical school?  

This is a good first question that can weed out a lot of specialties.  Most students have a few blocks that they absolutely hated and a few that they really enjoyed.  Encourage your significant other to make a list and to figure out why they loved those blocks more than others.  Was it the subject matter?  The instructor?  Keeping these blocks in mind when they do their third-year clinical rotations can help them figure out if they actually enjoy the work of that specialty or just enjoyed learning about it.  But if they do enjoy the work during their clinical rotations, chances are that they will also enjoy the work in residency and as a career.

Do they like being around people?

If your spouse likes the more scientific or technical side of medicine, they might want to consider a specialty like pathology or radiology, where there is comparatively limited patient interaction and will spend a lot of time working independently.  If they do like a lot of patient interaction, then they might want to consider a primary care specialty where they get to interact with patients on a daily basis.  If they’re not necessarily a people person, but still want to be around patients, then surgery may be a good option.  

How do they like to solve problems? 

This can also be a good question that can weed out a lot of undesirable specialties.  If your spouse likes to to finish projects in one sitting and doesn’t stop working until it’s finished, they may be more suited for a more specialized or surgical specialty, where they can work with their hands and immediately fix whatever problem the patient is having.  On the other hand, if your spouse likes to work on challenging problems and dig until they can find the answer, even if it takes time, they may be well-suited to a primary care specialty, where they can work with patients over longer spans of time to help figure out exactly what kind of treatment their patient needs. 

How important are leisure activities and hobbies?

After your significant other has figured out what types of medicine they are most interested in, the next step is to figure out if the lifestyle of that specialty is something they can live with.  If your spouse loves being in the operating room and isn’t bothered by the long work hours, surgery may be a great fit for them.  If your significant other loves operating, but doesn’t want crazy work hours, they may consider choosing a specialty that allows them to do similar kinds of procedures without having to spend all their time in the hospital. 

Considering the balance between lifestyle and interest can be the hardest part of choosing a specialty, so it’s important that both you and your spouse are honest with each other in your discussions.  If leisure and hobbies are important to both of you and your spouse is willing to pursue a specialty they may not love, but like enough to have more time, then that’s great.  If your spouse loves a specialty enough to give up leisure time, and you are happy to support them in that goal, then that’s great, too.  The important thing is to consider what you really both want and you’re willing to give up to get it.  Again, honesty is key–you don’t want to tell your spouse that you are fine with them working long hours as a surgeon and then secretly resent them for years to come.  On the other hand, a situation where your spouse is working in a specialty they hate just because it has a good lifestyle may not be ideal either.  It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect job or specialty.  Every specialty has pros and cons and the key is to find the one that provides the best balance for both you and your spouse.  

Is spending a lot of time together important to your relationship?

There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question; some couples need to spend quality time together to keep things going strong, while others may have different needs besides spending time.  But if having your spouse home on weekends and holidays is really important to you, you’ll both want to consider that when choosing a specialty.  If your spouse is considering a specialty that requires long work hours for several years, will you be ok making that sacrifice?  If the answer is yes, then a more demanding career may work fine for your relationship.  If the answer is no, then there is nothing wrong with you, it’s just important to be honest with your spouse so that they understand what an extra challenge it will be if they do choose a more demanding specialty, or so they can have the opportunity to choose a specialty that might work better for your relationship.  

Leaving all other considerations aside, what would be their dream specialty?

This can be an important question because your spouse may have a dream specialty, but may be too afraid to admit it because it might not be considered a lifestyle specialty or they think you won’t approve.  But if they really feel passionate about something, even if the work hours are hard, it may be a sacrifice worth making to support them in achieving one of their greatest goals.

Honesty is key

At this point the decision is completely between you and your spouse and you’ll have to figure out what works best for both of you.  It can be a tricky balance to figure out, so it’s important to be honest with each other.  Sometimes there can be a lot of pressure from friends and family to choose a certain specialty, or pressure to choose a specialty with a lot of prestige or money, but it’s important to remember that everyone is different and that people are drawn to different specialties for different reasons and that we need every type of doctor.  The important thing is to figure out what will work best for both you and your spouse.

By Hannah McKay – Married to Doctors Contributor

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