What to Consider When Choosing a Medical Specialty

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Sahil Mehta, founder of MedSchoolCoach, shares his experience of choosing a medical specialty and offers some advice on what is important to consider when making your choice.

    This is part II of an interview we conducted with Sahil Mehta, founder of MedSchoolCoach. In this article, Sahil acknowledges the challenge of choosing a specialty, talks about his own experience in doing so, and offers some guidance on what he thinks is important to take into account during this process.

    Not much about medical school is easy, and choosing a specialty is no different. According to Sahil, “medical students struggle all the time with trying to pick their specialty.” Sahil empathizes with them. Medical students are under a lot of pressure to choose the right specialty. The process is not trivial as medical students are exposed to many specialties, pulled in many directions, and are naturally overwhelmed by this big decision. And, as Sahil emphasizes, once you start working in your specialty, you don’t have time for anything else.

    Sahil’s path

    Sahil went through all the steps of choosing a specialty, and though he was confused at times, he did end up finding a specialty which he could focus his entire career on: radiology. However, radiology wasn’t on his radar for many years. Sahil confesses that he had “no idea” about what specialty to choose for a very long time, and that he wasn’t confident even after he started his radiology residency. Eventually, he found his niche in interventional radiology. Sahil’s interest in interventional radiology was twofold. As he describes it, “I love procedures, and I love high-tech, innovative, interesting procedures. One of the places where that happens all the time is interventional radiology.” Below he expands on how he got where he is today.

    Personal connections change your experience

    There are clear advantages in taking electives in the field that you are interested in, buckling down and doing research, and talking to residents and doctors. But, according to Sahil, it can all be very subjective. “In medical school, you explore everything but at the same time your experiences are really shaped by who’s around you.” You develop personal connections that influence your experience. “A great charismatic attending physician could have a great effect in how you feel about a specific field. As a result, you may find yourself saying ‘I really loved that rotation. That’s what I want to do.’” But you must look beyond personal bonds and experiences when considering specialties. The person who influences you during your rotations is not necessarily going to be a part of your residency.

    Make sure you like the very mundane aspects of every single field because the mundane stuff is what gets you through the day.

    Enjoy all aspects of a specialty / Look at the big picture

    Feeling passionate about a specialty is essential, but don’t get blindsided by the glamorous cases you see in medical school, particularly in leading institutions. Glamorous cases do not reflect the day-to-day operations of any specialty. Therefore, finding out whether you like the everyday practices of a particular specialty is just as important as feeling enthusiastic about its most fascinating cases. Sahil recalls a piece of advice that he received while shadowing an ophthalmologist, during his rotation days. Sahil witnessed amazing retinoblastoma surgeries, and was very impressed by them. That was when the ophthalmologist he was shadowing told him “they were seeing somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of all cases in the world.” That doesn’t paint an accurate picture of what ophthalmologists do 95 percent of the time. “So make sure you like the very mundane aspects of every single field because the mundane stuff is what gets you through the day.”

    Your happiness is a lot of times dictated by where you are.

    Don’t overlook location

    After choosing a specialty you will need to choose a geographical location, and according to Sahil, you shouldn’t overlook this step. “Every program is going to have its strengths and weaknesses, but think about where you want to be over everything else.” You might be tempted to not make location a priority, especially when there are so many other variables to take into account. But Sahil says he made many of his own choices based on location, and strongly recommends that others do the same. You commit to a location for a minimum of three years, and that location will influence many other aspects of your life. As Sahil puts it, “your happiness is a lot of times dictated by where you are.” Location may be seen by many as personal, and at times, people choose not to let their personal lives interfere with their professional decisions. But Sahil sees it differently and emphasizes that “if there’s a personal reason to keep you somewhere or a personal reason to go somewhere, you should carefully consider that issue.”

    About the Author

    Sahil Mehta is the founder of MedSchoolCoach, which provides pre-med and medical school admissions consulting services, MCAT and USMLE/COMLEX tutoring, and unique products and experiences that help students become physicians.