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Medical Students: Which Specialty is Best for Work-Life Balance?

  • by Alex Hicks
  • Jan 25, 2022
  • Reviewed by: Amy Rontal

If you’re a medical student, you might be wondering if you’ll ever find a healthy work-life balance as a physician. In short, the answer is a definite yes—despite the misconceptions about long hours without any time off, you can (and should) structure your future career to include your personal life and other hobbies to prevent burnout. 

While you might not have this autonomy over your schedule right now in medical school, the day will come when you can lift your head from your medical books and see the light of day again! It’s true that one day you will have interests outside of medical textbooks and patient care, but until then, you can make strides towards a future of healthy work-life balance by taking into account what each specialty allows.

When we consider the specialties that tend to have more opportunities for work/life balance, the “E-ROAD” acronym comes to mind: Emergency Medicine, Radiology, Ophthalmology, Anesthesia, and Dermatology. Less commonly named specialties such as Psychiatry, Pathology, and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) also offer great flexibility as well. These fields all hold a common reputation for a decent level of lifestyle control, especially when compared to other fields in medicine, making them especially desirable if you value flexibility and more traditional business hours.

Dermatology and Ophthalmology

If you’re aiming to work mostly within the “standard” 9-to-5 business hours, along with fairly minimal call volume outside of normal hours of operation, you might want to look into Dermatology and Ophthalmology. Most Dermatologists and Ophthalmologists work weekday clinic hours and depending on the practice, a four-day workweek is usually considered a full-time schedule. Patient emergencies requiring evening hours are fairly minimal. Both of these fields are heavily procedural, which contributes to why these specialties are highly desirable with a very competitive match process. 

Although there are many great aspects of these two specialties, they are certainly not for everyone. Both are predominately clinic-based practices (though complex inpatient dermatologic care is certainly on the rise), and you’ll work standard business hours, most dermatologists and ophthalmologists still spend a great deal of time outside of clinic on documentation and patient chart review. Unlike the “shift work” style specialties, both fields also generally require you to be available to patients in some capacity, either by phone or email, during evenings and weekends.

Emergency Medicine and Anesthesiology

Emergency Medicine and Anesthesiology share some similarities in that their services are pretty much needed 24/7. Working nights, weekends, and holidays may not be your cup of tea, but the convenience of having your schedule set weeks to months in advance can allow you to plan activities during your off hours. Interestingly, these fields are also somewhat unique in that you typically will not include a patient follow-up at the end of your work shift, thus allowing you to truly be disconnected during your time off.  Both fields are also heavily procedural in nature, so if being hands-on in your daily work excites you, then you could definitely explore these areas of medicine. Although these specialties have become more competitive in recent years, they still tend to be less competitive than Dermatology and Ophthalmology.

Blaze Your Own Trail

Although the specialties listed above hold a reputation for offering a more sustainable work/life balance, the most important thing to remember is your path in medicine can be tailored to fit your lifestyle regardless of specialty. Some dermatologists might end up working over 60 hours per week, sometimes 80 hours when factoring in the time and effort it takes to operate your own private practice. On the flip side, some Orthopedic surgeons, Intensivists, Emergency physicians, and Hospitalists might work below 40 hours per week, despite the reputation that this route is more time-intensive. 

As the conversation around mental health and self care continues to grow among the newer generation of physicians, even those within the more traditionally “demanding” fields of medicine can negotiate a schedule that offers a healthy work/life balance. It still remains true that the most important aspect of choosing a specialty is in finding one that genuinely fits best with your interests; even in a field with a “great lifestyle,” you will undoubtedly still devote an enormous amount of your time in becoming an expert and practicing in that specialty. As such, your happiness and job satisfaction will ultimately come from the work that most excites and motivates you.