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Exploring Specialties Before Medical School


For pre-medical students, the path ahead is filled with numerous decisions. One critical career decision pre-meds often ponder is: which medical specialty should I choose? While this decision typically occurs during the second half of medical school, laying the groundwork and exploring options beforehand can provide invaluable insights and direction. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore some strategies you can use to investigate medical specialties and develop a list of potential interests before you begin medical school—strategies that can help you better understand the medical profession in general, as well as what kind of physician you want to be.

Self-Reflection and Assessment

Before diving into the vast array of medical specialties, take the time for self-reflection. Consider your interests, strengths, and values. What aspects of medicine resonate with you the most? Are you drawn to hands-on procedures, research, patient interactions, or problem-solving? Reflecting on these questions can help narrow down potential specialties that align with your passions and goals.

Questions you may ask yourself include:

  • What kinds of patients do I want to work with? Understanding whether you’re drawn to families, children, older adults, military veterans, or another patient population can help you narrow down your choices.
  • Do I prefer being hands-on with patients, or am I more interested in researching cures?
  • Does surgery appeal to me, or am I more interested in consultations and diagnoses?
  • Am I fascinated by a specific physiological system, such as the eye, the liver, the musculoskeletal system, or the respiratory system? Exploring specialties that deal with these areas may help.
  • Do I want to be on call, or do I want regular office hours (as much as possible)?
  • Would I find it more fulfilling to respond to urgent or emergency needs, or would I prefer a more methodical and long-term approach to patient care?

Start with Online Resources

Take advantage of online resources specifically designed to help pre-medical students explore medical specialties. Websites like the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the American Medical Association (AMA), and specialty-specific organizations offer information, career profiles, and other resources to help you learn more about different specialties. Browsing the website of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, for example, brings up many articles, podcasts, and guides to career paths in orthopaedic surgery, including lifestyle considerations and training requirements.

Don’t forget to learn what you can about the job market, either. While it may be another five or six years before you begin your residency, knowing which specialties have the greatest need, the best work-life balance, or the highest average salaries may help guide your choice. For example, a 2024 U.S. News and World Report article notes that while emergency medicine physicians used to be in high demand, that particular specialty has become oversaturated. Ophthalmology residencies are limited, while demand for primary care and family medicine remains high.

Extracurricular Activities and Shadowing

Shadowing physicians across various specialties is perhaps the most effective way to gain firsthand experience and insight into different medical fields. By observing different specialties in action, you can witness the day-to-day responsibilities, patient interactions, and challenges unique to each field. Reach out to local hospitals, clinics, or your college’s health professions advisor to ask about shadowing opportunities. 

Engaging in volunteer work, extracurricular activities, or even paid work—such as medical scribing—can also introduce you to different medical specialties. 

Informational Interviews and Networking

Networking with practicing physicians, residents, and medical students can offer valuable perspectives and advice on different medical specialties. Reach out to professionals in your network or through online platforms such as LinkedIn to request informational interviews. Ask about their experiences, daily routines, and what they enjoy most about their specialty. Building these connections can also provide mentorship opportunities or informal guidance that can help you on your path to medical school.

Many medical schools host specialty interest groups and events. If it’s possible to attend as a pre-medical student, try to do so, especially if there are virtual events available. These gatherings often feature presentations, panels, and networking opportunities with physicians from different specialties, allowing you to ask questions and gain insights into potential career paths.

Keep an Open Mind and Stay Flexible

Finally, while it’s essential to explore different specialties and gather information, it’s also crucial to keep an open mind and remain flexible. After all, you don’t need to decide on a specialty until it’s time to start applying to residency programs. 

Remember that your interests and priorities may evolve over time. You may suddenly become interested in a specialty you hadn’t considered before. Embrace the journey of exploration and trust that the right specialty will align with your passions, skills, and values.

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