Skip to main content

Choosing a Medical Specialty

If you’re interested in working as a physician, you should know that there are many different kinds of medical specialties. Some doctors specialize in treating children. Others specialize in treating medical matters related to the heart. Others focus on the brain. There is a specialist for practically every part of our bodies!

Choosing a medical specialty that fits your interests and goals may take some time, but the benefits to your career and personal life will be worth it. The specialty you select will ultimately affect your lifestyle, work hours, income and other factors.

Labor market conditions and employment trends are an important area to consider when you’re choosing a labor specialty. After all, you want to be sure that you find a job after you finish medical school.

“Trends can be important in determining a specialty,” Dr. Mary Coleman says. She’s the dean of a medical school. “It has happened that at times certain specialists have had difficulty getting employment.”

But it’s important to look at all the factors, including your personal interest. Remember: you most likely will be practicing that specialty for more than 30 years. “Do what you truly love in a lifestyle you can maintain,” says Dr. Maurice Ramirez. He’s a physician and the co-founder of Disaster Life Support of North America

Making the Choice

Students typically select a specialty towards the end of their third year in medical school, after most have been involved in the primary required clerkships, Coleman says. Specialty options include internal medicine, surgery, psychiatry, obstetrics/gynecology, family medicine, pediatrics and neurology.

Many students use the fourth year of medical school to try out electives if they believe they have an interest in other areas, she says. Some schools are trying to develop ways for students to experience other areas of medicine during earlier years.

“Try to get exposure as early as possible and as frequently as possible to any area in which you have an interest,” Coleman says. “If you think you would like a certain residency, attempt to get an elective rotation in that area, and if possible, with the program in which you are most interested.”

What Specialties Are Popular Today?

According to the American Board of Medical Specialties, there has been a rise in students choosing the areas of anesthesiology, medical genetics, pathology, psychiatry and neurology and radiology.

“The reasons why students choose different specialties is complex,” says Coleman. “Work hours may be more controllable in some specialties, such as medical genetics. Acute care and procedures may appeal to those who choose radiology and anesthesiology. Malpractice problems may scare students away from some specialties such as obstetrics and gynecology.

“Incentives to practice in certain areas or certain specialties may entice some to choose primary care specialties or others in locations where the need is great.”

Should Employment Trends Rule Your Choices?

While it’s important to consider employment trends, the demand for physicians changes constantly, and the factors pushing those trends vary and aren’t easy to define, says Dr. Samuel Sandowski. He’s the director of graduate medical education at South Nassau Communities Hospital.

For example, the demand for family physicians began to wane about a decade ago and now the needs are increasing again, he points out. And the hiring trends for different specialties will vary across the country. Sometimes, unpredictable factors like television shows can influence students' choices for residency training. It’s hard to predict all the factors that will affect the job market.

“One thing I always recommend to my students when considering career options is follow your heart,” Sandowski says. “Economic trends will fluctuate and culture will change. However, one’s practice of medicine is a life-long decision.”

Keep in mind that the hiring trends when you enter medical school may not be the same when you graduate from a residency.

Coleman advises students to consider the following factors in selecting a specialty:

Passion and interest: The most important factor is what inspires your interest. It’s easier to excel in what we love, and, as a result, easier to obtain a position in that area.

Appeal: It is helpful to consider what you like about medicine the most. As you consider a specialty, ask yourself various questions about each field. Do you need to know what the diagnosis is? Emergency medicine doctors sometimes find themselves making decisions about admission without finding out what the diagnosis is. Internists and family physicians will often only discover the answer to the problem after taking care of a patient for months.

Do you enjoy procedures? Emergency medicine physicians and those who provide care in intensive care units are frequently called upon to do a variety of procedures.

Do you like handling acute situations? Anesthesiologists interact with patients for a specific operation, but may not get the opportunity to see the patient after the operation is done.

Do you like developing long-term relationships with patients? Primary care physicians, pediatricians, psychiatrists and others have the opportunity to develop relationships with patients, their families and significant others that can cross generations and last for years.

Availability: To work in a field, there must be residency slots available. Traditionally, some areas of medicine, such as dermatology and ophthalmology, have limited availability. If your interests are in these areas, you may have difficulty finding opportunities for training.

Societal need: It’s worthwhile for students to consider any area for which there is a demonstrated need. Many rural areas are lacking in primary care physicians, as well as various specialties.

Flexibility of practice location: Some specialties are overrepresented in urban areas. This limits new physicians to work in rural areas.

Income: Certain specialties have higher salaries than others. Some students, as they see their debt from medical school increasing, may be drawn to the higher-paying specialties.


American Medical Association (AMA)
For information on the medical field

American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS)
Learn more about medical specialties

Guide to Physician Specialties
A listing of recognized specialties

Back to Career Cluster


  • Email Support

  • 1-800-GO-TO-XAP (1-800-468-6927)
    From outside the U.S., please call +1 (424) 750-3900


Powered by XAP

OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.