Medical School Life

How medical student parents factor in family when picking a specialty

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

How medical student parents factor in family when picking a specialty

Apr 24, 2024

Choosing a medical specialty is a complex decision for any medical student. Does being a parent and medical student in tandem make the choice more complex?

Data on the decision-making process for medical student parents and conversations with those who have been through the process offer some guidance on how parenthood can factor into physician specialty choice.

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For a 2023 study published in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health, researchers examined how being a parent during medical school can affect specialty choice. In the study of 59 parents and 478 nonparents, the three factors most predictive of specialty choice were the same for each group—passion for the field, culture of the specialty and quality of life.

Medical student parent respondents rated being a parent or future parent as their fourth-most important factor in the decision. That factor was rated fifth by nonparents.

Specialty choice trends were similar among both parent and nonparent respondents. Emergency medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and family medicine were in the top five anticipated specialty selections for both groups. Parents favored emergency medicine as their top choice. Nonparents picked internal medicine as their top choice.

A father of two, Rommel Cruz Morales, is a fourth-year medical student at Northeast Ohio Medical University. Having recently matched into the ob-gyn residency program at Wright State University, Morales’ said it took some time to get his wife on board with his specialty choice because of its less traditional hours, especially during night call.

Morales’ initial plan was to go into cardiology, which aligned with his previous research work. He then favored family medicine, but ultimately “fell in love” with ob-gyn during his clinical clerkship rotation.

“Initially, my wife was disappointed with the specialty I chose,” he said. “If you compare family medicine to ob-gyn, the asks of you and the needs of programs in family medicine are more structurally defined.

“What had really swayed the decision was that we had complications in the birth of our own children,” he said. “Our ob-gyns who helped deliver our children were so central to the experience. When my wife saw the impact they had on our lives and the lives of our children, she understood why the choice was important to me.” 

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While specialty choice did include some family considerations, Morales’ top priority was maintaining stability for his family. His matching at Wright State will require the family to move from Northeast Ohio to the Southern portion of the state, but it still allows them to be “relatively close to our family and friends,” Morales said.

“Making this decision is an integration of a lot of factors,” he said. “Being able to factor in your partners’ needs, taking into account their support system and their career.”

In addition, “Communication within your family is very important. You have to harmonize your partner’s needs with your own professional goals and what you will feel most complete doing in terms of specialty choice.”

An ob-gyn based in the Green Bay, Wisconsin, area, Kristin Lyerly, MD, entered medical school with two children and gave birth to two more during her undergraduate medical training. As a medical student, she had her heart set on ob-gyn but was advised to pursue a specialty that was more family friendly. Because of that advice, Dr. Lyerly for a time considered family medicine.

“It wasn't until I got deep into my rotations that I was honest with myself and recognized that all advice is not solid advice. It's important to hear different things from different people, but also to be able to synthesize it in your own mind to figure out what works for you,” Dr. Lyerly said to a group of medical students during a panel on women in medicine that was part of the 2024 AMA Physicians of the Future Summit.

While Drs. Morales and Lyerly have the shared perspective of pursuing ob-gyn, the issue of work-family balance is a challenge to physicians in all specialties. To that end, Dr. Lyerly spoke of a lack of bandwidth and time to dedicate her family that lasted well into her training.

Having four children under 10 during her ob-gyn residency “was a challenge. We had to scrap and scramble to ensure that we had reliable child care to make everything work. I missed a lot of my kids’ special moments but always made the most of the precious time we had together."

In the end, she found that following being true to herself was best for her as a physician and parent.

“Understanding that I needed to follow my own North Star has been absolutely critical, as a physician, as a mother and as a woman,” Dr. Lyerly said.