Specialty Profiles

What it's like to be in psychiatry: Shadowing Dr. Reardon


As a medical student, do you ever wonder what it’s like to specialize in psychiatry? Here’s your chance to find out.

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Meet Claudia Reardon, MD, an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, psychiatrist and feature physician in AMA Wire’s® “Shadow Me” Specialty Series, which offers advice directly from physicians about life in their specialties.

Read her insights to help determine whether a career in psychiatry might be a good fit for you.


“Shadowing” Dr. Reardon

Specialty: Psychiatry

Practice setting: Academic department and college mental health services

Employment type: Employed by a university

Years in practice: 5

A typical week in my practice: I spent the first five years after residency working full-time in an academic department (the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health Department of Psychiatry) with many educational roles, including that of associate residency training director.

My clinical interest has always been sports psychiatry—diagnosing and treating mental illness in athletes. To be able to work more closely with the University of Wisconsin athletic teams, I recently moved my clinical practice from our academic department to our college mental health agency, where I work 60 percent of the time.

I also retain a 30 percent academic appointment in the University Of Wisconsin Department Of Psychiatry where I continue in many educational roles. Some of these include: Directing our residency’s quality improvement curriculum, serving as our medical school’s psychiatry student interest group faculty advisor, running a medical student elective in advocacy, teaching an advocacy course to second-year medical students, teaching general psychiatry courses to medical students and participating on a grant to further develop advocacy curricula in our medical school. 

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Depending on the day, I may see patients (many, but not all, are athletes), teach, participate in other educational activities or spend time with our two-year-old son.  My typical work hours are 8 or 8:30 a.m.  to 5 p.m. with no call. 

The most challenging and rewarding aspects of caring for patients in psychiatry: The most rewarding part occurs when you feel that you have helped to change the trajectory of someone’s life by treating their crippling depression, anxiety or other mental illness successfully.

The most challenging part occurs when it feels [as if]you can’t offer a patient the best resources available to treat a given condition (i.e., because insurance doesn’t cover a given service, medication is too expensive, etc.). I suspect more of this continues to occur in psychiatry than in some other specialties, despite mental health parity legislation. 

Three phrases that describe the typical physician in psychiatry:  Empathic. Non-judgmental. Humble.

Research shows that gender may impact specialty choice or life in certain specialties. Based on my own experiences: We still have a lot of men and women going into psychiatry, which is a great thing [because this offers]a multitude of perspectives. That said, I think that many view psychiatry as relatively lifestyle-friendly, and with that comes an understanding of the need to balance work and life so as to perform at our best when seeing our patients. 

While women have stereotypically been the ones to bring this perspective to the workplace, it definitely seems that men are contributing to it, at least within the field of psychiatry, as well.

What my lifestyle is like in psychiatry: When I was in medical school, I never really concretely thought about what it would be like to balance work and family [because although] I was married, we didn’t yet have a child. Thus, it was no problem to work all the time.

As life unfolded and we welcomed our precious baby boy into our life, it became more evident that working very long hours was no longer as completely desirable. I am so fortunate to have a wonderful balance right now. Sure, you can make more money if you work longer hours and take lots of call, but there are many more things to consider, and it turns out you can have an incredibly rich and rewarding career even without taking call or working a full 100 percent of the  time.

The main skill every physician in training should have for adolescent medicine but won’t be tested for on the board exam: Genuine empathy.

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One question physicians in training should ask before pursuing psychiatry: When you meet someone who has “quirks” or is interpersonally challenging, do you tend to ask yourself, “I wonder how they got to be the way they are” before jumping to judgment or other negative emotion? If the former, you might consider psychiatry!

Three books every medical student interested in psychiatry should read:

  •  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)
  •  An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison
  •  The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks

An online resource students interested in my specialty should follow:

Additional advice for students considering psychiatry: I have heard that psychiatry is the specialty into which more people transfer from other specialties than anything else. If true, I suspect this is because stigma kept people from training in psychiatry right out of medical school, even if they had an interest in it. If psychiatry is your interest, trust that—the stigma won’t matter once you are practicing in this wonderful specialty!

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