Specialty Profiles

Medical specialty choice: Make the most of informational interviews

Medical school isn’t only a time of learning; it’s also one of choosing. Well before graduation day, a commitment must be made to a specialty and the residency training that comes with it. Find out how to arrange and carry out informational interviews with practicing physicians so that you can more confidently choose the medical specialty that best fits you.

A good preview of the informational interview experience is the AMA’s “Shadow Me” Specialty Series, which gives practicing physicians the chance to reflect on life in their specialty.

For more background information, the AMA has prepared a guide, “Choosing a Medical Specialty: An AMA resource for medical students.” It looks at 40 of the most common medical specialties and subspecialties and includes professional profiles, Match data and more.

To help inform their specialty choice, students commonly seek advice from physicians practicing in various disciplines of interest. To get the most out of these “informational interviews,” keep these tips in mind.

When to start. A common starting time for informational interviews in medicine is early in the clerkship phase. That’s traditionally a medical student’s third year, although at many schools this starts earlier. At that point, you are moving through a hospital, forming fresh opinions about clinical care, and encountering attending physicians and residents whom you would consider for potential interviews.

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What to ask. Expect the physician’s time to be tight. It’s important to have your core set of questions beforehand. The Association of American Medical Colleges lists 29 questions to choose from, but here are some fundamental things most students will want to take away from an informational interview.

  • Why did you choose your specialty? The insights shared will be subjective, so it is useful to understand the speaker as well the substance of what they are saying.
  • What is a typical day or week like? Patient-facing time is only part of clinical practice.
  • Is there something you would do differently? What may have been a missed opportunity for them might still be an option for you.
  • How do you see the future of your specialty? Are there clinical advances on the horizon that will fundamentally change the specialty? How will changes on the business side of medicine play out in terms of practice life?
  • What do you like most and least about your specialty? There are some drawbacks to every profession and an informational interview is the right place to have a frank to discuss about them. Be tactful in asking about negative aspects.

There is always a chance of crossing paths again with the physician—for example, in seeking a recommendation or when actually applying for a residency—and be mindful about how you present yourself and your priorities. The interview should focus on the physician’s impressions, not the student’s.

The AAMC Careers in Medicine website also has informational interview resources that can help. One covers a wide range of basics, like how to structure the meeting, and the other is an extensive list of recommended questions.

Login is required to access the Careers in Medicine website. U.S. MD and Canadian students sign in with their AAMC login. Use this tool if you need help getting access.

How to set up an interview. As noted earlier, clerkships present a good combination of timing and exposure to physicians. Schools often have lists of physicians who have volunteered to speak with students. Faculty members also are likely willing to talk.

Beyond that, it is a matter of networking, which can certainly include wrapping up the interview seeking suggestions about other physicians willing to share their thoughts.

An email to request an informational interview is typically sufficient to get the ball rolling. Don’t expect the physician to have time for an extensive back and forth on email. Set up an appointment to visit—face time is best, if possible—or talk over the phone.

Be on time and dress appropriately. Think in terms of business casual.

A brief thank you note is appropriate. That can be done by email.