Evaluating the lifestyle of a medical specialty can help you determine whether it’s the best fit for you, but how do you decide what to practice when you’re interested in a specialty yet aren’t sure whether you like the lifestyle it supports? Check out these tips from residents on how to weigh your specialty options and work-life preferences as you advance in training.

The AMA’s Specialty Guide simplifies medical students’ specialty selection process, highlights major specialties, details training information and provides access to related association information. It is produced by FREIDA™, the AMA Residency & Fellowship Database®.

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Choosing a medical specialty: 4 questions to help get you started

In terms of lifestyle-specific advice, the AMA gathered key tips from a panel discussion in which recent residents offered advice in response to students’ questions. When you’re assessing the lifestyle of a specialty, here’s what the panelists recommend that you do.

Shadow an attending physician. Clinical rotations open valuable peepholes into the lives of physicians, so attentively monitor what you see during rotations. Ask questions about what’s expected of young physicians and duties that are integral to the field. Be honest with yourself about what you observe.

One ob-gyn resident said students who intern at his program often sign up for a 20–30 hour “labor and delivery” night shift to gain a more holistic view of what it’s like to practice in that field.

“In residency, you’ve got your 80-hour rule. You’ve got your time off. But when you go into practice, what you see those practicing attendings [doing] is what you’re going to do from then on, so if there are parts of that … you find completely unacceptable … because of the lifestyle, then that’s probably not the specialty for you,” the resident said.

While the culture of a specialty can vary in different practice environments, the duties that are intrinsic for physicians in that field are the same across practice settings, so gauge what you think about the everyday work flow, lifestyle trends and perceived personalities of clinicians around you.

Of course, you won’t have time to shadow every specialty. That’s why the AMA’s “Shadow Me” Specialty Series gives practicing physicians the chance to reflect on life in their specialty.

Don’t pick a specialty unless you understand its associated lifestyle. Speak with residents and clinicians about the daily lives and schedules of physicians in that specialty. When you feel like you’ve acquired enough insight, assess your options and be sincere about what makes you feel uneasy.

“Being an ob-gyn, if I were someone who [were] completely averse to being woken up during the middle of the night, this would not be the specialty for me,” one resident said.

Pay attention to work-life balance. One resident panelist advised students to consider how the specialty might pair with their social life or family obligations. Speak to residents in that specialty about their sense of wellness and work-life balance in that specialty to understand whether it aligns with your plans for family and other personal interests or responsibilities.

To get started, learn more about how physicians have ranked specialties according to their work-life balance in residency. It may also be worth looking at a recent study of physician burnout by medical specialty.

Know what you value in your long-term goals. Choosing a specialty can be a very reflective process that requires introspection. You should understand what your goals both in and outside of medicine are.

Avoid overlooking crucial aspects in your decision-making, and give yourself time to be honest about what you really want in practice. “You have to eliminate ego [from] the equation and really have to look honestly and say, ‘OK, what will my life be like in 10 years?’ And if you do that, I really think you’ll make the right decision,” another resident said.

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