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Choosing a medical specialty

If you want to be a doctor, it’s never too soon to start thinking about one of the biggest choices of your career.

What is a medical specialty?

Most doctors are specialists, meaning that they treat certain types of medical condition. This area of expertise is called their specialty. Some doctors are general practitioners (GPs) who work with a wide range of patients in the community, and others such as cardiac surgeons or gynaecologists work as consultants in hospitals. There are over 60 different types of medical specialty, and doctors choose which specialty they want to study in their second year of foundation training after medical school.

How do I choose a medical specialty?

Although your foundation training might seem a long way off if you’re just thinking about applying to medical school, it’s good to think about the kind of specialty you might want to study from the start of your medical training. You will be introduced to many different types of medicine and practice during medical school, giving you a chance to find out what your strengths and interests are. For example, you might find that you prefer caring for a small number of patients over a longer period of time, rather than diagnosing and dealing with lots of cases quite quickly – in which case you’d probably be better specialising in something like palliative care rather than emergency medicine.

The earlier you think about your specialty the better, since this will allow you to study additional courses and apply for work experience in your area of interest. You can then also choose a medical elective related to this specialty. Many medical specialties are very competitive, so the more relevant experience you have on your application form the more chance you have of being accepted.

As well as continuing your clinical training and improving your skills, your foundation years are also designed to help you decide your specialty. You will spend three months in general medicine and three months in general surgery before rotating through specialist placements. During this time you will also be able to consider other important factors affecting your choice of specialty, such as:

  • How long is the training?
  • What are the career opportunities in this specialty?
  • How much can I expect to be paid during training and when I qualify?
  • How much contact with patients will I have?
  • Does this specialty involve working lots of different shifts?

How do I apply for my specialty?

There are two types of training following your foundation year:

  • Specialist training is for doctors who want to work in a specific area such as orthopaedics or paediatrics. Specialist training courses normally last between five and seven years.
  • General practice training is for doctors who want to become GPs. General practice courses normally last three years.

Doctors apply to study a course at a specific deanery, and receive a CCT (Certificate of Completion of Training) from the GMC when their training is complete. However, because both specialist training courses and general practice training courses are so competitive, not every doctor gets on first-time. Doctors who don’t get on to their preferred course straight away often try and get more related experience or do some teaching or research to boost their application next time around.

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