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Choosing a specialty is a defining moment in your medical career, and your life, and it's important to consider both as you make this decision

While some medical students know the specialty they want from the start, most students weigh their options over time, and develop preferences based on a variety of factors like areas of clinical interest, personal goals, earning potential and length of training.

SpecialtyYears of Training (upon completion of medical school)
Family Medicine2
Internal Medicine4
Infectious Disease specialists5
General Surgeon5-6


Source: Canadian Medical Association. Canadian Specialty Profiles. Accessed June 7, 2020.

Prioritizing factors such as how much patient interaction you want and the workload you’re prepared to take on may also help you make your decision.

For Dr. Anatoly Langer, cardiologist and Chair of the Canadian Heart Research Centre (CHRC), his highest priority when he chose his specialty was his future family.

Looking at Specialization Holistically

“The training of medical school allows you a variety of choices,” Dr. Langer says. Your career and life will evolve over time, so it’s important to choose a specialty with the potential to move in the direction that you would like your life to go.

“My wife was very interested in cardiology,” he says, “And so I followed her into it.” His decision to pursue cardiology, while taking a holistic view of his life, led him down a career path, “Completely aligned with my values and interests.”

The couple moved to Toronto after completing medical school, and Dr. Langer began his career as a cardiologist, eventually working in intensive care where he loved the fast-paced environment. Over time though, he also developed a great love for research and clinical trials. After completing additional training, he founded CHRC. In this new phase of his medical career, he helps design clinical trials and research treatments for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases throughout North America.

Being Practical about your Future Happiness

As people evolve, their wants and needs may change over time, but taking stock of how you want to live life may help you choose a specialty that grows with you. Besides looking at organ systems and groups of diseases you’re interested in, also ask yourself:

  • Do I want to have a family? What work/life balance is right for me?
  • Would I thrive in a more routine or diverse workday?
  • What non-medical interests (i.e., travelling, teaching) are important to me?
  • How important is financial reimbursement for education?


Once you’ve narrowed down your list of potential specialties, try to live a month in that life — with the level of call assignments and patient load. Also, consider the time investment required to get there. Specialties like radiology and neurosurgery require many years of training after medical school. Picture how you will balance your training with your other life goals. Then as Dr. Langer suggests, think about what you want for your life and future, and see how well they match.

You’ve done a lot of hard work already, which is why a holistic view when choosing your specialty may help ensure your life and your career are both balanced and fulfilling.

Sarah Snobelen is a medical writer and Registered Pharmacist.