There are few decisions more consternating to a medical student that choosing their eventual field. Sure, there's a few students born to be pediatricians or neurosurgeons or ED docs out there who know it, but the gross majority of us go through a great deal of waffling and procrastinating when it comes to deciding what more we want to be when we grow up besides the esoteric "I wanna be a doctor! Cause its cool!" Even those who were convinced they were going to go into x when they entered med school often do a complete 180 once they rotate through the clinical aspects and their face is to the table saw as they hover over the "submit" button on their ERAS residency application.
There's a certain progression to the process:
(1) Panic: The Lifestyle Specialties
When you first come into medical school, you have these idealistic views of what being a physician entails. Then you actually get into medical school, and a disenfranchised attending comes along, convinced the entire field of medicine now sucks, and blows that idealism into tiny, sparkly little pieces. You begin to become convinced that the only way you could possibly be happy is if you find your way into one of the highly-touted ROAD specialties: Radiology, Ophthalmology, Anesthesiology, or Dermatology. You begin to become convinced you could be happy staring at a computer screen all day, or rashes for that matter. After a while, you realize that all rashes look the same to you anyways, and you move on to...
(2) Resolve: Screw What Everyone Thinks
You encounter a doc who absolutely flippin' loves what they do. They tell you that it doesn't matter what area of medicine you go into, as long as you love what you do. You begin to convince yourself the same. You tell yourself that the disenfranchised attending from step 1 can go to hell, and you're going to go work for Doctors Without Borders as a surgically trained general practitioner. As medical school and the ongoing debate about healthcare reform progresses, you begin to notice that little "Total:" line on your student loans climbing at a otherworldly pace. You then move on to...
(3) Hopelessness: It All Sucks Anyways
Why does it matter anyways? In a few years, you're either going to be a government employee, and make peanuts, or privately employed, and make peanuts. Either way, you'll be working your glueteals off the rest of your life. You'll never pay off your loans. You're going to be driving that 1995 sentra for another 20 years. Your daughter is going to grow up with daddy issues because you'll never be home. You procrastinate thinking about what you want to do, because its no longer fun to think about it. Some stay in this stage perpetually, and become the attending referenced in Stage 1. If you're lucky you get to move on to...
(4) Chance: Your Specialty Picks You
The residents and attendings I've talked to who really enjoy what they do, and are pleasant people in turn, almost universally give the same advice about picking a specialty: get rid of your preconceptions, analyze your strengths and weaknesses, the things about practice which are important and unimportant to you, prune your list, then go out there and experience as many areas as you can. When you come across your specialty... you'll know. It'll be the one where you don't want to go home at the end of the day. Where you'll look and read about things not because you have to, but because you want to.
I came into medical school convinced I was going to be a surgeon. My friends told me as much, I told everyone as much, my ESTJ Meyers-Briggs personality evaluation told me as much. Now granted, my concept of "being a surgeon" wasn't all candycanes and lollipops - I had shadowed enough in undergrad to have a general idea - but I will be first to admit I had a very naive and limited view on the scope of medical practice and the proverbial "potpourri" of options afforded to me early in medical school. I found out in a hurry that telling people in the Real World™ that you want to go into surgery evokes an entirely different response to telling people in the medical field that you want to go into surgery. Namely, that instead of eliciting the token "Ooooo! Like Gray's Anatomy!" response, they instead try to scare you the hell out of considering the field. And granted, much of that behavior is grounded in either reality or stereotype of the field. And so began my progression of through the steps.
First was "what have I gotten myself into? I don't want to work 120 hour weeks for the rest of my life!" Followed "I'm going to do it anyways! It'll be fine!" I eventually just resigned to telling myself "you'll know when you rotate through surgery if its for you." But alas, my surgery rotation came and went, and by the end I was still just as on the fence about the whole surgery conundrum as before. So I began to break it down. I knew that there was nothing like being in the OR for me. That time flew when I was in it, and I missed it when I was out of it. But surgical clinic also left a bad taste in my mouth. I found myself enjoying the clinical aspect of medicine more than I anticipated, and I found clinic in general surgery too fixated on "to operate or not to operate?" Yet after leaving surgery and venturing into the realm of psychiatry, I found myself missing the faster paced lifestyle of the specialty.
ENT was a specialty that first caught my eye during second year. I had a small group doc who specialized in laryngeal surgery and speech therapy, and he really tried pushing us to take a look at the field. But at the time, I was too hung up on the "to surgery or to medicine?" that I never stopped and said to myself "self? how about both?" It was a field I kept on my list but never really investigated... namely, because I had no idea what in the hell an "otolaryngologist" was or did. With no frame of reference, I wasn't in a position to realistically examine the field. But the seed was there, and as third year started and I began to have more interaction with various specialties, I began to notice that I was really digging this ENT stuff. The more I read about the field, the more it seemed to jive with my expectations and desires for how I wanted to practice medicine. There was a monday morning report I went to that was presented by the ENT department... and instead of sleeping through it I found myself taking notes. I scrubbed on a pharyngolaryngectomy with a free jejunal transplant and even though I was on the colorectal service and was parked by the abdomen, supposed to be focused on the jejunal resection, I found myself fixated instead on the bilateral neck dissection. It was the small things that slowly roped me in, and after extensive email conversations and a few tall coffees with a couple members of the faculty, I've finally come to a decision. I said to myself: "Self, you're going to match into otolaryngology."
Along those lines, I'm going to be guest-posting about my experiences in discovering ENT, rotating through ENT, applying, and such over at headmirror.com (see the new side banner). If you're considering ENT, I suggest you check it out - there's a lot of great info on the site. All I can say is that its incredibly exciting to find that niche of medicine which really vibes with your persona. When I decided to commit myself to the field and really get after it, all I felt was this overwhelming sense of relief. I think that was really telling.
Till next time.