Choosing a specialty

Why I won’t base my specialty choice on my personality

How do you pick a specialty, and, moreover, how do you know if it’s right for you? Abdullah Tirmizi, OMS III, shares how he plans to choose his specialty.

I am no longer choosing a specialty based on my personality. Instead, I will be working on my personality to mold myself into the future physician I aim to be. This may seem counterintuitive to some. After all, personality is a core part of identity. Personally, I’m an extroverted and spontaneous person; surely these personality traits should have provided me with some direction in choosing my specialty. Perhaps emergency medicine, where I’d be working with patients of different acuities and backgrounds?

Defining an identity

However, after reading “Personality Isn’t Permanent: Break Free from Self-Limiting Beliefs and Rewrite Your Story” by Benjamin Hardy, PhD, I learned that personality is a poor proxy for decision-making because it is based on the past and therefore limited.

As Dr. Hardy would advise, “Most people’s identity narrative is rooted in their past. From now on, your identity narrative—your ‘story’—is based on your future self. That’s the story you tell people from now on when they ask who you are.” (p. 137)

Physicians in all specialties are individuals who saw value in their line of work, and they put in the effort to become the clinician they needed to be. This effort was never limited by their personality but by their ability to put their mind to a goal. Thus, these valuable traits physicians have that impact patients are not innate or rooted in personality, but rather earned through effort.

Developing the necessary skills

By striving to develop the skills and traits required for our desired specialty, we can transform ourselves into the person we aim to be, regardless of our current personality.

This may go against common wisdom; often, we are told that we should choose a profession that will complement the inherent soft skills that we have. For example, someone who is very patient and caring may be advised that pediatrics will be a good fit for them.

In the past, I have been advised that since I am friendly, I should consider a primary care position. While these personality traits could help in the respective fields, emphasizing these soft skills may be limiting.

As Dr. Hardy advises, “A dominant view of predictable behavior is that ‘personality’ is a stable ‘trait’ that is for the most part unchangeable. However, this explanation is a gross and inaccurate oversimplification, which ultimately leads to mindlessness, justification and a lack of radical progress and intentional living.” (p. 40)

Dr. Hardy argues that personality traits are, in fact, much more fluid and adaptable. Traits like exercising patience with children or parents in a hospital setting can be learned with practice, just like it takes months of training to be able to wield a scalpel correctly.

Discipline and dedication

Reflecting on my own experience in medical school, I realized that I held a misconception that medical school was reserved for type-A students for whom school comes effortlessly. However, I learned that medical school is not reserved for a single personality type.

Instead, it is open to any student who is willing to put in the effort and believes they can successfully adapt to the challenges of medical school.

As a medical student, I learned to be more disciplined with my time. I used techniques such as the Pomodoro timer, time blocking and planning in advance to effectively cover the wide range of material I needed to learn.

Therefore, choosing a specialty should not be guided by narrow misconceptions associating each specialty with a particular personality trait. As Dr. Hardy suggests, limiting oneself to a narrow perspective can hinder growth and potential.

Valuable skills and personal experiences

Building on this realization, I came to understand that each of my colleagues brings their unique qualities and strengths to the field of medicine. There are traditional and non-traditional students, each with different approaches to studying, work-life balance and career aspirations.

This leads to a range of personalities, which serves as a net benefit as it allows patients to have options when they seek out a physician. Educated, competent physicians of all specialties are not siloed into specific personality traits.

While some students may have a particular specialty in mind, it’s not necessarily because they are inherently suited to that field. For example, surgery values attention to safety and precision, but surgical skills come after dedication and practice.

Similarly, family medicine values patient-centered care, continuity of care and preventive medicine, but these values can be applied to any specialty. Rather than limiting ourselves to narrow perspectives and predetermined ideas of what we should be, we should choose specialties based on how we can best serve the world and trust that we have the ability to learn anything we set our minds to.

It is also important to keep in mind that, rather than considering personality, certain specialties use match strategies that evaluate students on quantitative measures such as grades or a number of research publications. Thus, it is up to the student to put in that effort to stand out as a competitive applicant in the field.

This is encouraging as students should not feel limited by their personality. Students can always put in the effort into whatever field they seek to pursue. After all, metrics such as publications are valued as they show that students can collaborate with others, as well as lead and demonstrate commitment to their specialty—traits not limited to a singular personality type.

Finding a passion

Another commonly heard piece of advice is for medical students to follow their passion when choosing a medical specialty. This begs the question: How do I know what I am passionate about? As Dr. Hardy would say, “You can learn to become passionate about anything. You might as well be intentional about what you choose to become passionate about.” (p. 70)

According to the late Jerome Bruner, PhD, a former Harvard University psychologist cited in “Personality Isn’t Permanent,” passion is not a cause but rather an effect of effort. This means someone is not born suddenly with an innate desire to become a cardiologist. People get into specialties because they found value in the field, and then they put in the work that was required to get into that specialty.

Students who are undecided as to what field of medicine they wish to pursue should not feel discouraged about not having a strong inclination to one specialty. This inclination will come after putting in effort, such as attending conferences, networking with peers and pursuing research in the field; it is only then one may reap the benefits of passion. Without the necessary hard work and dedication, passion alone can serve as poor motivation that may lead to harmful outcomes, particularly given the increasing prevalence of physician burnout, as evidenced by Medscape’s Physician Burnout & Depression Report 2023.

Instead of solely relying on passion, medical students should take the time to speak with residents and physicians in their desired specialty to gain insight into the realities of the work and what it takes to become and sustain a successful career. Ultimately, students should aim to align their vision of their future with how they want to serve the world while keeping the required effort and commitment to reach this goal in mind.

Helpful resources

Choosing a specialty isn’t an easy decision, but there are steps you can take to make it easier. NBOME’s Road to DO Licensure and AAMC’s Careers in Medicine (CiM) are valuable resources for students to explore and discover different specialties in medicine, as well as to gain insight into the competencies and skills required for each field. Drawing on these resources can help students be better informed when making a career decision; being better informed with high-quality resources can help students feel confident in their decision.

Moreover, it is important to keep an open mind and not rely on passion and personality alone to make a decision. By trying to learn about different specialties and how they may challenge you to shift your preconceived ideas, you can make a more informed decision that will impact not only you but also the communities you serve.

As a third-year medical student, I feel more informed after taking these steps and feel encouraged to continue researching and interviewing others to find the specialty that’s right for me.

Related reading:

How important is research to match into your specialty?

More to Match: Should I choose a back-up specialty?


  1. Regina Bahten DO.

    Dear young student, old doctor here. I was once in your shoes. I hope you plan to be true to yourself in picking your specialty. Watch Dr Glaucomflecken’s videos–they are disarminglyhilarious while also being compassionately realistic. You will naturally be better at some things that at others, and there are many kinds of “best doctor you can be.” For example, do you WANT to have long-term relationships with your patients, or would you rather do procedures and have short-term relationships with patients? Both are necessary and both save lives. You might survive in a field you are not temperamentally suited to, but is that how you want to spend your years, just surviving? I survived working in prisons, but I paid a price. Also, all the specialties are in flux right now, and in ten years will probably be very different from what you see today. I would find people in fields where you have interest, and ask them where they see the field in ten years. For context, I did primary care for twelve years, the psychiatry for 23 years. Rarely was there a match between my expectations and what actually happened!

  2. Steven Kamajian

    Excellent article!
    I have watched individuals pick counterintuitive parts of our profession. The old joke was : “before you pick a surgeon for a consultation, take them out dancing….if they are not coordinated
    and a graceful dancer…don’t hand them a scalpel on your patient”. There is some wisdom in doing what you are gifted at doing. If you are a “people person”…trust me …you are more likely to burn out as a radiologist than as a family physician.
    If you can’t stand doing the same thing over and over again, don’t be a sub sub specialist: being a gingival pathologist isn’t for you. You absolutely love being outside: wilderness medicine is for you. You are an adrenaline junkie: be an ER doctor.
    But if you hate excitement…you will not last 40 years as an ER doctor. There is wisdom in listening to your heart and admitting your skills and talent.

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