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Switching medical specialties: is it feasible?

Switching medical specialties: is it feasible? - Featured Image


Of all the professions, medicine has one of the most rigid career pathways; it can feel like a conveyor belt that you can’t get off. But what if, during or after your training, you decide you’ve chosen the wrong specialty? Are you stuck with what you started, or is it feasible to switch horses midstream?

Around 10% of residents in the Australian system do choose to switch their specialty each year, so the answer is that it’s certainly possible. But it’s not a decision to be taken lightly, as it could involve up to three years of supplementary training.

It’s not uncommon for those in training to feel unsuited to their specialty, leaving them stressed and sometimes like they may want to leave medicine altogether. A discipline might end up being a poor match for the person’s core skills or might jar with his or her personal preferences. Registrars embarking on a career in pathology might find that they miss the patient contact and pine for the hospital wards; or alternatively a registrar in general practice might find the constant personal contact too emotionally draining.

But no decision should be made about switching specialties without considerable reflection and consultation with colleagues. Often, doctors might think they’re unhappy with a specialty when in fact other issues are at play: difficulties with a particular colleague, a desire to work part-time instead of full-time, an overly long commute or even problems at home.

“You need to look at what’s really going on in your life to see if there are ways of resolving your problems without retraining.” says Dr Caroline Elton, a UK-based psychologist and medical careers advisor.

Dr Elton says doctors finding themselves at a career crossroads should go through a “career planning process”, whereby they carry out a self-assessment to identify their interests, skills and abilities and to decide what is really important to them.

They should then look at what specialties best match their skills and priorities, learn more about them and plan what to do to be able to work in them.

Here are a few tips for doctors who find themselves wondering whether they’re in the right specialty:

  • Be aware that taking a step sideways will inevitably also mean taking a small step backwards:
  • Be proactive and seek advice from as many people as possible, both within the specialty in which you are already training, and in the one to which you’re think of switching. Don’t feel that it will be considered a black mark against you if you ask for support in leaving a specialty. Such support is crucial;
  • Find out as much as possible about the preferred specialty, particularly what the eventual job entails rather than just what you go through in training;
  • If you are still unclear about the way ahead, consider a dual training pathway;
  • For consultants, switching specialties is likely to be considerably harder and involve a major upheaval; be prepared to lose the protection of your consultant contract;

Source: BMJ Careers

Visit the AMA Career Advice Hub for useful information across the whole medical-life journey as well as Career Counselling Service resources. For one-on-one assistance, contact Christine Brill at careers@ama.com.au .

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