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Switching medical specialties: is it feasible?


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 .

Click here to sign up to the doctorportal jobs board.

Five keys to taking charge of your medical career


You’ve done your internship, you’re nearing the end of your PGY2 year, and you’re thinking seriously about where you want to go next. It can be a daunting stage of your medical career, particularly as competition for training positions can be ferocious. What can you do to take charge and give yourself an edge when applying for positions?

Christine Brill, Career Adviser at the Australian Medical Association, says this stage of a doctor’s career is a complex crossroads but the key to navigating it is to know yourself first.

“You have to know what intrinsically motivates you,” she says.  “You’ll know what you like and dislike about medicine to this point, so it is more likely than not that you’ll have a number of specialty options in consideration. Our Career Service website’s Specialty Training Pathway Guide will help you narrow down your choices by allowing you to view up to five specialties on your screen.  This is one of our most popular web resources.”

Another critical factor, Christine says, is what kind of lifestyle you want as you move further into your medical career. Orthopaedic surgeons, for example, work very long hours and are often on call with a high level of unpredictability, so if this doesn’t sound like your preferred lifestyle, it may not be the right career path for you.

Location is also key aspect: in choosing a medical specialty, you should think about whether you’re ready to move to pursue your career, and whether your chosen specialty can be done in one location.

Other issues to think about are whether you want to work in the public or private sector, or a blend of both; how much it’s going to cost you to achieve your objectives; how long the training will take you; and how competitive you’ll need to be with your peers to get a place in your chosen program.

“You’re going to be competing, so what you’ll need above all else is a really good CV,” says Christine.

“Every CV that crosses my desk needs to be tweaked. People don’t always understand what needs highlighting. You need to present information so that it excites interest and offers a solid snapshot of the candidate in the shortest possible time. Because your CV will not be the only one looked at on any given day.”

Christine adds that the cover letter and any statement addressing selection criteria are equally important.

“These documents will determine whether you get an interview – or not.  So it’s worth investing time in them.”

Another question that junior doctors ask themselves is what other things they should be doing in their early years to help them achieve their objectives. Should they be going off to do a PhD, a Masters, or getting into research?

“Generally, good advice is just to get lots of experience,” Christine says. “Narrowing your focus may not serve you as well as getting lots of experience.  Look at what the Colleges are looking for in their candidates, and focus on those as your prerequisites.”

Here are some keys to making the right decisions as you move forward in your medical career:

  • Know yourself and understand what motivates you;
  • Make sure you get as much experience as possible. Find out what your preferred training College is looking for and focus on that. Time off for a PhD or Masters at this stage may not be the best idea;
  • Think about where you want work, how hard you want to work and how much you’re prepared to sacrifice;
  • If you’re leaning towards one specialty, talk to a senior colleague and ask if you can tag along to get a feel for the discipline;
  • Your CV and cover letter are critically important: get professional advice to make sure they’re as sharp as they can be.

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 at careers@ama.com.au .

Click here to sign up to the doctorportal jobs board.