Deciding on a Specialty after Med School

Are you currently in med school (or planning to go to med school) and unsure about which specialty you want to pursue after graduation? You are not alone! 

According to a study of med school students who graduated in 2018, 75% thought they knew what specialty they would choose upon beginning their first year of med school.

But guess what?

After three years of med school, only about 25% of the graduates ended up in the specialty that they had been targeting on day one. 

That means three out of four medical students are using their years of study to decide what type of medicine they want to practice. They either don't really know what they want to do but figure it out as they go along, they think they know what they want to do, but their minds are changed during their studies, or perhaps they aren’t offered a residency in the specialty they originally intended.

Figuring it out, and changing your mind, is, of course, a personal process. Some say that you don’t choose the specialty, the specialty chooses you. Whatever the case, we’ve got some data for you—some food for thought as you contemplate your choice. 


The Most Popular Medical Specialties of 2019

To begin, here are the top 10 most popular medical specialties (in 2019): 

  1. Internal Medicine
  2. Pediatrics
  3. Emergency Medicine
  4. Family Medicine
  5. Obstetrics and Gynecology
  6. General Surgery
  7. Anesthesiology
  8. Psychiatry
  9. Radiology
  10. Orthopedic Surgery

You can see the full stats on these specialties in this handout, but we’ll go over some of the highlights here! 

Let’s start with some demographics. The specialty on this list with the highest percentage of current residents who are women is obstetrics and gynecology (at 82%). Orthopedic surgery has the fewest women residents (15%). Forty percent of residents in internal medicine are international medical school grads (people who attended med school outside the US and Canada), while only 2% of residents in orthopedic surgery are international graduates. 

Now, we all know that money isn’t everything, but you’re probably wondering what kind of money the people working in these specialties make. The highest average income offered to recruited specialists (as reported by Merritt Hawkins) is $536K in orthopedic surgery, followed by anesthesiology at $404K. The highest reported average income, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $267K in anesthesiology.  Pediatrics has the lowest average offered income and the lowest average income reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics ($242K and $183K, respectively). 


The Most In-Demand and Most Competitive Medical Specialties of 2019

Some additional factors you might consider when choosing a specialty are which specialties are the most in demand, and which are the most competitive. We’ve put together the data on these, too! 

Merritt Hawkins, a physician staffing firm, reported that the five most recruited medical specialties in the US from April 2018 to March 2019 were as follows: 

  1. Family medicine physicians 
  2. Psychiatrists 
  3. Obstetrician/Gynecologists 
  4. Internal medicine physicians 
  5. Radiologists 

Fortunately, all of these in-demand specialties are already among the 10 most popular.  In addition, the demand for new doctors in primary care has been fairly consistent over the last few years. For 13 years in a row, family medicine has been at the top of the list. There is also a shortage of OB-GYNs in the US, “with nearly half of all counties in the U.S. not having a single [OB-GYN].”

As for the most competitive specialties, the results of the 2019 NRMP (National Residency Matching Program) match tell us how many positions in various specialties were filled and how many were filled by seniors in US allopathic medical programs:

Specialties with more than 30 positions that filled all positions

  • Integrated Interventional Radiology (categorical and advanced)
  • Otolaryngology
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (categorical)
  • Integrated Plastic Surgery, Surgery (categorical)
  • Thoracic Surgery

Specialties with more than 30 positions that filled >90% of positions with US allopathic seniors

  • Integrated Plastic Surgery (91.9%)
  • Neurological Surgery (91.8%)
  • Orthopedic Surgery (91.8%)
  • Otolaryngology (93.9%)
  • Thoracic Surgery (91.9%)

Specialties with more than 30 positions that filled <45% of positions with US allopathic seniors

  • Family Medicine (39.0%)
  • Internal Medicine (categorical) (41.5%)
  • Pathology (33.4%)
  • Pediatrics – Primary (40.0%)
  • Surgery – Preliminary (23.9)

And there you have it—the latest info about medical specialties! Want to take this data with you? Remember to download a copy of our Top 10 Medical Specialties of 2019 handout!

Here are some additional resources for all our prospective and future medical students out there:

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