How to Switch Specialties Throughout Your Career

switching specialties

Have you ever considered switching specialties? Do you find yourself bored, tired, disenchanted with the specialty you chose and are you dragging yourself to work every day? It can be a frightening realization that the specialty you spent so many years and so much money training for no longer gives you satisfaction. But don’t let it paralyze you. Many doctors have successfully changed specialties and are eternally grateful that they did. You too can give yourself permission to change specialties.

What Do Physicians Say About Their Specialty?

The Great American Physicians Survey of 1,001 respondents conducted by Physician’s Practice, a practice management information site, asked physicians “What was the single most important factor for the selection of your specialty?” an overwhelming 77% said because it was clinically stimulating.  

  • 5.7%: I liked the hours
  • 3%: I liked the income potential
  • 14.2%: Something else entirely (caring for patients was top reply)

Participants were asked to complete the following statement regarding their choice of specialty, “Given the chance to go back in time and pick another career path, I would…”:

  • 12.5% said they would choose a specialty that offered greater work/life balance
  • 8.5% said they would choose a more financially lucrative specialty

When participants were asked to rate their satisfaction with their choice of specialty, the majority of physicians said they were happy with their choice. Ranked on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being strongly disagree and 5 being strongly agree, the results showed:

5: 49%

4: 31%

3: 12%

2: 5%

1: 3 %

If You Are Not Happy With Your Specialty – Change It

It doesn’t matter that the majority of physicians are happy with their choice of specialty – it only matters if you are. If you are toying with the idea of switching specialties, here are some stories that may help you as you consider doing so.

From the Student Doctor Network forum:

Changing Specialties

Two years ago today I matched into a specialty that I realized was not for me. I knew this in the moments after the match, but regardless, I went to the program with a good attitude. Once in it, I realized that the field wasn’t for me. By August, I filled out my new ERAS application and applied in a new specialty. I let everyone know at my program (including the PD) and everyone was incredibly supportive.

One year later I matched into my preferred field and I couldn’t be happier. I had to do two internships (not ideal, but doable). Both were big “name” programs in very desirable locations.

So for those of you not enjoying your day, know that it is possible to change. Nothing in life is set in stone. Becoming a doctor is 1000 times more important than matching.

Leaving a Competitive Specialty

Last year I matched into a very competitive specialty for an IMG: categorical surgery. I was happy and amazed. Then I started my internship and realized I should have gone with my other choice – medicine. I started thinking, “This is it. I will rot in the OR for the rest of my life.”

Then I realized I can live without the OR. I told my PD I wanted to switch. I was expecting him to murder me on the spot but to my surprise, he smiled and said he was happy I was switching now and not when I was a full blown surgeon. He helped me enormously! My fellow surgical residents said “Whaa? You wanna do IM?” but they stood by me in the end.

Now I am wrapping up my internship year. I am doing really well and aced the ABSITE. I am still in the OR and still being taught by my awesome attendings, just like nothing happened. I am not being ignored and no one turned their back on me. Today I am matched at my number one choice, a very nice IM university program in a lovely city. I am FREAKING HAPPY!

It is not the end when you match somewhere. You have the right to change your mind. Just do it wisely, talk to your PD, and do not go behind someone’s back.

What If You Are Already in Practice?

It is still possible to switch specialties if you are already in practice. It’s been done, but it requires a degree of sacrifice. It will require that you repeat residency, you may have to move and you will have to take a pay cut for several years. However, if you are willing to plan for those extenuating circumstances, you can change specialties to pursue a more satisfying career. Your choice of specialty is not intractable. Here are some examples of physicians who have successfully change specialties after years in practice.

From Rural Family Medicine to Pathology

A Medscape “Ask the Experts” article relayed the story of one physician who after years as a rural family physician decided to become a pathologist. Why on earth would he change specialties now that he had an established practice and his young children were in school?

“In his previous practice, he was confident in handling common problems but often referred complex and interesting patients to specialists. Over time, he discovered that making one difficult diagnosis was more fulfilling than treating 10 patients with hypertension. Now in a pathology practice, he says that although the move was initially hard for him and his family, he has found tremendous professional and personal gratification in his work and does not regret the switch.”

From OB/Gyn to Radiology

A story on the Student Doctor Network highlights the journey of a doctor who left OB/Gyn to switch to radiology. Dr. Karen Tran-Harding is a radiology resident at the University of Kentucky.

“I still remember running down the hallway, excited and anxious, ecstatic and scared, because I was about to deliver life. But after my intern year in OB/Gyn I lost all motivation and felt tired and defeated most days. Then I realized I wanted to be a radiologist. I could help a ton of patients in a small amount of time, and help a lot of physicians in their diagnostic dilemmas as well.

After “breaking up” with OB/Gyn I was extremely lucky to get accepted into a radiology residency spot at the same institution. I was elated and petrified and jumped in with both feet, going to the reading rooms early and staying late, researching tirelessly, attending conferences and getting involved in presentations, publications and quality improvement projects.

A few months ago, I met a lovely woman during my breast imaging rotation who had a mass and suspicious imaging. She also happened to be 34 weeks pregnant. When I went to tell her the biopsies showed the lymph nodes were cancer free, she burst into tears because she had lots of questions – not questions about her cancer, but questions about her pregnancy. Thanks to my background, I was able to answer each of her questions. That gave me another reason to be eternally grateful to the practice of OB/GYN.

When it comes to switching specialties, Dr. Tran-Harding’s words are good ones to remember: “It truly never is too late to try something different because time and experience is never really wasted. After all, it was that experience and drastic change in my life that made me realize that I was correct all along. I didn’t have what it took to be a good doctor – I discovered I had the potential to be a great doctor. It just happened to take a switch to get there.”

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