Choose a Medical Career to Suit Your Personality

If you're unsure whether medical school is right for you, it may be reassuring to consider the wide variety of jobs available to doctors – jobs that suit every personality type.

Experts say there are an array of clinical and nonclinical career options that physicians with either an M.D. or D.O. are uniquely qualified to perform.

Those who want to treat patients can explore and specialize in a variety of fields, including radiology, psychiatry, and surgery. Those who don't can consider positions in health administration, health policy, health advocacy and medical research.

"There are lots of things that doctors are doing now that are not taking care of patients," says Dr. Mark S. Roberts, professor, and chair of the health policy and management department at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Beyond considering a career option based around working with or without patients, experts say it is essential to find a career option that suits your personality and skill set, and they advise entering medical school with an open mind so you can discover the best fit for you. Here are some aspects to keep in mind with clinical specialties and nonclinical careers.

Clinical Specialties

"Orthopedic surgeons have a culture and a set of behaviors that tend to be different from pediatricians and nephrologists, for example," Dr. Roy Smythe, chief medical officer for healthcare informatics at Philips, a technology company, and former chairman of surgery at the College of Medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center, said via email. "Your ability to fit into the culture and behavioral norms of a specialty will impact your happiness, regardless what you 'like most.'"

For instance, Smythe says it would be unwise for someone to specialize in pediatrics if they were the type of person who becomes extremely irritated by crying children, and it would be foolish to attempt to become a surgeon without good hand-eye coordination.

"While this sounds somewhat trite – we have all seen individuals that love the 'idea' of a specialty, but early on it is clear that they do not have some of the basic natural talents, no matter how assiduously they study and master the content," Smythe said.

Dr. Brian J. O'Neil, professor, and chair of the emergency medicine department at Wayne State University's School of Medicine says in his field an ability to handle pressure well is essential.

"You have to be resourceful, and you have to be adaptable because you have no idea what's coming in the door," says O'Neil, who is a specialist in chief for emergency medicine at DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital. "Those are two key things for emergency medicine."

But some doctors question whether there is a clear dividing line between the personality types that thrive in different specialties. Dr. Yaolin Zhou, assistant professor of pathology at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and director of molecular pathology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, says there is room under the umbrella of medicine for a variety of personality types.

Her specialty – pathology – involves examining bodily fluids and tissues in a laboratory to detect disease and make a diagnosis. A common misconception, Zhou says, is that pathology only suits reserved people. But Zhou, a very outgoing person, knows from personal experience that this is false.

"You have all different types of people who go into medicine because you have specialties that attract different personality types because the type of work they do is different and the types of patients they interact with varies," she says. "But even within a medical specialty, there's additional room for exploration and individualization."

Nonclinical Positions

For doctors with a big-picture mindset and an interest in addressing major problems in the health care system, an administrative role in either government or an advocacy organization could be ideal, experts say.

"There are definitely roles for physicians who want to be more politically active and want to make a difference in government," says Dr. Joel Shalowitz, professor of preventive medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

Doctors are also increasingly assuming leadership roles in hospitals, health insurance companies and government health agencies, such as the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, experts say. Experts say doctors with an interest in business and some financial savvy can thrive in administrative positions.

Doctors who want to become health care administrators in the private sector may need to earn an additional graduate degree, says Shalowitz, who has both an M.D. and an MBA. Shalowitz serves as professor of executive education at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and previously served as the school's clinical professor of health industry management as well as the director of its health industry management program.

Another nonclinical route is a medical research career. This allows doctors with a passion for innovation to have enormous influence on the future of medicine by discovering a drug or increasing understanding of a disease, says Roberts of the University of Pittsburgh.

Even if you go into a medical school with a specific career track in mind, you are highly likely to change your mind, Shalowitz says. "It's okay if people don't know exactly what they want because that is what the medical school experience is about finding out."

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Written by Ilana Kowarski is an education reporter at U.S. News