Getting What You Want: Considering Both Life and Career Goals When Choosing a Specialty

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

Under the glow of the OR lights, I could barely make out the pulsating artery through all the layers of fat. This is so cool I thought to myself. Since my first rotation had been internal medicine, I hadn’t seen a lot of hands on stuff like this. As the OB/GYN swiftly cut through the layers of fascia to get to the target ovary, I watched her quick hands harvest it and pull it out of the body cavity. The ovary itself was grossly misshapen as she gently laid it onto the mayo stand to clean it up before shipping it off to pathology. I held it in my hands and thought of how the patient would no longer have to bear the burden of the things this overgrowth was doing to her body. The surgery was a success and the doctor predicted a very good outcome and quality of life for the young patient from now on. How incredible!
I was completely mesmerized by this specialty—everything about it drew me in and I knew that if I chose it, I would wake up every day knowing that I made the right choice. But I also saw how the OB/GYN came in at 6am most mornings with the remnants of a half-eaten bagel on her sweatshirt and the faint smell of coffee on her breath. She herself had three children at home. whom she had to drop off at school before rushing to the hospital. Her husband worked long hours as well, so her day was busy from start to finish. I wondered if this was what I saw my life looking like. How many nights a week would I have to work? Would I have to be on call all the time? I struggled with the concept of balancing a family and a career long before my first day of medical school. Having both is very important to me. Balancing the two as a woman can be complicated: having to stand all day on swollen feet during pregnancy, excusing yourself from an important procedure to pump, or picking up kids from after school activities. Sometimes I feel exhausted just thinking about juggling it all.
I’ve talked to some physicians about this very issue, and not all of them were female. One surgeon told me that his life was very hard during residency (as expected), but because of that he chose to practice at a hospital where he could get more flexibility in terms of the hours he worked and the kinds of surgeries he did. An OB/GYN resident I spoke with told me the same thing: your life is what you make of it. Granted, she was still in residency, but she said she had the same fears I did when she was going through school. At least that I’m aware of it right now, I can plan my life out accordingly. It takes a bit of introspection to see exactly what you want out of your life. There are some physicians who are mind, heart and soul devoted to their career and there are others who prefer to work part time so they can be home when the kids get off the bus. It’s really important to figure out what you want out of your life. Different specialties offer different kinds of lifestyles and being aware of that is the first step in the game. For example, those termed “lifestyle specialties” such as dermatology tend to have more “normal” hours and no emergencies. Others such as cardiothoracic surgery, always have emergencies and can require very long and irregular hours. What ultimately is important to me is how my career fits in with my life, and not the other way around.
I’ve discovered that any specialty and the lifestyle it offers can be tolerable, as long as it’s the specialty that’s the right fit for you! Given that becoming a physician is such a long and tortuous path, planning ahead is always beneficial. I’m trying to find a way to reconcile my passions with my goals—hopefully that means coming home to a wonderful family after a day in the OR.
Adelle is a 3rd year medical student who loves to hike, bake chocolate chip cookies, and doodle on the corners of papers.