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Career planning is key for medical graduates

You need to assess your strengths and aspirations to decide on the best possible match when considering which specialty would be right for you.

You will have people to help and support you plan your medical career, but ultimately career management is your own responsibility. Every job in medicine, as in other professions, has its good and its bad sides, its own burdens and responsibilities. However, most careers in medicine are challenging, rewarding and fulfilling if you’re in a job that’s right for you, and starting early with your career planning will mean you’re more likely to find your niche.

Some foundation doctors have a clear idea of what they want to do from an early stage, while others are strongly influenced by their experiences on the foundation programme. If you are confident about your preferred specialty while you are still studying for your medical degree, you may be able to choose a particular foundation programme that is likely to give you relevant experience and help with your decision making. As a student, you can consider volunteering or undertaking elective work that will give you more experience of the specialty that interests you, and as a foundation doctor you can arrange taster sessions in areas that are not already covered by your programme.

Career planning is not a single event but a continuous process. Ideally you should be exploring what you want from your career and researching options in your third or fourth year at medical school. However, if you haven’t started yet and you’re further on in the training process, there's no need to panic. Assessing yourself is the best way to get started, and with more than 60 specialties and more than 30 subspecialties to choose from, you have plenty of options.

Getting started

To find out what you want from a career, you first have to analyse yourself. Write a list of your strengths, your skills, your interests and your personality traits. Think about what motivates you and the skills you want to develop in your career. You should be realistic in your aspirations when looking at career paths, as some may be more competitive than others and may not match your particular strengths.

As well as looking at yourself, it’s also important to look around you. Go to medical careers events, fairs and workshops to get an idea of what’s out there and talk to a medical careers adviser about your options. Take advantage of all work experience and work shadowing opportunities to gain a greater insight into what’s involved in specific areas, and talk to your colleagues and other doctors already within your area of interest. Some questions you should be asking yourself and others include:

  • What matters to me? How important are factors such as work/life balance?
  • What am I good at?
  • What do I find difficult?
  • How might specialties change in the future? How might these changes affect me and my career choices?
  • What other constraints affect my career choices (eg geographical location)?
  • What kind of skills and qualities are particular specialties looking for? How can I show evidence of these skills?
  • How can I get accurate information about careers in different specialties?

Seeking advice and using resources

There are many places to go to if you’re looking for advice. A good place to start is the careers service at your university, or speak to careers advisers within your deanery. Clinical tutors, foundation training programme directors and educational supervisors may also be valuable sources of information and can provide you with impartial advice. The areas of work on the sector homepage can help you explore specialties and the many career opportunities open to you.

To find out more about yourself, there are a whole range of personality, psychometric, learning and working style tests available at your university careers service or department. Discuss the results with careers advisers or your educational supervisor. It’s important to make use of all the resources available to you and not use any of them in isolation – after all, there are many professional career pathways to explore.

Making the most of your experience

When considering your experiences of the medical profession during your training, electives and attachments, you should think about the transferable skills and qualities you can apply to any specialty rather than just focusing on the specialty-specific elements. Be critical and analytical; look at the possible problems in a specialty as well as the positives, and what impact working long term in it may have on your life.

Consider and reflect deeply on what you might have difficulty with – this isn’t admitting to ‘weakness’ but simply knowing yourself and being realistic. You should also look beyond the immediate – you may have had a positive experience because you were working with an excellent team and a charismatic consultant rather than it having anything to do with the specialty itself.

What NOT to do when planning your career

  • Don’t leave career planning to the last minute when application deadlines start to approach – closing dates for specialty training are in late January or early February and decisions need to be made well in advance of this date.
  • Don’t pursue a specialty just because you think it’s glamorous or charismatic.
  • Don’t let your view be coloured by the prejudices of others who may have an axe to grind about a particular area of medicine.
  • Don’t dismiss career options because of a personality clash with a consultant or another member of staff in that specialty.
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