Choosing your fellowship: How do you find the right fit?

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published June 23, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Choosing what type of fellowship you want to pursue is one of the biggest decisions that you'll make in your professional career, so it's important to start planning early.  

  • Be sure to factor in your long-term professional and life goals, because your choice of specialty will impact both.  

  • Seek advice from trusted mentors, advisors, fellow residents, and program directors in making your decision. 

Choosing a medical specialty is a pivotal decision that will shape the rest of your professional life—and very likely your personal life, too. But how do you decide which fellowship is right for you?

Maybe you're a physician trainee who always knew you wanted to be a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, or other specialist. Or, perhaps you decided in residency while assigned to a specific rotation. But for many, the big decision still looms.

Consider your long-term goals

When choosing a fellowship, it's essential to look down the road to consider how you want to spend your time.

Ask yourself: Do you want to spend the majority of your time in an operating room? Teach? Run a medical practice? Do you want to do in-office procedures? Do you enjoy the intense pace of the ICU?

What is your passion?

There is a saying that goes, “Specialists know more and more about less and less.” As a medical specialist, you will be expected to dedicate years of training and focus your future career on a limited scope, so make sure it is something you are incredibly passionate about.

Ask yourself: Am I ready to give up the other components of this specialty to narrow my concentration? For example, if you are doing your residency in OB/GYN and want to do a fellowship in maternal-fetal medicine, are you willing to risk giving up the “GYN” of your specialty? 

Do you want to pursue academics?

If you choose to pursue an academic career, focus on a fellowship program with a strong research and academic basis that allows you to make a name for yourself in your subspecialty.

Many academic centers have specialized clinics that focus on a specific disease, and you will be expected to be an expert in that disease. You may even be required to have published work relating to the specialized disease. 

Related: Do you have what it takes for a career in academic medicine?

You will want to choose a program that already has an established clinic for the disease process of your choosing. For example, if you want to focus your career in interventional pulmonology, make sure your fellowship program offers extensive training in relevant procedures at a specialized pulmonology clinic. 

Will you be intellectually stimulated?

Do you find reading the clinical material pertaining to your specialty interesting? Do you find your specialty challenging?

If you think you may be bored within your speciality because it is too easy or you do not enjoy the research and clinical reading, you may consider choosing a different speciality that is more mentally stimulating.

Physicians generally like to be challenged and medicine is a lifelong learning process. Maybe you want to be in a specialty where you are constantly seeing a wide variety of disorders and new symptom presentations on a weekly basis? 

Consider your personality type 

Certain specialties may attract certain personalities. For example, an individual who chooses to go into critical care may enjoy adrenaline and a fast-paced environment, whereas a foot and ankle surgeon may be competitive, precise, detailed, and extremely "type A."

A gastroenterologist may be a bit more laid back with a good sense of humor (they have to deal with feces a lot!) whereas a palliative care fellow may be very empathetic.

Consider your personality type and the type of people your specialty attracts. You will spend a lot of time with your colleagues and you'll want to enjoy being around them. 

You must not hate the 'suck'

In general, you may love 99% of a chosen speciality, but what about the 1% that is not so great? For example, gastroenterologists generally do not love treating irritable bowel syndrome and cardiologists often fret over “atypical chest pain” but it is part of the reality of being in that specialty.

Think about the worst part of your chosen specialty and consider whether you can tolerate it, will hate it, or will actually enjoy it. If you do not know the worst part of your desired specialty, then ask the fellows and specialists in that field. Poll as many people as possible, you may be surprised you will get similar answers. 

Although you don’t have to love the 1% of your chosen specialty, you must not hate it—if certain aspects make you totally miserable, your misery can carry over into the 99% of the specialty that you enjoy.  

Related: Fellowship mismatch: Factors to consider when switching specialties

Seek advice from a handful of people who have been in your position and completed your desired fellowship. 

Ask them about their decision-making process, if they regret their decision, and what they believe are the pros and cons of fellowship in their specialty. 

In addition, ask fellow residents and program directors which fellowships programs are highly recommended in your desired subspecialty—and why. The more advice you receive from people you trust, the more real-life information you will have to help you make your final decision.

What this means for you 

Selecting a fellowship is one of the biggest decisions you'll make in your medical career—so give yourself plenty of time. Early planning, identifying long-term professional and personal goals, seeking the advice of trusted mentors and advisors, and a good dose of self-reflection will help you identify the best fit.

Related: What does it mean to be a leader in fellowship—and how do you get there?

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter