Here’s what your specialty says about you

By Connie Capone
Published August 24, 2020

Key Takeaways

It’s no secret that different jobs attract different kinds of people. You wouldn’t expect to see a sky-diving instructor who’s afraid of heights or a zookeeper who didn’t love animals, because people generally choose (or end up in) careers that match their personalities, passions, and interests. The same goes for doctors and their medical specialties.

Some enjoy working behind closed doors while others thrive in the spotlight. Some seek a straightforward solution while others enjoy the complexity of a problem. For every kind of person working in medicine, there is a specialty that matches their work temperament. In this article, we’ll identify several key physician specialties and their most common attributes.  

Medical specialties

Family/Internal Medicine—social, attentive, trustworthy—Doctors specializing in family medicine are experts at providing comprehensive, primary care to patients at all stages of life, while internal medicine physicians often limit their care to adults. In both occupations, success is tied to the physician’s degree of sociability, because establishing rapport and building meaningful partnerships with patients allows them to piece together the knowledge needed to personalize care.

Likewise, family and internal medicine practitioners are attentive listeners. Their experience is valuable, but every patient is different—they know that jumping to conclusions doesn’t lead to better patient outcomes, so they provide medical advice only after listening to their patients’ concerns and understanding their unique history.

“We all need care that is coordinated and longitudinal,” said Michael Munger, MD, in an interview with The Washington Post when he was president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Regardless of how healthy you are, you need someone who knows you.”

Finally, family and internal medicine physicians tend to be trustworthy and non-judgmental. Health information is sensitive, so they treat it with respect and discretion—without it, they couldn’t do their best for patients.

Dermatologysupportive, investigative, gentle—Specialists in ailments of the skin, hair, and nails, dermatologists are trained to identify more than 3,000 conditions that cause varying degrees of physical and emotional discomfort for their patients. Dermatologists tend to be keen investigators because skin conditions can be difficult to diagnose, requiring deep dives into a patient’s history, lifestyle, and biology to find a solution. Many times, finding the source of a problem involves extensive analysis and trial-and-error. Each case is treated uniquely and investigated thoroughly because there’s usually no “one-size-fits-all” solution.

Dermatologists also tend to be supportive and gentle because the conditions they treat can be emotionally taxing on patients, often having drastic effects on self-confidence. They act as a source of wisdom, guidance, and support because many of the patients they treat might be at their wits’ end, having already tried non-prescription techniques without any luck. Dermatologists approach their work in a mindful, gentle way because they are sensitive to the delicate nature of skin, as well as skin’s inherent ties to physical and emotional health.

Emergency Medicinevigilant, team-oriented, pragmatic—Working in emergency rooms or trauma centers, emergency medicine doctors are experts in adeptly handling crises and making split-second decisions that save lives without letting emotions cloud their judgment. They know that tiny details can make a world of difference, so vigilance and keen observation remain one of their best weapons against serious injury and sickness. They’re always in the middle of the action and frequently take the lead during intensely stressful situations. But they realize that their success depends on collaboration with other experts and specialists, so the best EM physicians are team-oriented, too.

A study published in Academic Emergency Medicine found that, compared with other physician residents, emergency medicine residents tend to be more risk-averse because they’re taught to consider the worst-case-scenario and do their best to avoid it. Still, they’re no strangers to surprises, frequent distractions, and fast-paced multitasking—that’s why pragmatism and reliance on experience are paramount.

Plastic Surgerycompassionate, precise, artistic—Encompassing more than just aesthetic procedures like rhinoplasties and facelifts, plastic surgery also includes complex restorative or corrective surgeries of physical birth defects and deformities from traumatic injury. Many of the treatments plastic surgeons deliver will result in huge changes to the ways patients look and feel, so they require compassion and empathy—specifically sensitivity, support, understanding of a patients’ emotional state.

Additionally, plastic surgeons need to have meticulous surgical technique to perform surgery, because tiny changes in approach lead to enormous changes in aesthetics and patient satisfaction. Each procedure is different and requires not only extreme precision and attention to detail, but also an artistic sense, which helps them achieve the best visual and functional outcomes.

Radiologycurious, analytical, organized—Often working behind the scenes in hospitals and medical centers, radiologists make diagnoses using medical imaging procedures such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), ultrasound, and more.

Problem-solving is at the core of their career, so radiologists must be inherently curious and driven to get to the bottom of medical mysteries—whether that requires digging through the literature, patient histories, or reams of images.

Radiologists often approach their work with an analytical mindset and a singular focus: They seek a definitive answer to a problem based on the evidence and tend not to be distracted by extraneous details. Organization is a common trait among radiologists, who must keep comprehensive patient records to help them interpret images, inform similar cases, and aid future diagnoses.

Pediatric Medicinepatient, communicative, observant—Caring for the health of babies, infants, children, and adolescents, pediatricians oversee patients during the beginning stages of life, which are marked by rapid mental and physical changes. With warm and nurturing personas, pediatricians are quick to develop positive connections with their patients’ families. They’re excellent and diplomatic communicators, too, helping adults navigate through the trials of parenthood and relating to children on a level that makes them feel comfortable and safe.

Pediatric patients and their families often struggle to express and articulate their feelings and symptoms, which makes diagnosis and treatment complex. In these situations, pediatricians must be persistent, open-minded, and hyper-observant, never letting a sign or symptom elude or confuse them. The ability to pick up small clues or subtle changes in behavior can be key in deciphering what’s at stake and informing a plan of action.

Psychiatrycalm, intuitive, humble—With expertise in all areas of mental health, psychiatrists assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems. A calming and accepting demeanor is common among psychiatrists, especially in those caring for patients who present with troubling mental concerns, from hallucinations or suicidal ideation to prolonged feelings of sadness and anxiety.

Psychiatrists are also highly intuitive. They possess a breadth of medical knowledge and understand that many symptoms of mental illness overlap, so they must remain alert and rely on their training to tease out the right analytical connections.

Psychiatrists, even highly experienced ones, must consider a range of diagnostic possibilities before settling on one. They approach their work with humility, recognizing that, despite advancements in the field and increasingly robust classification systems, diagnosis of mental illness often remains subjective. A good psychiatrist employs this same humility when interacting with patients, especially when these patients are dealing with serious psychological crises—a skillful psychiatrist empowers patients to feel heard and validated.

General physician traits

Some personality characteristics are valuable for all doctors. Research has found that interpersonal skills (including empathy and social warmth) and intra-personal skills (including being resourceful, purposeful, and responsible) are both important for effectiveness as a physician, even though these might not be core elements of medical school curricula.

A study published in PLoS One investigated distinct personality traits in a large sample of medical students and found that three traits stood out: persistence, self-directedness, and cooperativeness.“This combination of trait levels contributes to a profile that allows high achieving individuals to undertake a demanding profession such as medicine,” the authors concluded.

If there’s one trait that all physicians should rely on to increase their likelihood of success, it’s a willingness to help others. As for everything else, certain personalities may gravitate toward certain specialties, but that doesn’t mean that someone with an uncommon personality can’t excel in a given role.

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