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Commitment Issues

Written by Dr Lydia Spurr · Sunday 26th January 2014

I recently read a question on meducation posted around a year ago, the jist of which was “as a medical student, is it too early to start developing commitment to a specialty?” I.e. “even though I haven’t graduated yet, should I start building a portfolio of experience and evidence to show that specialty X is what I really want to do?”

MMC revolutionised (for better or worse) the medical career structure forcing new graduates to decide on a career path much earlier. Many have appreciated the clear delineation of their career pathway. Others have found the 15 month period between leaving university and applying for specialty training too short to make an informed decision (just ask the 10% of FY2s that took a career break last year (i)). Whether right or wrong, there is now less time to rotate round ‘SHO’ jobs, decide on a career and build a CV capable of winning over an interview panel.

You’ll probably find you’re in one of 2 camps at university:

  1. Those who are absolutely 110% certain there is nothing they want to do, ever, other than specialty X, or
  2. Those who really like specialty X, but also like specialties W, Y and Z and haven't made up their minds

(A few people find themselves feeling they don’t want to be part of any medical career, but that’s for another post.) Students identifying with the first statement are usually concerned they will not get enough general experience, or that they will be stuck with their decision if they change their minds later on. Those who are leaning more towards statement 2 may not build as strong a body of evidence for any one specialty; however it’s possible to get involved in activities either relevant to a few career options, or several specialty-specific activities and subsequently edit the CV for a specific interview.

The key message is that whether you think you have your career mapped out or not, medical school is the perfect time to start collecting evidence that you’re interested in a career in a particular specialty: time for extra-curricular activities only becomes scarcer when you have a full time job complete with working long days, nights and weekends. Your experiences at medical school can then be supplemented with taster weeks, teaching and judicious use of your study budget for training days and conferences; bear in mind that all specialties allow at least 3 years* following FY2 before starting specialty training which can be used for gaining further experience (but be prepared to justify and defend your actions).

It’s also important to consider the manner in which individual specialties require such a commitment to be demonstrated: In general terms, the more niche and/or competitive the specialty, the more they will want you to demonstrate that you a) really know what the job entails and b) have made a concerted effort to further your knowledge of the subject. To get a job in neurosurgery for example, which is not only niche but had a completion ratio of 4.9 in 2013(ii) you’ll need to have gone to courses relevant to neurosurgery and have achievements related to the specialty such as a neurosurgical elective, attachment or taster experience(iii).

Some specialties assess commitment in a variety of situations e.g. the radiology interview this year had stations on the general overview and future of radiology as a career, a CV based demonstration of commitment to specialty as well as a station requiring the interpretation of images. General Practice on the other hand which in its very nature is very broad, at no point allocates marks specifically for commitment to specialty (or anything else on a CV for that matter) as it is entirely dependent on an exam (SJTs and clinical questions) and skill-based stations at a selection centre. The person specification* details what is expected and desirable as demonstration of commitment in each specialty.

So, how do you actually show you’re committed to a specialty? It may be pretty obvious but try to get a consistent and well-rounded CV. Consider:
• Joining a student committee or group for your specialty. If there isn't one at your university, find some like-minded people and start one
• Asking the firms you work for if you can help with an audit/research even if data collection doesn’t sound very interesting
• Finding a research project (e.g. as part of a related intercalated or higher degree)
• Prizes and examinations relevant to the specialty
• Developing a relevant teaching programme
• Selecting your selected study modules/components, elective and dissertation with your chosen specialty in mind
• Going to teaching or study days aimed at students at the relevant Royal College

Remember it’s not just what you’ve done but also what you’ve learnt from it; get into a habit of reflecting on what each activity has helped you achieve or understand. This is where most people who appear to have the perfect CV come unstuck: There will always be someone who has more presentations and publications etc. etc. but don’t be put off that it means they are a dead cert for the job. Whatever you do, make sure you have EVIDENCE that you’ve done it. Become a bit obsessive. Trust me, you forget a lot and nothing counts if you can’t prove it.

Assessing commitment to specialty aims to highlight who really understands and wants a career in that specialty. From my own recent experience however, just identifying experiences explicitly related to a specific specialty ignores the transferable and clinically/professionally/personally important skills one has that would make them a successful trainee. I’d be very interested in your views on ‘commitment to specialty’: for example do you think the fact someone has 20 papers in a given specialty means they are necessarily the best for the job? Or are you planning to take a year out post-FY2 to build on your CV to gain more experience? Let us know!

*See person specifications for specialty-specific details at