There are dozens of different medical specialties and even more subspecialties you can pursue. In this guide, we explain them all.
We’ll start with the core 7 that are most common for medical school rotations.
1. Family Medicine
First up is family medicine. Family medicine doctors are the center of primary care. They treat the broadest range of ailments and patients, from newborns to seniors and everything in between. They are not limited to a single organ, disease, or age range. Family medicine is consistently the least competitive medical specialty to pursue and has one of the lowest salaries at just over $250K.
2. Internal Medicine
Next, internal medicine doctors are the generalists of generalists, treating a massive range of medical conditions, whether common or rare, complex or straightforward, acute or chronic. The biggest difference between internal and family medicine is IM doctors only treat adults. Internal medicine is also loaded with subspecialty and fellowship options, which we’ll get to later.
Next, we have pediatrics. Think of this specialty as the equivalent of internal medicine but for younger patients. Pediatricians care for babies, children, and adolescents from birth up to the age of 25. Pediatrics is another one of the least competitive specialties, in part due to its lower average compensation at $250K a year.
OB/GYN covers both obstetrics and gynecology. Obstetrics is the medical and surgical management of pregnancy, whereas gynecology is the medical and surgical management of the female reproductive tract. OB/GYN doctors see patients through puberty, adult life, pregnancy, menopause, and beyond.
Surgery is a very broad medical specialty. Surgeons use manual techniques and medical instruments to physically reach into a patient’s body to investigate or treat an illness or injury. The core specialty is general surgery, but there’s a wide spectrum of surgical subspecialties, which we’ll cover shortly.
Neurologists specialize in the non-surgical management of a variety of central and peripheral nervous system disorders, managing everything from headaches and migraines to devastating and incurable diseases like ALS and Huntington’s disease. Many diseases in neurology are chronic and progressive, but research and new therapies are rapidly evolving.
Psychiatry focuses on understanding and treating mental health disorders and psychological distress through talk therapy and medication. They holistically consider the psychological, socioeconomic, and physiologic causes of their patients’ symptoms, not just the symptoms themselves. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists attend medical school and, up until residency, they complete the same medical training as all other MDs or DOs.
That covers the core rotations you’ll encounter in medical school. You can learn more about each of them in our Clerkships Guide.
But we are far from done.
8. Plastic Surgery
You may have heard me mention this next one before. Plastic surgery focuses primarily on soft tissue, such as skin, muscle, and fat, to reshape or reconstruct a patient’s appearance or function. Aesthetic plastic surgery involves procedures like breast augmentation and liposuction. Reconstructive plastic surgery involves procedures to correct facial and body abnormalities. Plastic surgery is consistently one of the most competitive specialties, in part because it has one of the highest average annual compensations at over $600K. Learn more about the top 10 most competitive specialties.
Otolaryngology, also known as ENT, is a surgical subspecialty focusing on diseases of the head and neck region. This includes the vocal cords, nose, sinuses, ears, thyroid, and parathyroid, as well as head and neck cancers. ENT is also one of the most competitive specialties you can pursue.
Urologists are surgeons of the urogenital tract, which includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder, prostate, urethra, testes, and more. Urology can also cover sexual function, fertility, urinary continence, and gender identity.
Anesthesiologists are the patient’s “guardian angel” during surgery, as they care for patients pre-op, intra-op, and post-op. They ensure patients are properly sedated and comfortable throughout the operation, maintaining stable vitals, blood circulation, and an open airway.
Diagnostic radiology uses machines to visualize what is occurring inside the body. Radiologists interpret these images and leverage the power of machines to both diagnose and treat disease. While most diagnostic radiologists spend their time in reading rooms, interventional radiologists can perform several procedures, such as ablating cancers with radiation-infused particles.
Similar to radiology, pathology is heavily intertwined with other fields of medicine and is considered a “support specialty.” Pathologists primarily examine specimens to give tissue diagnoses and manage all of the clinical labs ordered by other physicians, from microbiology to hematology to chemistry and everything in between.
14. Emergency Medicine
Emergency medicine physicians treat patients with urgent healthcare needs, from acute conditions like heart attacks to exacerbations of chronic health conditions to stabilizing patients involved in trauma. EM doctors need to know a little bit about everything, making them the jack of all trades, master of one—emergencies.
15. Critical Care
Critical care physicians, also known as intensivists, treat patients with life-threatening injuries and illnesses in the ICU. While similar to emergency medicine, critical care focuses on the long-term, 24-hour care of a dangerously ill patient, as opposed to emergency medicine cases that require immediate evaluation and stabilization.
16. Preventive Medicine
Preventive medicine doctors apply their expertise in medicine, as well as the social, economic, and behavioral sciences, to show how changes to a patient’s lifestyle can be an effective form of treatment and prevent illnesses before they occur. Preventive medicine physicians have one of the lowest annual salaries at around $250K.
17. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Physical medicine and rehabilitation, also known as a PM&R, is the jack-of-all-trades specialty focusing on the management of non-operative orthopedics and neuro-rehabilitation. Physiatrists are the primary physicians for certain nervous system or non-surgical orthopedic disorders, offering both medical and procedural treatments.
Orthopedics, also known as orthopedic surgery, focuses on injuries and diseases of the body’s musculoskeletal system, which includes a person’s bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves. Orthopedic surgeons are one of the highest paid specialists, close to plastic surgeons at around $575K a year.
Ophthalmology deals with ocular and orbital diseases, which is anything relating to the eyes and immediate surrounding structures.
Dermatologists manage diseases of the skin, hair, and nails using both medical and procedural aspects. A dermatologist can identify and treat more than 3000 conditions, including eczema, psoriasis, and skin cancer. A dermatologist’s higher salary coupled with the better-than-average work/life balance it provides make it a highly competitive specialty.
The following 10 specialties are all technically subspecialties of internal medicine. We’re releasing a video completely dedicated to internal medicine subspecialization options later this year.
Cardiology is the most competitive and highest paying of all of the internal medicine fellowships. Cardiologists treat diseases of the heart and vascular system, many of which are quite common, like heart failure, hypertension, and heart attacks. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among Americans.
Gastroenterology involves everything in the gastrointestinal tract, ranging from the mouth to internal organs like the liver and pancreas to the anus. They deal with a wide variety of diseases, including heartburn, inflammatory bowel disease, and hepatitis.
Pulmonary medicine focuses on the respiratory system and diseases of the airway, lungs, and chest wall, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. Pulmonologists also manage patients who require mechanical ventilation and life support.
Hematology and oncology are often lumped together because of how closely related they are. Hematology focuses on diseases of the blood, like anemias and clotting diseases, as well as cancers of the blood, like leukemia.
Oncology focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of cancers, as well as the acute complications that can arise from cancer and its treatment.
Rheumatology specializes in diseases of the joints, musculoskeletal system, and connective tissue. Rheumatologists see a wide variety of diseases, including autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and musculoskeletal diseases like osteoporosis.
Endocrinology focuses on diseases of metabolism and the endocrine system, which is made up of the pancreas, thyroid gland, adrenal glands, hormones, and more. They commonly see diseases like diabetes, hyper and hypothyroidism, and obesity, as well as cancers related to the endocrine system.
Nephrology focuses solely on the kidneys, which are responsible for many vital and complex functions in the body, such as regulating our electrolytes and fluids. Nephrologists see a wide range of clinical diseases, including renal failure, acid-base disorders, and hypertension.
29. Infectious Diseases
The infectious disease specialty focuses on microorganisms that infect humans, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. The COVID-19 pandemic drew attention to the importance of infectious disease specialists.
Allergy and immunology, often referred to as AI, is sometimes lumped together with infectious diseases. An allergist/immunologist cares for patients who have misbehaving immune systems, including people with allergies, respiratory diseases like asthma, immune deficiencies, and certain types of autoimmune conditions.
We’re almost there. Lastly, we’ll cover a few more subspecializations and other doctor paths.
31. Trauma Surgery
Trauma surgeons primarily deal with patients who have sustained a physical injury, often in an acute setting. The majority of injuries addressed by trauma surgery include those of the neck, chest, abdomen, and extremities.
32. Cardiothoracic Surgery
Cardiothoracic surgeons operate within the chest cavity. This includes surgery on structures such as the heart, aorta, lungs, mediastinum, esophagus, and diaphragm. Cardiothoracic surgeons do procedures like coronary artery bypass grafts to treat plaque buildup in heart vessels.
33. Vascular Surgery
Vascular surgeons manage veins and arteries in every part of the body except the brain and heart. They treat blocked carotid arteries in the neck as well as problems of the aorta after it leaves the heart and enters the abdomen.
34. Gender Surgery
Gender surgery is the controversial field of medicine concerned with alleviating gender dysphoria through surgical procedures. Any surgical procedure designed to help alleviate gender dysphoria can be considered gender surgery, including masculinization and feminization of the face and chest, tracheal shaves, voice modification, and even limb lengthening and shortening procedures.
35. Interventional Cardiology
An interventional cardiologist is a cardiologist who has completed additional training in minimally invasive procedures of the heart. Unlike surgery, these procedures are typically performed in a cardiac cath lab instead of an operating room and involve live x-rays, contrast dye, and specialized equipment.
36. Reproductive Endocrinology
Reproductive endocrinology and infertility, or REI, is focused on helping people get pregnant who are unable to do so on their own. REI physicians are experts in all things related to conception and reproduction and are adept at managing any issues that may be preventing patients from becoming pregnant.
Neonatology is a subspecialty of pediatrics that focuses on newborns. They are the ones called in when an infant is born prematurely or with an illness or abnormality that needs immediate treatment, such as infections, breathing disorders, and birth defects.
38. Pediatric Intensivist
Pediatric intensivists focus on the treatment of seriously ill patients from birth to 18 years of age and beyond. They perform intubations for children needing ventilatory support, place arterial catheters for children needing blood pressure monitoring, insert venous catheters for the safe delivery of certain medications, and more.
Podiatrists focus on the foot and ankle, as well as related structures of the leg, both in medical and surgical management. They use principles from sports medicine, biomechanics, wound healing, and various surgical techniques to treat anything from discomfort and pain to discoloration or odor.
40. Sports Medicine Doctor
Sports medicine doctors are non-surgical specialists who take care of musculoskeletal injuries for athletes and active patients. They address MSK issues similar to orthopedic surgeons but not requiring surgical intervention. They can provide a full spectrum of care for anyone who wants to be active.
41. Military Doctor
Military physicians must be specialists in their field while being competent and flexible generalists when deployed. For example, while deployed, a general surgeon may be asked to do cases more typically reserved for a neurosurgeon, otolaryngologist, or urologist.
42. Global Health Doctor
Global health doctors help spread medicine and surgery to developing countries and underserved populations. There are five billion people in the world who don’t have access to safe and affordable surgical care. Global health aims to decrease this health gap by partnering with local physicians and advocates to empower those populations.
We’ve covered nearly all of these specialties in our So You Want to Be series, which takes a deep dive into each different medical path you can pursue.
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