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Study abroad : Subject Guides

What are medical specialisations?

Studying medicine presents you with a dizzying array of possible areas in which you can specialise. We explore what these are, how to choose them and the skills you'll need.

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Medicine is undoubtedly one of the most popular qualifications for international students. Degrees typically last between four and seven years, with the requirement of a post-graduation practical or training component, akin to a paid internship, before becoming a fully-fledged doctor.  This may be undertaken at a general doctor’s practice or in the emergency department of a hospital.


What happens after that you ask? Well, then it’s time to choose the specialisation that you want to pursue and here’s where it gets interesting.  There’s quite an array of options available and four to six years of training ahead. This adds a little more pressure to the decision-making process. However, we’re here to make it easier by exploring some of the more popular medical specialisations and how to choose them if you decide on a specialisation course in medicine.


How to choose a medical specialisation?


For some, the decision to specialise in a certain area of medicine is an easy one. Perhaps, they knew from early on in their studies or have picked up an affiliation for a clinical field during practical training. However, there are a few things that can be done to explore the options:


  • Speaking to professionals in that field
  • Consulting medical schools
  • Evaluating the nature of the work and how it influences lifestyle
  • Conducting research and observing doctors in practice
  • Evaluating career aspirations
  • Taking time to make the decision


Committing six years of your life to study a medical specialisation is a big step and so ensuring that you’re taking the time to do your research is crucial. So, what are some of the more popular specialisations you ask? Let’s take a look.


What types of medical specialisations are there?




A medical specialisation that often generates quite a lot of interest is that of anaesthesiology. In fact, it’s one of the largest areas of speciality amongst doctors. As an anaesthetist, your primary role is to be able to make the right decisions about how to manage a patient’s pain pre, during and post-surgery. You’re also responsible for making sure that patients receive the correct medication and care to keep their vital functions working during surgery.


The role of an anaesthetist is not however simply confined to the operating theatre and you may find yourself working in emergency medicine, palliative care and intensive care. There are of course also areas within anaesthesiology that you can specialise in, including paediatric medicine, gynaecology and pre-operative medicine.  Training as an anaesthetist will also usually require you to be certified by a board or membership organisation in order to practice.


If you’re planning on going into this field you’ll need to possess some essential attributes that include being able to effectively communicate, make decisions under pressure, be detailed oriented and take on a leadership role.


Find out what it's like studying medicine in the U.S. from a student who's done it. 


Emergency medicine


If thinking on your feet and making critical decisions sounds like something you’re interested in, then a career in emergency medicine could be for you. In this line of work, you’ll be dealing with medical emergencies on a regular basis, with the aim of saving lives, providing acute care and preventing the deterioration of a patient’s condition. You’ll be making the call on whether a patient needs surgery, directing other emergency staff and undertaking medical interventions.


As an emergency medical practitioner, you’ll be faced with a wide range of clinical issues, from cardio-pulmonary distress to neurological trauma. You’re the first line of defence and have to develop quick solutions to mitigate the problem. 


Being an emergency doctor can mean you have a bit more control over your work/life balance, with set shifts. However, this does depend on the hospital, country and health system you work in. In cases of reduced capacity, you may be called on more than usual. There’s the added bonus of mobility and a change of scene for emergency doctors who may work at different hospitals.


In emergency medicine, you’ll need to have extensive and detailed knowledge of key medical areas and specialities, in order to make essential decisions about a patient’s wellbeing. You’ll need to balance and synthesise a huge amount of information at once and deal with significant inputs, it can be very stressful. You need to have a calm demeanour and be self-assured.


Family medicine


For medical practitioners who are looking for a specialisation that focuses on holistic medicine and all-around care, family medicine fits the bill. The specialisation looks at the overall care of patients and the treatment of a wide variety of complaints. You’ll need to have a very good knowledge of many facets of medicine in order to identify and treat a multitude of conditions.


In family medicine, you’ll also be treating people of various ages and health profiles, from teenagers to the elderly. Often, you’re the first port of call for a patient and frontline or primary caregiver. A lot of the work you’ll do aims to encourage a healthy lifestyle and mitigate the risks of patients developing diseases.  


The manner in which you practice medicine and what areas you concentrate on will be significantly influenced by the community in which you work. You need to have excellent communication skills and an affable personality in order to facilitate individual patient’s needs. In addition, top-notch organisational abilities are paramount, so that you can coordinate a patient’s care with specialists and hospitals.




The field of neurology specialises in conditions affecting the nerves and nervous system. Some of the more prominent areas of the body you’ll need to have an intimate understanding of include the brain, spinal cord, muscles and nervous systems itself.


Neurologists often work in a consultative way helping to treat or rehabilitate patients with conditions that affect neurological functioning such as strokes, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and head trauma.


Neurology is generally divided into two areas, the first being a focus on the central nervous system, while the second has its attention turned to the peripheral nervous system that deals with sensory reception, including the eyes and ears. There are also sub-specialities in the area that include:


  • Pain management
  • Epilepsy
  • Movement disorders
  • Degenerative neurological conditions
  • Neuro Infectious disease
  • Paediatric neurology
  • Neuromuscular disorders




Perhaps a more familiar, and admittedly quite popular specialisation, is paediatrics. This field concentrates on the treatment of children from when they are born until their early teenage years. You’ll need to be a good diagnostician and familiar with a wide range of ailments that may affect children.


You’ll also have to be able to make quick and informed decisions, as the physiology of children may make them more susceptible to certain conditions and increase their risk if too much time is taken.  You may deal with more common childhood illnesses such as asthma or more serious problems such as heart conditions.


As the primary caregiver of a child, you need to be both empathetic and patient. You need to know how to speak to children and make them comfortable. Most critically you need to develop the skills to manage the treatment of children in the context of the anxieties and requests of parents. If you’re thinking of going into paediatrics there are some sub-specialities in the area, apart from general practice, including:


  • Neonatology, which is the treatment of newborn babies
  • Paediatric cardiology
  • Community paediatrics, that concentrates on treating developmental and behavioural conditions.
  • Paediatric nephrology, that focuses on the functioning and conditions affecting the kidneys.


Armed with the knowledge of what may lie ahead in a medical degree, you can make more informed choices and discern what suits you best. Don’t miss out on our take on the benefits of becoming a doctor and the chance to find your perfect course match

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