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A taste of someone else's medicine

Written by Dr Lydia Spurr · Sunday 16th February 2014

Choosing a career path is one of the hardest (non-clinical) decisions many doctors will face in their professional lives. With almost 100 specialties and sub-specialties available, settling on any one career can seem pretty daunting, particularly as in the majority of cases the choice will set a path you’re likely to be on for the next 30+ years. But, with only a very small range of these specialties and almost none of the sub-specialties available to undertake as rotations during any one foundation programme, finding out what actually working in different specialties is like can be difficult. It’s likely you’ll have at least identified an area you’re kind of/maybe interested in before starting the foundation programme but, to use a total cliché, you wouldn't buy a car without taking it for a test drive, right?

There is good evidence to show that any experience, even if only brief, can be very influential on career choice and this is why all deaneries offer new doctors to undertake a ‘taster week’ at some point during the Foundation Programme. This is usually from 2-5 days, taken as study leave, in a specialty of the doctor’s choosing which they haven’t and won’t work during their foundation programme. Most hospitals will allow doctors to do this at an external hospital or organisation if the desired specialty isn't available locally. Tasters are often organised by the trainee but deaneries are encouraged to provide a list or register of structured taster programmes to its trainees. A timetable split into half-day activities, including time for 1:1 discussion with both consultants and trainees, should be provided or agreed with a supervisor, which gives the doctor as broad an experience of the roles, responsibilities, highlights, challenges and lifestyle of the specialty as possible. This should then give the doctor plenty of food for thought and provide an opportunity for (you guessed it) reflection to confirm or exclude that specialty as a career choice and identify (if the former) what steps they need to take to get there. At the end of the experience the doctor should fill in a feedback form and formally reflect in their portfolio.

Taster weeks aren't limited to particular specialties and sub-specialties either; there are plenty of more over-arching opportunities such as experiencing leadership and management roles or getting involved in academia, research or medical education. As long as you can identify and describe what you’ll aim to learn or understand from the experience, almost any taster is possible.

So, how do you go about it? Each deanery should have a policy relating to taster weeks, or have an responsible administrator who can provide advice. Talking to your educational supervisor can also be really useful. Considering early on in FY1 which area or specialty you want to explore is important; time runs out scarily quickly and taking time out of rotations needs careful planning and co-ordination to make sure there is enough cover for your day job. You may already know or have identified an appropriate supervisor who will facilitate the experience but if not, your supervisor or administrator will almost certainly be able to point you in the right direction.

You’ll never get to experience every possible career path before starting out on one; the specialty or sub-specialty you eventually work in may not even exist yet. But getting an idea of what you’ll definitely consider, or definitely won’t, will give you a better chance of identifying something that will suit you personally and professionally, and, particularly in the more competitive and run-though specialties will give you another example of commitment to specialty. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box or look at something really niche – it may give you a taste for something unexpected that you’ll love for life.