Careers in Medicine: Primary Care vs. Specializing

December 8, 2014
Emily Hause

Careers in Medicine: Primary Care vs. SpecializingHello my interested readers! There are many options when researching the different careers in medicine. One of the biggest questions you will ask yourself in regards to your future career is whether you’ll go into primary care or if you’ll specialize. It’s a difficult decision and one that requires a lot of thought. The key to making an informed decision is getting exposure to a variety of medical fields and opportunities! You also want to think about the pros and cons of specializing vs. primary care. So, let’s talk about it!

Career Track Pros

Primary Care

One of the best parts of going into pediatrics, internal medicine, or family medicine is that you get to interact with a large swath of humanity. Everyone needs a primary care provider! You get to see people with chronic conditions as well as acute conditions and help them when they need a variety of treatments and small procedures. You’re one of the first lines of defense against illness in a community which means you get to really know your patient population and build relationships. You can watch your patients grow, develop and help improve their health over time. It can be an incredibly rewarding field!

Now that increasing numbers of people are getting insured, there is an even greater need for primary care providers. That means you can get your impressively large medical school loans repaid through a loan repayment program if you work in an area of great need for a few years following graduation. You can be confident knowing that there will always be plenty of available job opportunities.


One of the biggest pros about specializing in a medical field is that you get to be an absolute expert in your field. You can be confident that you’re on the cutting edge of treatments and the person who is best-suited to treat your patients. You also get to work with lots of other specialists to provide integrated care. Additionally, you get to have a major impact on your patient’s lives since many specialized fields deal with life-saving treatments or procedures. It’s a very powerful experience to help save someone’s life.

There are also compensation differences. You can’t get around the fact that specialists generally receive higher salaries than primary care providers. That said there are fewer opportunities for loan repayment programs, so the incentive is slightly different.

Career Track Cons

Primary Care

Part of being a primary care provider is that you’re good at many things, but you’re not really an expert in one area. You spend a lot of time referring people to specialists for their conditions, since you can’t deal with their issues specifically in your office. Also, while you do get to build relationships with your patients, frequently they’re not compliant with your recommendations. As it turns out, focusing on maintaining their health is not always a possibility for your patients. That means that even though you’re doing your best to help them, your patients’ health may still not improve. That can be incredibly frustrating and lead to provider burnout.


The training for specialties is obviously much longer than the training required to be a primary care physician. Most residency programs will require you to complete a general residency in internal medicine or pediatrics before you spend another three to seven years in your specialty training. That can be a huge time investment! You may not feel that you have those years to spare before you start making a physician salary or start your family.

You also get to see a very select subsection of the population. Your patients will all have similar issues, so you want to make sure that whichever medical field in which you choose to specialize, you truly love the material and patient population. Some specialists realize too late that they don’t love the field that they chose.

Conclusion: gain experience in various fields of medicine

So, what’s the take-home message for future medical school students? Get involved in extracurricular, volunteer and shadowing opportunities that allow you to interact with both primary care providers and specialists. It’s not a decision to be made lightly, so you want to be sure that you’re getting exposure to various fields as early as possible.

I’d love to hear from you about experiences you’ve had that make you interested in primary care or foster your excitement for specializing! Hit me up in the comments!


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Emily Hause Emily has been a teacher for Kaplan for over eight years; she's taught MCAT, ACT, SAT, SAT2 and tutored pretty much every subject under the sun in both the classroom and live online (aka Classroom Anywhere) settings. She's also worked for Kaplan in content development and teacher mentorship roles. Emily is currently a fourth-year medical student at the University of Colorado and is hoping to go into Pediatrics. She's involved in many campus opportunities such as being a Prospective Student Representative, admissions committee member, CU-UNITE member, and co-president of the Education and Teaching Interest Group. Prior to medical school, Emily got a BA in Biochemistry and Spanish from Lawrence University and a Masters in Public Health- Epidemiology from the University of Minnesota. In her free time, Emily enjoys dancing, baking, playing tennis and exploring her new Colorado home.

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