HealthApril 06, 2020

Getting the most out of specialty interest groups

By: Marilyn Chau, MD

From the moment you start medical school, specialty interest groups will be trying to recruit you as a member. Your reasons for seeking out these meetings will likely vary depending on your year in school. As an MS1, stopping by an interest group meeting for the sole purpose of grabbing a slice of free pizza is considered a normal activity (and a reliable source of nutrition). As an MS3, however, you should be legitimately interested in a group if you're deciding to attend a meeting.

As their name suggests, specialty interest groups are groups of medical students who are united by their desire to pursue a similar career. Some groups have more formal meeting structures than others, but often a meeting will simply be a gathering of similarly minded students (and possibly residents and attendings) around a free meal without any other set agenda. These meetings are informal ways to learn more about a particular medical specialty's work while also giving you important access to your community's resources and possible mentors. Here's how to use these groups to their full potential.

Join groups based on your interest level

First remember to balance the timing of your joining a group with your actual level of interest.

Are you curious about the specialty and just looking to find out more? Stopping by a few of the group's interest meetings during your first, second or even the beginning of your third year of medical school without forcing yourself to be overly involved right away can help you decide if a specialty is right for you.

If you're set on dedicating the rest of your life to a certain specialty, then join your school's interest group and make it a priority to attend meetings and events as much as possible.

Maximize your connections within your group

One of the greatest benefits of specialty interest groups is the connections you can make through them. Depending on the size of your medical school, you may or may not be close with your fellow classmates, but the relationships you form with older medical students could be even more important when it comes to landing a residency spot in your dream specialty.

Students in the years ahead of you will soon become residents at programs throughout the country, so they're your greatest source for learning about the true ins and outs of residency programs in your future field. They know about the pros and cons of these programs and can put in a good word for you when it comes to securing an interview or determining where you land within their program's rank list.

Discover specialty-related opportunities

In addition to providing a way to meet upperclassmen, residents and attendings who can provide you with personal connections to programs all over the country, these groups can also help you discover unique ways to get involved in your specialty prior to actually graduating from medical school. The leadership of the interest group should be aware of relevant volunteer opportunities in your community. For example, I was able to get involved in volunteering for local adaptive equipment races during medical school through my local PM&R interest group.

In addition, groups are an excellent way to find out about specialty-related research projects for which attendings or residents at your institution may be looking for a medical student assistant. An interest group will also keep you updated on any national conferences within the specialty that might be good for you to attend.

Demonstrate your dedication

Finally, being active in the group is a good way to demonstrate your dedication to a specialty. Being able to mention group leadership on your residency application shows that this specialty is really the one you want, not just one you may simply be dual-applying for.

Medical school interest groups can be beneficial in many ways when it comes to pursuing a residency spot in your dream specialty. However, it's important to realize that your specialty interests may change throughout your clinical rotation years. If you reach the end of your MS3 year and find yourself realizing that you actually want to pursue a different specialty, don't despair. Specialty interest groups provide you with ways to build your connections and CV throughout medical school, and you'll still get those benefits if you join a group "late" in your medical school career.

Marilyn Chau, MD
Lippincott® Medicine
Lippincott is a leading international medical publisher of professional health information for practitioners, faculty, residents, students, and healthcare institutions with a full suite of essential medical products, from books and journals to digital solutions.
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