Do what you love, love what you do

In Mentorship by Brent Thoma18 Comments

Junior medical students get a lot of information from senior medical students. They have just gone through the system so it makes sense that these students would seek out their advice on everything from how to study to how to prepare for residency match. Generally, that advice is good. However, there is one statement that drives me crazy no matter what it is about. It goes something like this:

You have to do THIS to get a good residency.

The implication that there is some magical activity that, if not completed, will doom you to being “unmatched” is wrong to the point of harm. “THIS” is generally replaced with things like “research,” but I have heard other variations including “attending conferences,” “getting the best marks,” “having connections” or “playing the game.” They are all variations on the same theme that are often consistent with exactly what that senior medical student did to prepare for their match. It may have worked for them, but it’s probably not right for you.

In general, I would recommend disregarding absolute advice from anyone (including me!). Just like on your multiple choice exams, answers with “always” and “never” in them are rarely correct because there are few absolutes in medicine or in life. Remember, only a Sith deals in absolutes. Err…

Sith Absolutes

Back to the rant. So what should you do to make yourself a great candidate for the match?

Do what you love

This advice was given to me by a very wise mentor many years ago, and I do my best to remember it – especially when I am overwhelmed. I find it elegant and profound in its simplicity. I’m sure some of the medical students reading this right now are giving their computer screens the skeptical face:

Skeptical baby

I mean really, what does “Do what you love” even mean!? Please, hear me out.

We are good at things we love. We can do them for hours on end and be energized rather than tired. They lead us to opportunities that we also end up loving. When we do things we love we are happier, more pleasant, and more interesting people. People that we want in our residency programs.

And so, doing what you love also make you an awesome candidate in the match. When I meet an applicant, their unique passions are the things that I remember. I think the trick for CaRMS is not in doing something in particular, but in finding a way to incorporate doing the other things we love into medicine. While I will admit that this may not always be possible, there’s a way to do it more often than we think. My next post will focus on a bunch of examples. To offer one from my own life:

I love emergency medicine, teaching, and writing. While I repressed my passion for writing for awhile because I was “too busy,” it came back like a hurricane when I found a way to combine it with emergency medicine and teaching by starting this blog. I write these posts at all hours of the day and night. I write them after long days at work. I post so much because doing so gives me energy rather than exhausting me. This blog has led me to meet people from around the world that are similarly passionate and, I am sure, they will lead to more exciting opportunities.

An anecdote from a medical student:

I’ve been competing in powerlifting competitions across Canada for a few years. It’s one of my passions, keeps me healthy, and gives me a chance to unwind from school. When I was applying to medical school, I entered a local competition and coincidentally met a physician who also competed. As luck would have it, I was accepted that year to the school that she was affiliated with. I kept in contact with her, and she was able to give me some guidance and early specialty advice, for which I will be forever grateful. Although keeping up with powerlifting in medical school was difficult, it gave me the opportunity to be involved in an interesting research project that I would never have been a part of otherwise. Like Dr. Thoma, doing the things that I am passionate about helped me – and I think it will help you too.

-Kelly Lien


“Do what you love” is pretty cryptic and philosophical as far as advice for medical school goes. Hopefully, medicine itself is something that you end up loving. However, I think that is more likely to happen if you’re able to combine medicine with your other passions. This picture from summarizes this entire post pretty nicely:

This post was peer reviewed by Eve Purdy and Danica Kindrachuk prior to its initial publication on April 12th, 2013. It was revised and reposted by Kelly Lien on July 29, 2017. For more CaRMS advice, check out the complete CaRMS Guide. The next post in the CaRMS Guide series is Choose your own Adventure.

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Brent Thoma
+ Brent Thoma is a medical educator, blogging geek, and emergency physician who works at the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine. He founded BoringEM and is a senior editor / tech support / jack-of-all trades at CanadiEM.
Brent Thoma
- 23 hours ago
Brent Thoma
Brent Thoma

Latest posts by Brent Thoma (see all)

  • Ginevra

    Thank-you for this!
    When I tell people that I want to do O&G, they almost always reply with: “Why would you want to do that to yourself? Why would you want to work that hard?” I always reply by saying that I love it and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. My interests, my experience, and my recent electives have all proven that loving what you do makes the world of medicine so much more enjoyable!

    • Ginevra,
      Thanks for the comment!
      I understand what you mean. I could never do O&G, but you’re not me. As you mention, a great refrain is “Why wouldn’t I do what I love?”
      I’m glad to hear you’ve found your passion. Good luck!

  • Great post Brent. I would add that you should be careful about associating a great experience with the residents/staff on a rotation with the specialty itself. I had some great team medicine experiences but ultimately was glad I didn’t choose internal medicine.

    Also, there were times where the staff or situation I was in on anesthesia were frustrating, but despite that I still liked doing it and the bread&butter work wasn’t tedious. I had done 4 weeks in emerg as well, and got a good idea of the pros/cons.

    For super-competitive specialties, you really have to do all the right things. But in the end, you might find out that it wasn’t all you chalked it up to be.

    Finally, we tend to derive more enjoyment from doing things that we’re good at, and this reinforces doing something that we enjoy.

    Looking forward to part 2.

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  • Rhys

    Thanks for the post!

    I’m in 3rd year of med school and am currently in the situation where every specialty I’ve been through I’ve enjoyed. I haven’t fallen in love with anything. I also don’t dislike anything that I’ve done. If I had to do any of those specialties I would probably really enjoy doing it.

    I haven’t done a placement in EM yet, and I’m looking forward to this because I am hoping that because I generally enjoy most aspects of medicine, EM will be a bit of everything and I will just love that part of EM.

    Do you have any advice as to my situation?


    • Hey Rhys,

      Thanks for the comment!

      That’s an interesting but scary place to be. There are almost too many options! Fortunately, it sounds like you’ll be happy doing whatever you end up doing. Unfortunately, at some point you’ll have to focus things to work at a residency program that makes you happy.

      Personally, I liked EM from the beginning but didn’t really commit until I had tried most other things and realized that I was always happiest in other rotations when I went to see a consult in emergency.

      Some thoughts:
      -If you’re at a place where you liked but were not super passionate about some of the ultra-competitive specialties, I would do yourself a favor and drop them from consideration. As I’m sure you’re aware, people have been prepping to match to them from almost the beginning of medical school and I don’t think it’s a good idea to throw yourself into that battle if you’re not extremely passionate about the area.
      -One of the big distinctions is whether you want an OR life or not. If you can decide on that you’d be able to rule out a lot of specialties on one side or the other.
      -If you like “everything” I think EM and family medicine are both good specialties. In both you get to see a bit of everything (depending where you practice). EM has more procedures to do. Both allow you to branch out into other areas (ie for EM there is toxicology, trauma, education, administration, prehospital medicine, ultrasound, etc etc). FM and EM doctors can have some super diverse careers. That might help to keep you satisfied as your interests continue to develop.

      I hope that, along with the post, is somewhat helpful.


  • Ahmad Hamdan

    Hi Brent,

    Thank you so much for this amazing post! I really needed this. I am having perhaps the hardest time yet in medical school because I feel very rushed and pushed into making a premature decision about the rest of my life. This system borders on inhumane. But sadly thats the way it is. I used to be interested in one of the ultra-competitive specialties and built my entire CV around it but now, after an unpleasant experience on my core rotation, I am so confused whether I have truly fallen out of love with the specialty or am I just associating the entire specialty with that transient unpleasant experience. And it also so happens that I feel I fell in love with another one of the ultra competitive specialties but the strategist in me tries to convince me I am severely confused in regards to my feelings and I can’t possibly make a decision about the rest of my life based on only one week rotation and that its too late to pursue another ROAD specialty this late in the game. It tells me to go back into my shell and stick with the original plan. And to make things worse, my sixth sense tells me to just go for family medicine and avoid all the egoes, longer residency and worsening job market for some specialties. I am severely confused! Hope I can be helped (I refuse to visit my school career counsellor coz I know that would lead me anywhere)

  • areyouseriousgottabeajoke

    I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about. I mean he’s ER in Saskatchewan, probably the most competitive residency of them all…

    • Well, I would say that Dr. Thoma is NOT joking at all. The RC Emergency Medicine program has been in the top 3 most competitive programs for the past 4 years (at the time of writing this), and the expansion of the program to U of Saskatchewan was testament to that fact. So, I’m not sure what you’re necessarily talking about here. Happy to discuss further if you’re confused by the competitiveness of various Specialty Programs…

      • areyouseriousgottabeajoke

        hmm… carms mentions ophthalmology, dermatology, and plastics as most competitive, so yeah maybe i am confused, clarify if you can

        • I guess I don’t have this past years’ stats. Thanks for the amendment.

        • Brent Thoma


          Perhaps I’m reading in too much to your initial comment, but I get the impression that you’re anonymously suggesting that my opinion is not credible because I matched to an uncompetitive program in an undesirable province. While many would consider that rude, we elected to post your comment and respond to it in the spirit of engagement that we have at BoringEM. I doubt you’re the first medical student that has had that thought.

          Regarding the competitiveness of residency programs, Teresa is referring to this:

          That link should take you to a comparison of specialty competitiveness calculated by dividing the number of 1st choice applicants to a specialty by the number of positions available in that specialty. EM was number 3 in 2014 at 1.42 applicants/position which was insignificantly higher than opthalmology (1.40).

          Beyond that factual statement, I will not endeavor to change your assessment of my competence to provide this advice. As always, I recommend that you get advice from multiple sources and follow the path that makes the most sense to you. Regardless of whether or not that path is the one I suggest, please keep the comments that you make on this blog cordial.

          Brent Thoma

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