When choosing a specialty, many prospective trainees will thoroughly consider the location and the institution. This is self evident. If you can’t fare without the big city perks and comforts, you’re probably better off in London than in the Orkney islands. If living close to your family and friends is extremely important for you, perhaps moving to another country to carry out specialist training might not be the best idea. On the other hand, it seems like a good idea to choose the most appropriate institution possible, which can cater for the greatest deal of learning and professional development opportunities and make the most of your skills and particular interests. For instance, if you’re looking into cutting edge research or a future academic role, it will be wise to choose a large teaching institution in a large city.
But perhaps more importantly than choosing the right location and institution is choosing the right trainer, and this is even more important in general practice, where the trainer trainee relationship is not as subject to potential “dillution” like it is in hospital medicine. It is easy to forget how important this is, but choosing the most suitable trainer can make the difference between having a miserable or a fabulous and memorable training scheme. The clinical and teaching skills of the prospective trainer are important factors to bear in mind, but the character and how well or how poorly your personality matches and adjusts to the personality of the trainer may even be more important. You may end up training in the best institution, with the best professionals in the country in its field, or even in the world, but still remain profoundly unhappy and unfulfilled. As a trainee, you are in a vulnerable position, and dependent on your trainer for almost anything, from the extent of your learning opportunities to the permission to go on annual leave on those desired dates.
So, before choosing your specialty, I would suggest that you do your homework. Go visit potential institutions you’re aiming for, and go talk to local trainees and trainers. The goal here is to get a “feel” of the local ecosystem, in order to gauge whether you think you will fit well in the team or not, or whether you like the trainer’s mindset. You might realise, for example, that the team is either too serious, too stressed, or too relaxed for your taste, or that the trainer is too authoritarian or doesn’t seem to be taking the mentoring job seriously enough.
If I had to choose between a great trainer or a great location and/or a great institution, I would not hesitate to choose the former, even if that meant going somewhere well away from my comfort zone.
So, don’t try to find the best or the perfect trainer, but instead, try finding the best or the perfect trainer for you. The rest (place, institution) is considerably less important.
Tiago Villanueva is a newly qualified general practitioner and former BMJ clegg scholar and editor, studentBMJ.