How Do Clinical Electives during the Clerkship Year Influence Career Exploration? A Qualitative Study

Teach Learn Med. 2021 Apr 1;1-11. doi: 10.1080/10401334.2021.1891545. Online ahead of print.


Problem: Although many students begin medical school with some idea of their specialty interest, up to 80% of these students choose a different specialty by their final year. This pivot tends to happen in the clerkship year, when students are immersed in the clinical environment, gaining a practical understanding of the day-to-day work in different fields. Yet, in this year students have limited experiences with specialties. Clinical electives during the clerkship year may aid students in career development. The authors examined student career exploration through the lens of social cognitive career theory (SCCT). SCCT posits three variables that influence career development: personal goals, self-efficacy, and understanding outcome expectations. With this framework, the authors sought to understand how a program of clinical electives during the clerkship year influences students' perceptions of their career exploration. We aimed to: (1) describe an innovative clerkship elective program designed for career exploration, and (2) explore how this influenced students' career exploration using qualitative analysis. Intervention: Beginning in 2018, students at our institution were required to participate in three 2-week clinical electives during their clerkship year, called Clinical Immersive Experiences (CIExes). CIExes were categorized into four different types: apprenticeship, clinical skills building, integrative (multi-disciplinary), or subspecialty. Authors invited fourth year students to participate in interviews (January to March 2019) about how they selected electives and how these electives contributed to their career exploration. Interviews continued until reaching information sufficiency. Authors coded and analyzed transcripts using template analysis. Context: This curricular intervention took place in the context of large-scale curricular redesign. Students began clerkships partway into their second year of medical school. The family and community medicine clerkship, which was previously a 6-week core clerkship, was changed to a longitudinal format, thus freeing up 6 weeks for electives. Other core clerkships included anesthesia (2 weeks), medicine (8 weeks), neurology (4 weeks), obstetrics and gynecology (6 weeks), pediatrics (6 weeks), psychiatry (4 weeks), and surgery (8 weeks). Impact: From 15 student interviews, we identified three major themes. First, CIExes facilitated personalized career exploration. All students felt that at least one elective helped them solidify their decision about a specialty choice. Second, CIExes promoted focused learning and skills development that complemented core rotations. They noted the benefit of positive relationships with supervisors, particularly attendings, during these electives. Third, students highlighted how these electives fostered a positive learning environment and enhanced wellbeing. SCCT clarified how the CIEx program helped students advance their personal goals, self-efficacy, and outcome expectations during a pivotal time in medical school. Lessons Learned: We learned that from the student perspective, the inclusion of clinical electives in the clerkship year benefited students' career exploration by helping them develop and refine their career goals, increase self-efficacy, and test outcome expectations in a meaningful way as anticipated from SCCT. In addition, we found that CIExes created a positive learning environment that allowed deep relationships to develop in fields of interest and that supported a strong sense of wellbeing. Supplemental data for this article is available online at

Keywords: career development; career exploration; clerkships; social cognitive career theory; undergraduate medical education.