Context  Medical education is as much about the development of a professional identity as it is about knowledge learning. Professional identities are contested and accepted through the synergistic internal–external process of identification that is constituted in and through language and artefacts within specific institutional sites. The ways in which medical students develop their professional identity and subsequently conceptualise their multiple identities has important implications for their own well-being, as well as for the relationships they form with fellow workers and patients.

Objectives  This paper aims to provide an overview of some current thinking about identity and identification with the aim of highlighting some of the core underlying processes that have relevance for medical educationists and researchers. These processes include aspects that occur within embodied individuals (e.g. the development of multiple identities and how these are conceptualised), processes specifically to do with interactional aspects of identity (e.g. how identities are constructed and co-constructed through talk) and institutional processes of identity (e.g. the influence of patterns of behaviour within specific hierarchical settings).

Implications  Developing a systematic understanding into the processes through which medical students develop their identities will facilitate the development of educational strategies, placing medical students’ identification at the core of medical education.

Conclusions  Understanding the process through which we develop our identities has profound implications for medical education and entails that we adopt and develop new methods of collecting and analysing data. Embracing this challenge will provide better insights into how we might develop students’ learning experiences, facilitating their development of a doctor identity that is more in line with desired policy requirements.

Medical Education 2010: 44: 40–49