Reflections: an inquiry into medical students’ professional identity formation


  • Anne Wong,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Anesthesia, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
    • Correspondence: Dr Anne Wong, Department of Anesthesia, McMaster University, 1280 Main St. W., HSC Rm. 2V9, Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4K1, Canada. Tel: 00 1 905 521 2100 ext. 75212; E-mail:

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  • Karen Trollope-Kumar

    1. Department of Family Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
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Professional identity formation plays a crucial role in the transition from medical student to doctor. At McMaster University, medical students maintain a portfolio of narrative reflections of their experiences, which provides for a rich source of data into their professional development. The purpose of this study was to understand the major influences on medical students’ professional identity formation.


Sixty-five medical students (46 women; 19 men) from a class of 194 consented to the study of their portfolios. In total, 604 reflections were analysed and coded using thematic narrative analysis. The codes were merged under subthemes and themes. Common or recurrent themes were identified in order to develop a descriptive framework of professional identity formation. Reflections were then analysed longitudinally within and across individual portfolios to examine the professional identity formation over time with respect to these themes.


Five major themes were associated with professional identity formation in medical students: prior experiences, role models, patient encounters, curriculum (formal and hidden) and societal expectations. Our longitudinal analysis shows how these themes interact and shape pivotal moments, as well as the iterative nature of professional identity from the multiple ways in which individuals construct meaning from interactions with their environments.


Our study provides a window on the dynamic, discursive and constructed nature of professional identity formation. The five key themes associated with professional identity formation provide strategic opportunities to enable positive development. This study also illustrates the power of reflective writing for students and tutors in the professional identity formation process.