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Context

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.

Methods

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.

Results

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.

Conclusions

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.