BACKGROUND: The primary influence on medical students' career choice is their third-year clerkship. However, orthopaedics is not a required rotation in the curriculum of most medical schools. Our goals were to identify factors that motivate students to choose an orthopaedic career and to compare these with the factors that influence students to choose nonorthopaedic disciplines. METHODS: Fourth-year medical students and orthopaedic residents at the postgraduate year (PGY)-1 level at eight orthopaedic training programs in the United States were surveyed to determine the reasons that they chose orthopaedics instead of other medical or surgical fields. RESULTS: Of the 622 individuals who responded to our survey, 125 were entering orthopaedics and 497 were not. Although career choice in both groups was most heavily influenced by third and fourth-year clinical rotations and faculty contacts, orthopaedics-bound respondents were more likely than non-orthopaedics-bound respondents to be strongly influenced by experiences and people prior to medical school. Orthopaedics-bound respondents were less likely to report a faculty member as the most important person influencing career choice. Fifty-one percent (sixty-three) of 124 students who selected orthopaedics had already decided to pursue this field prior to their third-year rotation. Patient care was chosen by 71% (347) of 490 non-orthopaedics-bound respondents and 75% (ninety-four) of 125 orthopaedics-bound respondents as the most important factor for pursuing a particular field. Income was not selected as the deciding factor by respondents in either group. CONCLUSIONS: Although faculty contacts and third-year clinical rotations played an important role in student selection of specialty training, they were less influential for those choosing an orthopaedic career than for those choosing other disciplines. Many students choosing orthopaedics made this decision prior to medical school. We believe that increased exposure to positive clinical role models and experiences during medical school would enhance medical students' options for choosing orthopaedic surgery as a career. Anticipated income did not play a deciding role in career selection.