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Physicians: To Change Your Career, Change Your Perspective

changing careers

There are countless alternative careers for physicians—administration, consulting, business, research or academics to name a few. Any of these can exist as short term gigs, contracted options, employment, or entrepreneurship choices. But for many physicians considering a career change, the decision of whether to change is harder than the decision of what to change. Our context makes this decision hard. By the time we consider leaving, we have been entrenched in medical culture for years, have debt or dependents, and can’t gain the proper perspective.

Below are five ways to reimagine our careers and free us from the silo of medical culture when considering a career change.


Reframe “quitting”

“All great changes are preceded by chaos.” 

-Deepak Chopra


42% of physicians reported feelings of burnout (and that’s an improvement).

46% of physicians plan to change their career paths.

49% would not recommend medicine to their children.

Wanting to leave medicine isn’t an unusual experience, yet the guilt and anxiety we feel over wanting a change can be paralyzing. We’ve spent decades of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars to enter a career we and our families are dependent on—and now we’re thinking of quitting? Start thinking of the change as an evolution instead of quitting. You aren’t quitting medicine any more than you “quit” residency. You finished what you needed to and you’re moving on to the next step. The education and experience you’ve gathered so far is necessary for the next phase in your career; it is what qualifies you to grow.

The urge to leave is common, it’s normal. And by seeing our experience as something that supports our evolution, we can move forward without guilt.


Don’t expect a linear path

“Passion isn’t a path through the woods. It is the woods.” 

-Tom Robbins


The path to becoming a physician is challenging, but linear. You must do A to get to B to get to C… there’s only one way to be called “doctor”—you go to medical school.

Career change isn’t so direct. There is no prerequisite to starting a business, no degree that every consultant needs. Stories abound of physicians who stumbled into new careers with minimal experience or training aside from their interest or dedication.

The path to changing careers for many physicians is what Tom Peters would call “Whoever Tries the Most Stuff, Wins.” Applied to physician career change, this means that you might dabble, take side projects, try jobs that don’t fit, do some work for free, or just sort of flounder until you figure out what the best next step is. Waiting for the linear, clear-cut path is a great way to never make a change.


You probably don’t need more degrees

“If you have a college degree you can be absolutely sure of one thing… You have a college degree.” 

-Dr. Robert Anthony


We’re used to merit badges to prove our competency. You’re already a physician—you have over a decade of education and training. You have already demonstrated your competency. Certainly, there are times when you need to hone your skills in an area or you want a new skill and perhaps additional education is necessary. The reframe here is not hold yourself back because you don’t have specific training in something, thinking you need that MBA or PhD. Instead, focus on repackaging the skills and experiences you already have.

Patient care isn’t just clinical—it’s rapport, de-escalation, and communication. Resuscitation is leadership through critical situations. Serving on committees is leadership and goal alignment. QI projects are networking, publication, and success stories waiting to happen. Think of your experiences in these terms and translate them in a way that supports your next step.


Your network already exists: Access it

This is a weak spot for many physicians—we’re not good with networking. We tend to stay in our silos and speak to other physicians only as necessary. And even then, we focus on people in our specialty because we already speak their language. If you want to switch careers, you’ll need to come out of that shell—it is limiting you.

This means contacting strangers on physician social media sites, on career change sites and in person, at conferences. For many physicians, this feels disingenuous. We feel like we’re schmoozing for secondary gain. But reframe this using experiences from your past for this realization: You’ve already done this in your life—and successfully. You were pre-med. You shadowed—we all did. We made friends with people that we were going to need letters of recommendation from. We did side projects that we didn’t really have an interest in to make connections we needed. We volunteered. We checked the boxes—sometimes out of genuine interest, sometimes out of necessity. We wrote very colorful, embellished personal statements that likened us to Albert Schweitzer.

Schmoozing for a better future is not as foreign as we make it out to be—the only difference is that our goal as a pre-med was clear. Our goal with career change is often: Anything but this. You’ll find that when you develop clarity in your goal and seek help through physician colleagues, people will support you. You’re not alone in this and other physicians are very willing to help.


Guidance abounds

For the same reasons you consider a personal trainer, you might consider a career coach. You already know how to get rippling biceps and a powerful core but you don’t have them—why not? Because you didn’t do the exercises. You didn’t hold yourself accountable.

In the same way, you might have a sense of needing to change but aren’t doing it. Career coaches can make you accountable. They can help you identify goals and achieve them—in a methodical way that doesn’t disrupt your current life. They can help provide perspective and external motivation. Typically, they’ve made the transition themselves and, if nothing else, are an ear to understand what you’re going through. Working with a career transition coach is also a private experience. The angst of making a wrong move publicly or having to confide in a colleague doesn’t exist. They’re a great way to start the process without announcing your intention to the world.

A simple search for “Physician Career Coaches” will yield many pages of groups, consultants and blogs that can help with the transition.

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About David Beran, DO

I am a practicing emergency physician with academic and administrative roles. I work full time as a medical director but am exploring multiple non-clinical avenues for my medical and public health degrees. Aside from blogging on, I work in file review, consulting, research and expert witnessing.

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