Sixteen years ago, I lost my way. I had achieved my goal of becoming a doctor, but I had realized that traditional patient care wasn’t the right career path for me. It was 2004, and resources that exist today weren’t widely available then. I didn’t know what I was going to do or even what I wanted to do.
In medical school, SPAL (standardized performance assessment lab), where we simulate an H&P and go through the motions to practice a doctor-patient interaction, was my least favorite class. I didn’t know why at the time and I didn’t really think about it until rotations my third and fourth year. While academically, things were great, I was horrified to realize I didn’t enjoy most patient care. That scared me. It caused my classmates to question me. What was wrong with me?
Turns out, there was nothing wrong with me, but it took me many years (and two more unnecessary degrees!) to stop feeling like a failure. What helped me? Meeting and interacting with other physicians who had also decided to work in a nonclinical or nontraditional job.
Reasons to pursue nonclinical work
Physicians want to work in a nonclinical or nontraditional career for a number of reasons. Burnout can motivate a doctor to want to transition to another career. Boredom in a chosen specialty is another reason doctors may start looking at their options. Medicine may have been the wrong choice from the start for a certain subset of doctors.
Through my journey, I learned that there are lots of nonclinical options for doctors. My first nonclinical job was working for a medical device company as a clinical liaison. That job set me up for success working in health administration, in the C-suite of the same academic medical center where I did my internship.
Opportunities in wellness and prevention followed, and I served as director of wellness and medical management for a brokerage firm. That led to many other opportunities, and I went on to build three different companies and serve as an entrepreneur-in-residence and faculty member for a university.
Other doctors work for research organizations doing medical monitoring or review cases for insurance companies. Some doctors start businesses or get involved in other health care startups or do things completely out of the medical field in finance, real estate, consulting or … standup comedy!
A nonclinical community
Connecting with other physicians pursuing nonclinical paths really helped me map out what I wanted, identify opportunities, and understand that I wasn’t alone. Eager to help other physicians enjoy that same camaraderie, I founded Physicians Helping Physicians, a community of like-minded physicians who coach and advise each other about nonclinical and nontraditional career opportunities, in 2008.
Every year we bring our community together for a conference to support each other. The conference is called Physicians Helping Physicians because that’s our mission.
Some of the doctors in our community realized traditional patient care wasn’t for them early in their careers. Others came to the conclusion after practicing for five, 10 or even 20 years. Some suffered a health issue or needed more time at home with small children or aging parents. Others had a hard time getting out of bed each day because they didn’t look forward to their work anymore. Many of these doctors were clinically depressed. Some were suicidal. These doctors found hope in a nonclinical or nontraditional career.
If you’re considering a nonclinical career, I recommend that you start by taking the following three steps:
1. Create a resume. CVs are traditionally the norm in the scientific and medical fields, but resumes are becoming more common because they quickly describe a person’s experience and skills. Knowing how to translate a CV to a resume can help you communicate your value to employers. I didn’t receive training on creating a CV or resume in medical school, and my first resume was a mess of a document. If you want to create a resume, make sure you list your professional experience first, use bullet points to highlight how you bring value to your job (your results) and keep it to one or two pages.
2. Put together your one- to three-year personal development plan and an elevator pitch. To find the right job, knowing where you want to be a few years down the road is essential. Do you want to work in a rural environment? Why? Are you more interested in working internationally? Do you hope to manage a lab or a group of residents? How much of your time is spent teaching?
These are all important questions to know the answers to when you get to the point of evaluating job opportunities. Asking yourself questions like these will also help you create your 30-second elevator pitch to provide context about your skills and value to those you meet and interview with for jobs.
3. Learn how to find jobs and effectively network. Knowing what your options are can help you narrow your focus and make your search more effective. You can learn more about various options by reading books like Careers Beyond Clinical Medicine by Heidi Moawad, MD, or listening to podcasts about physicians who have transitioned to a nonclinical career (you can find some that I created here).
Finding specific jobs and getting interviews often involves the help of others. Networking is key to finding those people who can and are willing to help you. During a pandemic, networking through LinkedIn and scheduling phone calls with people works well.
It takes purposeful action steps to figure out what you want to do and then do it. These steps will help you get started. The good news is that physicians who have transitioned to nonclinical careers are likely to remember their own transitions and be willing to help you. You have so much to offer, so don’t lose confidence in yourself. You are still a doctor and you always will be.