“It is unlikely that your actual path through life will match the exact journey you had in mind when you set out. It makes no sense to restrict your satisfaction to one scenario when there are many paths to success.” – Atomic Habits
This post may sound a bit tone-deaf in our current climate, as it explores physicians leaving clinical medicine. However, this blog was written last fall and is only now seeing publication as I have a one week break in my regular (fiction) writing schedule. And judging by the eye-popping number of “I quit” posts from doctors that I’ve seen recently in my Facebook feed—as well as reading a thought-provoking blog by a pharmacist who’s taking a COVID Sabbatical—I decided to go ahead and publish this post.
Years ago, the awesome triathlon and endurance coach Dr. Suzanne Atkinson—who was a major inspiration for me starting a very private blog that I kept throughout residency—told me about this book. It went into the Uhaul boxes while we moved to Medellin, Colombia last summer, but I finally read it last fall.
Physicians in Transition is a fascinating collection of 25 interviews with doctors who’ve left clinical medicine. It gave me a lot to ponder as I’m slowly navigating my way through a DIY MFA (Master of Fine Arts—a fancy way of saying “writing degree.” Only this time, I’m skipping getting an actual diploma because, after 25 and a half years of formal education, I don’t want the expense associated with another diploma).
Here’s what I learned from reading Physicians in Transition: Doctors Who Successfully Reinvented Themselves:
1) The biggest hurdle many physicians had to overcome to grow to their next stage in life was realizing they had to leave something behind—close a chapter to start a new one. To live intentionally, one must align their life to be true to their present passions, not their past ones.
Go ahead, you’re allowed to be happy. Who are you? What are your skills? What do you want to do?
2) If you go into business, you have to shift mental gears. You can’t delegate business stuff to an office manager anymore (but you can to a virtual assistant). There’ll be new skills you’ll have to learn if you become an entrepreneur. (Join Dr. Peter Kim’s group Leverage and Growth Summit or the private Facebook Group of Dr. Nisha Mehta’s: Physician Side Gigs for stuff like that)
3) If you’re want to join the pharmaceutical industry, look before you jump. There have been many changes, and some physicians interviewed cautioned against depending on that type of job for 100% of your income.
4) A lot of physicians left and became life coaches. And I see that trend now when I look around at my peers living unconventional lives. If you plan to make a big move like this, get a coach. One doc talked about how he met with a coach every week or two for two years before leaving medicine. Speaking from personal experience, hiring a running coach was one of the best investments I ever made in myself (remember: focus on just One Thing).
DH points out that he knows multiple physicians who spent a lot of money on coaches (yes, they are pricey), but because of that, they were able to stay in medicine for years longer than they would have otherwise. So for those considering walking away completely, take a second look at hiring a coach first.
5) The toughest obstacle for a lot of physicians was giving up the security of the paychecks associated with clinical medicine. They said that working non-clinically didn’t earn as much, but it still brought in a decent living. (Want to know how to live a full life on a lower paycheck? Check out the book I wrote for you: Spending Habits for Professionals Who Want to Fire: How to save money while working full time so you can gain financial freedom.
6) Sunk Cost Fallacy exists. If you’re struggling with the decision to leave clinical medicine, hang out with others who’re living life outside the box . And go join the Financial Literacy Project on Facebook, the instigator of that project is an awesome guy.
7) If they left clinical medicine, Doctors had to grow tremendously. One of my fellow physician friends once said that doctors have the personality of doorknobs.
I told him I’d been thinking, exploring, and practicing self-care. This past year, I’ve spent more money on self-improvement than I have my entire life. I only wish I’d done it sooner.
8) And speaking of self-improvement: Doctors could really use frequent visits to therapists. One interview in the book made me cringe. The poor guy was super bitter about his life. I couldn’t help but wonder if that particular physician would have left clinical medicine if he’d put in the time and money effort needed to sit on a therapist’s couch and talk about his feelings.
Therapists have therapists. So its totally okay for doctors to see them too. I’m giving you full permission to take care of yourselves, especially during these trying times, when medical personnel are getting PTSD from working in the medical field during COVID.
9) Look through your medical journal’s Classified ads. That’s how many physicians found jobs with insurance companies.
10) It takes a while to get used to the drop in stress. One doc said it took half a year to get used to not living with this constantly high level of stress. And they realized they could have a personal life and a high quality of life at that. (That made me a bit sad to read that part. Life is too short to live for so long with that kind of poor quality of life)
11) You can still learn something new every day, even if you leave clinical medicine (ask me how I know). 😉
12) One doctor transitioned to being a full-time administrator, and they realized they didn’t miss clinical medicine because what they had loved about their patients was the relationships. The relationships with their administrative team replaced that way of being fulfilled by their job.
13) Multiple interviewees said the same thing: If you want to leave medicine, you need to network. Laura Vanderkam talked about networking towards the end of her book Off The Clock (this book was recommended to me by a woman who home schools four boys(!), while managing to write three hours a day (!!) without getting up at 4 am. You know I read that book, especially after “homeschooling” our kids this past Spring.).
There’s a wide array of networking books available out there, so I recommend reading at least one now if you’re even vaguely thinking of a change in career path. I try to reach out to two people I know every week to say hi. It doesn’t always happen, and it falls short of the five contacts Laura Vanderkam recommended in her book. But I’ve noticed other people wiser than me (and the best story teller ever) do it, so it’s a communication tool I’m trying to adopt as well.
14) Your identity doesn’t change if you leave medicine. I attended SEAK’s writing conference back in 2009 when the incredible doctor-writers Tess Gerritsen and Michael Palmer(RIP) taught. Tess said the same thing: being a doctor isn’t something you shed when you leave medicine—it’s always a part of you.
15) If you want to be a medical writer, look at the American Medical Writers Association. They run courses for basic stuff like grammar and punctuation, plus they also grant a certification.
If you want to be a fiction writer, poke around Facebook and join one of the Physician writers groups. I’ve heard great things about Grub Street, but haven’t personally taken any of their classes. I swear by workshops, like the incredible Writers in Paradise of Dennis Lehane and Laura Lippman fame. And Free Expressions (Of literary agent Don Maass fame) has a terrific summer lecture series going on with some phenomenal teachers (Christopher Vogler of The Writer’s Journey anyone?!)
(Since this blog was edited, but before it was published, Physician on Fire published a guest blog by Dr. Sylvie Stacy who has written a similar book, but with 50 interviews. I’d recommend starting with her book if you’re looking for a more contemporary/up-to-date book: 50 Non-clinical Careers for Physicians.)
In summary, I like what one doc said so well: fear shouldn’t be the decision-maker for your life.
“Not Only is pivoting not failure, but more often it is the experience we gain from the thing we are pivoting from that allows us to pivot one step closer to our calling” – Jordan Raynor’s Master of One
Just make sure you’re moving towards something, instead of running from something.
You got this.