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What kind of doctor do I want to be when I grow up?

How to build your own career path by asking questions and making connections.

There are few educational tracks that will carry you more directly into a professional future than that of medicine. But while it might seem that a commitment to becoming a medical doctor limits the diversity of careers you might enjoy, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the medical profession offers all sorts of very different, very unique opportunities that will take you far beyond the clinic and hospital setting. Everything from working with a professional sports team, serving with a world health organization, or leading complementary health initiatives.

So, how can med students and practicing doctors find the career path that is right for them?

Let’s start with a coaching conversation involving Dr. Bose, who is a practicing family doctor in Toronto. She prides herself on the time she takes with each patient. Having served this community for five+ years, she has started to look for a parallel position at other clinics, and, so far, the process has been slow moving and exhausting. She consulted me, in my capacity as her life coach, to clarify how her ideal position might align with her values. This truncated conversation is a summary of several coaching sessions.


What is on your mind today?


I am looking for another family practice and I may have found something that fits.


Tell me more…


I’m looking for a medical practice where the billing method is not based on the number of patients I serve in a day. It’s important to develop trust between doctor and patients and that is why I spend time to ask questions and listen deeply. I found a locum opportunity that seems to meet these important criteria. There’s been a couple of meetings with the head doctor, office manager and the retiring doctor and many email exchanges. However, I have the sense that the retiring doctor is not ready to let go of her position. This comes out in her reluctance to define an end date (which is important for me to let my patients know of my last day at my current clinic), which is a blockage to moving forward.


What makes this so important right now?


Initially, the conversations were very positive but with each meeting, I find the situation more muddy and uncertain. I find it a waste of my time going back-and-forth without any commitment. I am also bothered by moving targets of pre-agreed on items. I guess I don’t want to continue the job conversation with this office anymore, I have an intuition that the retiring doctor is not ready to give up her practice.  


What would the ideal outcome look like?


In fact, this may not be the right time to commit to a clinic. I’ve only begun the search and realize that I may need to meet more clinics to compare the experiences and offers.  What I need now is to look into a few more locum opportunities to be aware of what’s available and my options.


How might you plan for this ideal outcome?


I’ve been talking to people in the family practice community for locums available. This is certainly a start and I am already learning about opportunities, which are often not posted but revealed through connections. My key learning so far is the need to network and to ask questions. For example, I want to know about the work environment, the people who make up the team I’ll be working closely with, and the values of the clinic.

In my previous coaching article, I highlighted the importance of asking yourself powerful questions. Dr. Bose and I brainstormed on potential questions she would first need to ask herself before meeting with prospective colleagues. Here are some of the questions that surfaced:

  • What do I want to gain from my new work?
  • How will I know when I make these gains?
  • Who in my network can tell me more about opportunities in the family medicine practice? 
  • What kind of team environment would I thrive in?

While someone like Dr. Bose must reflect inwardly, other doctors – like Dr. Sohani, a first-year resident in internal medicine – must ask a different set of questions to her community.

As an undergraduate student, Dr. Sohani was captivated by biostatistics and its applied value in doing research, especially in medicine. Between her graduate degrees, she worked with epidemiologists to design large-scale clinical studies. She became very interested in epidemiology and began her doctorate in this area. With encouragement from a mentor, and after carefully observing their clinical career, she started to seriously consider medicine as a career option.

Dr. Sohani proactively amassed experiences and opportunities to mold her future career. Here, she summarizes five ways that she purposefully designed her professional trajectory—a journey that she saw as a marathon, not a sprint.

  1. Mentors

Seek out mentors who can be honest about challenges and what is needed to succeed. Dr. Sohani has three mentors, each with unique experiences in different medical fields.

  1. Network

Be curious and ask questions. Other people are libraries of information, and they are more eager to share than you might think. This means engaging in conversations with people with divergent medical viewpoints. Here are some examples of questions.

  1. DIY

Dr. Sohani essentially created her own MD-PhD program, and found that this really enriched her experience and ultimately her academic network. Her path is guided by her curiosity and interests and puts no extra pressure on her.

  1. Involvement

Stay active and serve the community. Dr. Sohani contacted the dean of the MD-PhD program with hopes of integrating with its student activities. This included biweekly seminars on other students’ thesis topics and social activities They also had fantastic lectures on CaRMS and academic careers.

  1. Multipotentialite

Build interests and hobbies outside of the formal work sphere. These create new opportunities to unique outputs. Dr. Sohani pursued her love of writing by candidly laying out her medical journey and the thinking process.  

The most important thing to remember is that there is more than one way to explore your medical career. Questions, information, and making meaningful connections in the community are central to the way Dr. Bose and Dr. Sohani have approached their explorations—and, as a result, built their career paths. What will yours look like?