Successful Career Development for Physicians

Coach’s Corner
CSPE Newsletter

We have all gotten through medical school training and our residencies, and then started practicing medicine.  We are a group of highly educated, highly trained, and highly skilled professionals.  We’ve arrived, and should be feeling content, right?  Not always. 

As a psychiatrist treating physician colleagues, I see many of us who are feeling increasingly dissatisfied, confused, or experiencing a sense of burnout.  As a colleague stated to me, “I had climbed the ladder of success only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall.  Others are able to reflect that they entered medicine because they were advised it was ‘the right thing to do’ but were never sure that they chose it for the right reasons. Still other colleagues love medicine, but feel ready for a new challenge, such as becoming a physician executive.  There is a familiar pattern of career discontent, from an initial excitement, to a sense of satisfaction and comfort, to a state of restlessness, and then to “is this all there is?” and “What should I do next?”  Some colleagues are looking ahead to retirement and wanting to make proactive decisions.  For a variety of reasons, more and more physicians are reconsidering their medical career as they reach mid-life.  While we will always be doctors, we may not always choose to continue to practice clinical medicine.  Recently, some of my work has evolved to include coaching colleagues as they deal with this transition in their lives.  

There are several distinct phases of this transition process.

  1. Acknowledgment of current sense of dissatisfaction.  At this point, one recognizes they are no longer happy and fulfilled practicing medicine in the current situation.  It is helpful to understand and explore some of the possible contributing factors, and identify what is holding them back.
  2. Exploring Options.  During this stage, one is encouraged to become more self-aware, and examine what they enjoy and find frustrating about medicine.  They work to assess their skills, interests, abilities, values, priorities, and strengths; and learn what has meaning to them and how to stay anchored in who they are.  Time is spent on visualizing attributes of their ideal career.  They are encouraged to research options and locate resources they will need to move forward. Specific action plans are formulated and concrete steps are identified, and colleagues are guided and supported as they move through these steps.
  3. Thriving.  A new career option will require new skills and training.  For example, the well trained physician is not necessarily well prepared to assume the role of the healthcare executive, and may require further education.  We are generally trained to be reactive and to respond to a situation with an intervention.  As we transition from clinical practice to administrative duties, we require the ability for longer term planning, working with a team and drawing input from others.  Other skills to be gained may include life skills and attaining work-life balance, technology skills, content and information, relationship skills such as communication, teamwork, conflict resolution and negotiation, time management, business training, maintaining connections, self promotion and assertiveness training, and managing change processes.  Success in career development also positively influences other areas of our lives.

Preparing for the role of the physician executive involves three main aspects.

  1. Acquiring knowledge.  Physicians must learn facts, systems, structures and processes associated with business, management, information technology, and health care.  This can occur in traditional educational programs, self study, and attendance at professional meetings and workshops.
  2. Developing skills. The acquired knowledge and understanding ultimately needs to be practiced and applied in the health care work environment.  Mentoring, guidance, or personal counselling will be invaluable for the physician executive at the start of many phases of this process.
  3. Achieving mastery.  This ongoing process occurs as one becomes an increasingly skilled and respected leader, demonstrating their knowledge and skill to work effectively with others for whom they are responsible and advance together towards achieving the organization’s goals and vision.

Overall, the coaching process can empower physicians with the strategies and tools to facilitate a career development, and experience personal and professional renewal, to create a career with balance, meaning, values, and a vision for the future.  While it assists in ‘getting there’, it is also invaluable in ‘staying there’ and handling new challenges successfully, while maintaining a healthy life balance.

It is not always easy for physicians to reach out and ask for help.  We are used to making our own decisions.  We are often too busy to take time to reflect on the transition.  We expect quick answers and results, so find such a complex process that may involve learning and unlearning behaviour, habits, and perceptions frustrating at times.  While change is never easy, it also brings enormous opportunities to prepare us better for the future, continue to learn and be stimulated, and to continue to enjoy our work with a sense of purpose and meaning.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.