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There Is More To a Career Than Being an Attending

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What path do doctors take to become an attending? Most follow a well-trodden path: pre-med in college, medical school, residency, and then potentially a fellowship or two. We doctors try not to stray too far from what we know works.

This does its job to get us into medical school and graduate, but in the years that follow, this same approach often fails us. A JAMA article found that the prevalence of depression in resident physicians was 29% — more than three times the rate of the general public. I was one of those physicians. And as it turns out, the thing that I always felt held me back in medicine — having too many interests — is what helped dig me out of the hole I was in. 

When I began as a pre-med student at the University of California, San Diego, I quickly veered off course. I was distracted and never had that singular focus on getting into medical school that others maintained. I even got a job at a pharmaceutical company, and it was fulfilling work trying to find a cure for cancer. I was no different in residency, “cheating” on the department I wanted to pursue a fellowship in by doing research for other departments. It was no surprise to my program director when I didn’t get into a fellowship program — twice.

Rejection is never easy, and my failures stung. It was with a sad smile that I saw off my classmates who’d matched to a fellowship. They had been focused, and I had felt that my time was wasted. Little did I know that these failures would later become the best thing that could have happened to me.

We go through training with the goal of becoming a practicing physician. Despite facing many challenges along the way, most of us graduate and finally become an attending. It’s pretty great; your mentors and teachers immediately treat you as a colleague. These are the physicians you had looked up to for years. And so you’ve finally arrived. You’ve climbed the proverbial mountain. You’ve given an Olympian effort and now have your gold medal. 

But as the years go on, there is angst. Suddenly, you find yourself asking, “Is this all there is?” and “How can I scratch that itch that’s always been there?” The part of you that enjoyed the chase is now discontent. You feel static. You are used to progressing, to change. Constantly striving toward a goal. Of course, there are chances at advancement, but they are few and far between. You feel trapped. 

Many of us have spent the majority of our lives advancing in medicine, so what do we do now?

For me, when my work as an attending started to feel manageable, I had time to reflect between seeing patients. I started asking around, first in person and then online, about how doctors can diversify their careers. Online social networks made it even easier to connect. I would ask: What else do doctors do? 

Doctors were out there with real estate empires, sprawling online businesses, and more. The doctors I spoke to were like me, still working full time. They did not pursue these other interests as hobbies, but rather had thriving businesses both inside and outside of medicine.

I felt like an intern again: the thrill, the wonder still alive. Yet this time, the people I interacted with were colleagues. Having shared the journey of becoming a doctor bonded us. We immediately understood each other’s struggles and accomplishments. There was an outpouring of support from whoever I had approached. 

Diversifying myself outside of medicine had an unintended consequence: It helped me build on the peripheral skills that make the best doctors great. Those skills — such as being able to negotiate, people management, and communication — were only briefly touched on in medical school.

You might be thinking, “This sounds great, but where do I start?” Not all of us are fortunate enough to have doctors close to us who are doing something outside of medicine. Throughout our careers, we have been pitted against each other. Again, this worked well earlier in our path, but not anymore. The reality is there are countless doctors out there willing to help each other — perhaps even some on the very same floor as you. The best way to find them is to start talking to them about what you are interested in.

One of the ways I’ve diversified in the last few years is with real estate. And even though I’m not an expert, fellow hospital doctors often come to me for real estate advice simply because they know I’ll understand what they’re going through. Thus, the cycle continued, I sought out doctors interested in real estate, and now am able to help others that come to me.

There are plenty of other communities out there. Join one, look around, see what other people are doing. I promise you’ll find inspiration and will take the leap before you know it.

What interests have inspired you beyond your career in medicine? Share your response in the comment section.

Dr. Pranay Parikh, MD, is a serial entrepreneur helping doctors escape burnout, diversify their careers, and develop streams of passive income via his website. He lives with his wife and newborn in Los Angeles, California.

Image by GoodStudio / Shutterstock

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