Episode One – Physician training to management consulting
Are you googling alternative careers for doctors? The list given can be uninspiring at times, and it can be confusing to feel so lost. That’s why I’m starting this new project of speaking with doctors who have made that leap into alternative careers. Hearing about all the possibilities can be what you need most sometimes.
Episode one is with a junior doctor turned management consultant, proving that you can really transfer skills you have now to many professions.
This junior doctor prefers to remain anonymous, so let’s call them Jane for the purpose of this episode.
Jane was accepted into medical school as a teenager, straight from high school. Her decision to study medicine was not made by her choice alone. Her community felt that one of the only good career choices was medicine. Jane also went to a high school that produced doctors. It was the thing that everyone did, so her decision to apply for medical school was influenced by external pressures.
Q: Why did you choose medical school?
A: Funny thing is my first choice wasn’t medicine. I actually applied to be an engineer. It was just family pressure. My parents were like “hell no”. In my culture engineers are all male. My mum was like “that’s a male profession”. Since I was little everyone told me I would be a doctor. In school I was a smart kid, so everyone knew that’s what I was going to do. I remember the horror on my uncle’s face one day when I said I would maybe be a dentist. It’s so funny, I mean it’s a dentist, it isn’t a bad profession. I wasn’t set on medicine from the beginning, I thought it was a good option but not something I really wanted to do. I kind of convinced myself.
Q: So your decision to do medicine was largely based on family pressure?
A: It was family pressure and just my surroundings. I went to a school where everyone became a doctor. I also went into it thinking I was going to help people. In my day to day job as an intern it was less than 10% of the time where I thought I was actually helping someone. You can’t fix people’s problems. 90% of what we do we can’t help. What hurt me most was the growing isolation and loneliness where people didn’t want to go home and would rather stay in hospital. They didn’t have the means to make their own food and felt more cared for in hospital. That is a problem.
Jane actually enjoyed medical school. She found the content interesting and enjoyed the social life. Event planning for the medical society was something Jane particularly liked being a part of.
Q: Did you have doubts about your career in medical school?
A: I actually really enjoyed med school. I made great friends and loved the different rotations we had. Changing every 5 weeks to a new specialty was something I liked, as it never got boring. I treated it like a bucket list thing. I really wanted to see open heart surgery, so I did a cardiothoracic rotation. I loved the university life. I wouldn’t change my experience of going to medical school.
Q: When did you decide to do physician training?
A: In medical school my favourite subject was endocrinology. Well actually, it was the only specialty in medicine that I didn’t dislike. So I figured I would do physician training to become an endocrinologist.
Photo by Usman Yousaf from Unsplash
Transition into ‘real’ life as a doctor
Though medical school was a positive experience for Jane, she found transition into working as a doctor difficult.
Q: What made it hard for you to work as a doctor?
A: There were three things that I didn’t enjoy about being a doctor. One, there is no creative thinking as medical decision making is so algorithmic. Second, you can’t actually solve all people’s problems. They need to solve it themselves. There is definitely a degree of disillusionment. Third, we were often trying to help people that did not want help. It was also frustrating to deal with non-compliance. Like diabetic patients being prescribed more insulin who still eat the same sugary food. I feel like one doctor does not make the impact that I had imagined.
Q: Do you think you knew about these difficulties as a medical student?
A: I definitely had no idea in medical school. I think I thought I would be going into the hospital and making huge impacts on people’s lives, but a lot of the job had nothing to do with that.
Photo by Markus Winkler from Unplash
Q: What made you question your career in medicine?
A: I had doubts from the beginning, but for me the turning point was internship (first year after graduating). My final term was what really made me realise that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. I was on the renal team, and mainly dealing with dialysis patients and eating disorders. I remember having to call security to physically hold down a patient with anorexia nervosa to insert cannulas and nasogastric tubes. It made me step back and think, what am I doing? I felt like I wasn’t actually helping people or making a big enough impact in people’s lives.
There were also moments of toxic culture, such as male dominated departments that treated females poorly and radiology meetings where senior doctors publicly humiliated their juniors. It isn’t really teaching in such a public forum.
Q: What was your attitude towards specialisation when you began to question things?
A: I had laid out this clear path to become an endocrinologist, but I started to reconsider in my first year working as a doctor. I saw friends struggling in physician training, trying to pass exams and get jobs. There came a realisation that you actually need a masters and PhD to even be eligible to become an endocrinologist. I never had an interest in doing a PhD. Also, a cousin of mine is an oncologist and she has been struggling to find a job in her field. I didn’t realise how hard it was to find jobs in the public sector, and working purely privately wasn’t something that seemed attractive to me. The fact that specialties are becoming so specialised as well, I like having more general knowledge.
It made me think, “is that something that I want to do?”
Q: Do you feel like you and your loved ones had no idea about how specialisation worked in medical school?
A: For sure. I had no idea. I also feel like my family thought I could just graduate medical school and be an endocrinologist or GP. Which is definitely not the case. It takes years of study and countless exams to get to that position. I feel that when you start to question if you want to do a specialty, it isn’t worth doing it. Why would I kill myself working for 10 years if my goal is to work part time. I also thought, I like endocrinology, but if someone told me I couldn’t be one I wouldn’t be devastated.
Movement into management consulting
Q: What is management consulting?
A: Management consulting is so broad. I am involved in strategy consulting where we work on a wide variety of projects. In each project there is a problem, usually financial, that we need to brainstorm strategies to help resolve. For example, we are currently working with an aged care company that has a lot of nursing homes. They are trying to sell their aged care homes, and our job is to make a report that introduces potential buyers to the industry.
Q: How did make the change to management consulting?
A: It was in my final term as an intern, I was really unhappy. I had a friend who had quit being a doctor and began working as a management consultant so I messaged him about it. He was saying how management consulting values thinking outside the box, and that in medicine you can sometimes feel very replaceable. So I applied for a position in the company he worked at. I ended up getting a job almost immediately, which really surprised me as I had no experience in the area.
Q: Why do you think you were drawn to management consulting?
A: Because it is real life problem solving. Sometimes it can feel super fluffy, but there are real world problems that we can logically break into steps to solve. I would love to move into health consulting or government projects.
I also enjoy how there is no right answer in consulting. Everyone can bring different solutions to the table, which is a good thing. In medicine, I don’t think it is as valuable to think differently.
Photo from Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash
The hardest thing about leaving medicine
Q: What was the hardest thing for you in leaving medicine?
A: The hardest bit would be worrying what other people would perceive it as. I thought I wanted to do endocrinology since 2014, I was geared up to do it. The head of physician training new I wanted to do it. I felt like I had spent all this time working towards being an endocrinologist but then wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to do. There was also this charade where I had accepted the management consultant job, but didn’t want to burn my bridges.
I was then told by my coordinator that the worst thing to do was applying for something with no intention of taking it, if they find that out they would never offer you a job again.
Q: How was their reaction when you told them you were not going to apply for physician training?
A: So I was upfront with my coordinator and said I wasn’t going to apply. I initially said I was going to take the year off to travel and locum. Then towards the end of the year I said, actually this opportunity came up and I’m just going to try it out. Honestly the response I got wasn’t very positive.
My boss was very pessimistic. He said I was going to hate it, and that I was actually only going to like medicine. I felt like he was unnecessarily harsh. A close family friend who is a management consultant said the same thing, that I wasn’t going to like it.
Q: How did your family react?
A: They weren’t that happy. With my parents I feel a bit guilty. Everything they’ve done was to get me through school and get a good job. I don’t know if you read Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’, but it really resonates with me. She was working in a high paid legal job and told her mother one day that she didn’t enjoy it.
Her mum told her ‘you don’t need happiness, you get money and can then deal with happiness’. My parents come from the same perspective. They tell everyone I’m on a year off. I think if I wasn’t thinking of going back to do GP it would be a real problem.
All my cousins are really supportive though, and can see that we need to appreciate other skill sets in doctors.
Q: What has helped you in the career change?
A: This group of doctors I joined who believe in creative careers in medicine. This group really helped to make me not feel alone. I’ve now realised that I don’t need one career for the rest of my life. It makes me think I can be a management consultant for a few years, then maybe a GP. You can keep vaulting.
Photo by Tim Foster from Unsplash
How are you enjoying management consulting and what are your dreams for the future?
Q: So you completed internship and residency, and have been working as a management consultant for the past 18 months. Have you been enjoying the change?
A: My work treats me so differently. They financially cover all of my professional development. In medicine you’re expected to pay for all your masters, PhD, courses, exams, registration and college fees. However, to be honest consulting hours are long and hard. I know it isn’t my future. It can be more work than doctoring sometimes. So it isn’t something I’d want to do long term or full time.
Q: In an ideal world, what would you do?
A: If I had a dream job, it would be working with Doctors without Borders. I’ve always liked logistics. I’m good at organising so I would love to be the project officer that coordinates the field response. Ideally that would be really cool.