Since my first year in medical school I’ve taken a total of two years off from my medical career. Each year off was a leap into the dark, but those years became truly invaluable experiences. My third year off will be in 2022, and I’m excited to finally be in charge of my own time again.
I’ve noticed that my fellow medics have always been intrigued with my choices. I’ve also had a few people ask me how I pulled it off. On the precipice of my next adventure, I’ve decided to write about why I love having years off, and how I’ve done it.
The perks of sabbaticals
This is the easiest part to sell. I’m sure you already have a lengthy list of reasons why you would love time off from full-time work. For me, each year off benefited me in unique ways. Overall, having freedom of time allowed me to rest and recharge for the years ahead. Sometimes time off is essential for your physical and mental wellbeing. But when you work for a public hospital it can be hard to get leave, or even get a weekend off.
Medicine can feel like a rat race, and once you’re involved it can feel like a never ending dash to consultancy. I love taking years off because it breaks this up, it forces you to realise that this rush to specialise isn’t necessary. It’s a self-imposed idea that I hope this new generation of doctors can be aware of.
My first year off – 2016
I deferred my fourth year of medical school and decided that I needed to change things up. The main reason was personal. I was conflicted about my future and wasn’t sure if I had made the right choice in career. Every day of medical school was a mental struggle and I was quite down. So, at 21, I bought a one-way ticket to South America and spent half a year abroad.
The first half of my sabbatical was slightly less glamorous. I worked seven days a week in multiple jobs and saved.
Very few people were supportive of my choice. The majority believed I would never finish my degree, and a lot thought I would be killed, robbed or kidnapped*.
It was all worth it. The six months I spent in South America completely changed me. I learnt Spanish, met my husband, and connected with my heritage. On top of this, seeing the world really expands your horizons and opens your mind to other view points.
*P.S. nothing bad happened, and I graduated with first class honours.
My second year off – 2019
This year was slightly less thought out. I had my first job lined up as an intern in a hospital near my home town. This was meant to start in January, and I declined it in late August. There was no deferring, just declining and the process to re-apply again the next year. So I took the chance.
The last few months of the year I spent at university, and in part-time jobs scrambling to save up funds.
2019 proved to be one of the best years of my life. I spent it road tripping around South America with my husband and I’m so thankful that I made that choice.
After the pandemic hit, it showed me that tomorrow isn’t promised. If I did my internship and residency as planned, I would have been working years without seeing the world. The fact that I took a chance and visited places that I can no longer see currently is something I will always feel grateful for.
Again, when I declined my internship everyone was against it besides my partner and father. After the year was said and done the same nay-sayers now talk fondly of my 2019 trip. Sometimes change is scary to the people around you, and certain ideas can only be understood once they have fully materialised.
How did I do it?
So many people have told me, “I wish I could do what you’re doing” or “you’re so lucky”. Once someone even asked who was sponsoring me.
Let’s stop that train of thought now. It has nothing to do with luck, and if you really want I’m doing, you can do it. No, there is no sponsor, I have no inheritance. It’s all hard earned cash.
Top tips to make a year off work
- Change your mind set – hopping off the conveyor belt can make you rethink your surroundings and choices
- Let go – maybe you won’t be a consultant by the age of 30, is that such a bad thing?
- Don’t ask other people for approval – this can likely lead to self-doubt and disappointment
- WORK (and save) – working towards a goal is super motivating. Saving for your time off is worth it in the long run
- Defer, decline, resign – the key part of the sabbatical is organising the year off. Whether that be deferring university, declining your job offer, or resigning
- Trust the process – it can be scary and overwhelming to leave your classmates or colleagues to do something different. Trust that things will work out
- Focus on the present – worrying about the future isn’t going to change much. Focusing on the here and now will help with mindfulness and combat anxiety
- Research your specialty – certain specialties are more friendly towards sabbaticals. Do some reading first. Maybe add a small medical related side project to show professional development
- Know registration requirements – you have three years to do internship after graduating university. To keep medical registration easily you have to work for four weeks a year. Ask around and investigate
One thing to consider – specialty training and the practicalities of sabbaticals
I understand taking time off isn’t feasible for everyone. If you’re planning to be a plastic surgeon, this blog post probably isn’t for you. For me, I see it as invaluable life experience where you can learn about a wealth of other things. Unfortunately, not every specialty in medicine looks at time off as a good thing.
No specialty discriminates against people who take time off before, during or after medical school. This is a great time to plan a sabbatical, especially if you have your heart set on a more competitive specialty.
Specialties that are sabbatical friendly:
- Basic Physician Training (getting onto BPT is straight forward, after this it becomes tricky and competitive)
- Emergency Medicine
- General Practice
- Medical Administration
- Occupational and Environmental Medicine
- Palliative Medicine
- Public Health
- Rehabilitation Medicine
- Obstetrics and Gynaecology
Specialties that aren’t:
- Intensive Care Medicine
- Radiation Oncology
- Sport and Exercise Medicine
Depends on pathway
- Addiction Medicine
- Pain Medicine
- Sexual Health Medicine