Medicine is undoubtedly a tough career and unfortunately stress, depression, burnout, and exhaustion are all too common amongst doctors. When compared to both the general population and other similar professional groups, it is clear that doctors have much higher rates of mental illness – although the true figures are likely to be under-reported as this is something the medical profession continues to struggle to talk about.
Given the burdens and responsibilities that doctors are facing every day, the idea of taking a break from it all, is becoming a far more appealing option to many doctors.
The medical career treadmill does not always seem to allow for people to get off and take a breather.
It is somewhat ingrained in medical culture that you have to move up the career ladder as quickly as possible. Trainees may often feel as though they are stuck in a never-ending rat race with seemingly endless cycles of sign-offs to complete and exams to sit. There is a distinct lack of information about how to pause this process. Plus there is the fear that ‘slowing down’ may harm your future career prospects.
What is a medical career break?
This can be anything which involves some time either out of medicine or a change to the normal day job. Some people take the opportunity to take on a challenge that is allied to medicine, such as being the doctor on an expedition to Outer Mongolia, or doing something completely different such as playing cricket in Australia for a year, or setting up their own business or learning to code. One of the best things about medicine is the opportunities that it brings you. There are so many potential pathways to explore that it is impossible to list them all. The major theme that seems to encompass most career breaks is the desire to do something different or exciting; something that you never had the chance to do before and the realisation that you don’t have to be tied to the wards or the consulting room forever.
We catch up with 3 doctors: Indra Joshi – NHS Digital Health and AI Clinical Lead, Tiffany Munroe-Gray – Clinical Research Fellow in ENT at Imperial, and Nesem Al-Ali – Specialty Doctor in Haematology, who have all taken different approaches to stepping back from medical training pathways and we asked them to share their experiences.
Tell us about your medical career break – why did you do it and what did you get up to?
Dr. Nesem Al-Ali
Following 3 years of gruelling CMT training, I chose to give registrar applications a miss. Instead, I embarked on a year as a postgraduate Medical Education Fellow. Another year later and I was delving into the world of Haematology as a staff grade. This career change was unplanned and was more a result of serendipity.
Dr. Indra Joshi
10 years ago, I took a year out after F2 to spend time abroad and do research in Health Informatics. I was very interested in the field; it felt like a natural break and also I wanted the chance to live abroad and the opportunity presented itself.
I received support from the deanery and my peers and I have taken in total 4 career breaks, although 2 were for having children.
Dr. Tiffany Munroe-Gray
Having gone straight from medical school to Foundation training to Core Surgical Training (CST), I decided to press pause for 6 months.
I had reached a level of fatigue common amongst colleagues at the end of CST and very much felt I had spent all of my twenties still at school, “hoop jumping”.
Friends in other careers had authority; in charge of projects with other people to help them with their daily administrative tasks. In contrast, I was still checking my every move with a senior, was acutely aware of my lack of autonomy and was not only doing my menial tasks, but everyone else’s. On reflection, all of this pent-up irritation and sense of stasis was likely exacerbated by the junior doctor contract crisis – but I honestly think I would have felt this way anyway.
So, I took a leap off the factory conveyor belt and decided to do a trial run of my future. I did an extended locum post as a registrar in my chosen sub-specialty at a hospital I’d never worked in before, so they had no expectations of my previous experience. I was very open with the consultants and management, explaining the level of support I would need in the context of my experience. They expressed their gratitude for my honesty and clearly outlined what they expected of me.
A few weeks in I realised I felt like a doctor again and not just a cog. I started to get my passion back.
Something about the way my juniors, colleagues and seniors saw me in this new context as a “registrar” changed the way I saw myself. I was happier seeing patients and managing them. I had a greater understanding of my impact on the patient journey. Administrative work felt like less of a chore because I could see the impact on patient care this would have. The closer registrar-consultant relationship gives you greater insight into what the consultant jobs entail. It is a different relationship and this demonstrated not just what to expect as a registrar, but also what I might expect as a consultant.
This post reminded me why I was doing all of “this”. Why I had used weekends off for courses or stayed late to go to that extra case. This locum post gave me a sneaky insight into why I was doing all this and whether I should keep slogging on.
What advice would you give to other doctors considering a medical career break?
Dr. Indra Joshi
Have an idea of what it is you want to do, and make sure you have a deliverable end goal. Even if it is personal like re-doing the kitchen or sailing round the world.
Make sure you have something to show for on your CV, even if the outputs are a series of blog articles, a thought piece in a journal or organising an event – have something you can talk about constructively about why you took the break in the first place and what you achieved.
If it is for personal reasons, they are not a failure by any means – show that you faced a challenge and what you did to cope and deal with it. Share as much as you feel comfortable sharing. Interviewing people who have grown from a personal experience shows character strength.
Dr. Nesem Al-Ali
Have a goal in mind for the year. Lack of structure means you can shape your own training to an extent but can leave you feeling un-rooted.
- Keep a record of what you do
- Undergo revalidation and keep the e-portfolio up to date.
- Look out for career resources in your local hospital e.g. SAS Careers
- Be prepared to take a financial hit without on-calls
- Spend the extra time you have wisely
- Make the most of opportunities like presenting at conferences or exploring offers that people put forward
- Be clear about what each role entails and whether it fits in with your career plans
- Enjoy the journey! It is easy to look at colleagues in training and feel inadequate. However you are doing something interesting, exciting and different – many people are secretly jealous but scared.
We hope you’ve found this interesting! Medical career breaks are becoming increasingly common and it is a good try before you commit option. Whether it is working abroad, setting up your own business, working in another industry altogether there are so many options out these. You will always have the safety of clinical medicine to fall back on, but there are many who want to shake off those shackles and use all their transferrable skills in another line of work.
If you would like more help, we offer career change support for doctors.
Article compiled by Eme Dichoso, Dr. Paul Grant & Dr. Anju George from the Medic Footprints Team