How to escape the “rat race” in your medical career

In writing and teaching about physician careers, I’ve explored themes like job satisfaction, burnout, professional development, and well-being. A recurring phrase that arises in conversations, at conferences, and in online forums is the so-called “rat race” of medical practice.

“I need to find a way out of this rat race.”

“This rat race wasn’t what I signed up for when I chose medicine.”

“I’m tired of the rat race and need to find a way out.”

You get the idea.

I encounter the term “rat race” far too frequently. Let’s talk about why this phrase gets used so often and what we can do about it, with a focus on my favorite topic — unconventional and nonclinical careers for physicians!

What Is the rat race?

For many in the workforce (both physicians and nonphysicians), the term “rat race” captures frustration with their professional lives. It signifies a routine where, despite hard work and long hours, they feel stuck.

The routine is grueling. You never truly feel like you’re advancing towards any fulfilling goal. It can include a feeling of perpetual competition and an endless chase for achievements that seem to lead nowhere.

The “rat race” is a cycle of being busy and feeling exhausted. It leaves little time for personal interests, relationships, or relaxation.

Among doctors, this feeling of being in a rat race often stems from a combination of high-stress practice environments, the demanding nature of patient care, and the administrative burdens that come with medical practice. The causes go beyond the medical profession and health care industry. The broader work culture in the US sometimes encourages a “rat race” mindset by emphasizing busyness rather than productivity.

Dangers of a rat race mentality

Having the mentality of being in a rat race contradicts what it means to be a physician.

After years of difficult and expensive training to earn our degrees and certifications, succumbing to this mindset disappoints both ourselves and our profession.

Initially, the rat race feeling may seem merely stressful and bothersome. But it ultimately leads to job dissatisfaction, a sense of unfulfillment, and disengagement at work. These issues lay the groundwork for burnout, and they even compel some physicians to consider leaving medicine.

This signals the need to closely examine our job choices and career trajectories, urging us to thoughtfully evaluate the range of jobs, settings, and employment types available to us. Avoiding the rat race mindset requires proactive measures.

Avoiding the rat race mindset

Avoiding a rat race mindset requires conscious effort. You may need to revisit your work approach and redefine success. Consider these strategies to shift your mentality:

Redefine success. We often focus on external success indicators like high income, promotions, or publications. Reflect on what truly matters in your career, whether it’s patient satisfaction, sufficient income for financial goals while maintaining work-life balance, or something else.

Set boundaries. You need time for rest, personal relationships, and pleasure. Work shouldn’t consume all your time. If it does, assert boundaries. You may even want to consider changing jobs.

Find a supportive community. The rat race mindset can be contagious. Surround yourself with colleagues who share your values and have a positive outlook.

Advocate for change. Aim for systemic changes in your workplace or the medical community to combat the rat race mentality. Engage with local, state, or national medical societies.

Expand your scope of career options. I’m particularly passionate about this strategy, which many physicians overlook in addressing stress and burnout. I’ll explore this further in the next section.

Combatting the rat race with an unconventional career

Throughout medical training, there is a lot of emphasis on two major career decisions:

  1. Which medical specialty to pursue
  2. Whether to go into private practice or accept an employed position

Most students and early-career physicians picture themselves working in an acute care hospital or in a traditional outpatient primary care or specialty practice. Little importance is placed on considering other practice settings and various job structures, patient demographics, employer types, and compensation models. Less conventional jobs and career paths are fitting for many physicians’ personalities and interests.

Expanding your career horizons and job prospects to include unconventional options can be an effective way to avoid the rat race mentality.

Unconventional careers can take various forms:

Working in an unconventional practice setting. Consider exploring unconventional practice settings beyond the typical hospital or clinic. Environments like nursing homes, mobile units, cruise ships, public health departments, and industrial sites often grant more autonomy and might align with your interests.

Treating a unique patient population. Consider exploring unconventional practice settings beyond the typical hospital or clinic. Environments like nursing homes, mobile units, cruise ships, public health departments, and industrial sites often grant more autonomy and might align with your interests, offering a refreshing change.

Selecting jobs with ample flexibility. Opting for jobs with flexibility, such as locum tenens, part-time consulting, telemedicine, or startup roles, can greatly alleviate stress and improve work-life balance.

Consider alternative practice and payment models. Adopting alternative practice and payment models, such as direct primary care, concierge medicine, or cash-pay systems, can streamline operations and enhance patient interactions, freeing you from insurance and administrative overload.

Balancing patient care with nonclinical work. High-pressure clinical environments are stressful for many doctors. Nonclinical jobs can offer an escape. Dedicating a portion of your time to nonclinical activities or transitioning entirely to roles in health insurance, pharmaceuticals, medical writing, or consulting can both diversify your career and decrease stress.

Options like these can lead to more engagement and balance, effectively helping you avoid the rat race.

Sylvie Stacy is a preventive medicine physician and the author of 50 Nonclinical Careers for Physicians: Fulfilling, Meaningful, and Lucrative Alternatives to Direct Patient Care.

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