Career Planning by Specialty

Courtney Marie L.
November 16, 2020

Whether you’ve just recently graduated from medical school or you’ve been working in clinical practice for a few years, chances are you’re thinking about where your career can take you and all the directions you might go. Will you start your own practice? Work for a hospital or other employer? Take a locum role or work in a rural or underserved area? 

Medical career guidance tends to end after residency once you make the move into full time clinical practice. But while many doctors remain in the same practice, specialty, or with the same employer, for the duration of their career, some feel they need a change, challenge, or a long term goal. Going through the hurdles to become a doctor is an engaging and goal driven process, and once these goals are achieved, being a doctor full time can become routine – and for physicians, burnout and boredom go hand in hand. 

Career planning can alleviate this boredom and ward off burnout. Setting goals and making plans for your future can keep you engaged in your career and satisfied in your practice. So if you’re feeling lost about your next steps as a doctor or just curious about where your career could take you, don’t worry. We’ve rounded up some options for general practitioners, medical specialists, and surgeons:

General Practitioners

Due to its more generalized nature, family medicine is one of the most in-demand medical specializations, and there are plenty of good options for doctors looking to set themselves on a satisfying career track. 

Family doctors can work out of physician or employer owned practices, hospitals, long-term care facilities, or even out of patient’s homes. This specialization offers family doctors the chance to take on a more diverse range of patients and focus on the doctor-patient relationship more than other specializations. Family doctors also get a chance to see systemic issues and trends as they occur in the general population, such as obesity, heart disease, or diabetes. Since they also need to coordinate care with not only the patients but also doctors in other specializations, they are often diplomatic and informed enough to handle a wide network of operational or administrative roles later on should they so choose.

Positions in administration (for hospitals, long term care centres, or other public or private healthcare organizations) can be ideal for family physicians looking for a change in direction.  Their experience with a broad range of patients in family practice will give them a breadth of knowledge to draw from in a policy or administrative setting; this can be tremendously satisfying later in your career, when many doctors become interested in shaping the profession as a whole. 

To take on these more administrative roles, family physicians will need to consider additional degrees in business, healthcare, or health policy administration. Combined with their experiences in working with and relating to patients, family doctors can make informed and compassionate administrators and policymakers that shape the field as a whole.

General practitioners looking to shape the course of their career can also consider taking extra certifications or coursework in different areas of their profession – for example, focusing on prenatal care, geriatrics, or palliative care. According to the CMA, most family physicians work in solo or group practices. If you own your own practice but are looking to set some later-career goals, you could consider adding training to your practice’s area of specialty and becoming a leader in the provision of a certain type of care. 

Medical Specialists

Medical specialties such as OB/GYNs, pediatricians, dermatologists, and internal medicine have a narrower scope of practice but still offer plenty of options for long term career growth. Like family medicine, medical specialists have plenty of opportunities to work with patients on a one on one basis and see the trends and themes affecting segments of the patient population; using this knowledge in the broader context of the medical field can lead to an engaging and satisfying career.

For example, pediatricians and OB/GYNs have knowledge of healthcare trends in breastfeeding and pregnancy. Internists can see what systemic illnesses Canadians face. Dermatologists know common skin issues and whether the occurrence of these issues is trending upwards or downwards, making them able to blow the whistle on public health issues such as sun damage or melanoma. While the knowledge base of medical specialists is less broad than family doctors, it is no less useful for shaping your career path as a whole.

Many medical specialists might choose to contribute their knowledge to the field of healthcare overall – for example, taking on consulting roles for policymakers or administrators in the areas where they practice, taking on positions in occupational medicine or workplace safety, or taking on roles that work for a specific segment of the patient population, such as seniors.

Others will remain in clinical practice, keeping themselves engaged within the field by learning more about different subspecialties – for example, an OB/GYN could switch their focus from prenatal care to infertility. Speaking at conferences and taking academic research opportunities is a way to get more involved with areas of the practice you like, and so is forming partnerships with other doctors in your community or getting involved in businesses, startups, or national societies that make a difference in these areas of medicine. While your clinical practice might be your bread and butter, linking this practice and the work you do every day to the broader healthcare field in Canada is a way to stay engaged and satisfied with your work.

Unlike family care providers, a larger percentage of medical specialists work in employers or hospital settings than physician owned solo or group practices; in this case, some career goals might be opening your own practice, taking on leadership roles at your employer (like becoming a department head or division chief) or training residents in a hospital setting. 

Surgical Specialists

Surgeons have some of the most specialized knowledge in the medical profession, as well as some of the lengthiest timeframes for getting started in a specific area of practice. It’s no surprise that surgeons are often satisfied to remain in their clinical practice for the duration of their careers. Nevertheless, some research points out that after residency and medical school is finished, surgeons are called on to step out as leaders more than other specializations. Running an operating room, an office and coordinating a team all require a significant degree of leadership acumen, and some surgeons are more prepared for this role than others. 

So if leadership is an important part of the career plan for surgeons, how can you develop these skills? Taking courses in leadership is a great way to start, and many surgeons find masters programs in healthcare or business administration to be especially useful, even taking breaks in their residency process to pursue them. Surgeons need to balance the ‘top down’ method of leadership that they use in the operating room (where they are the expert and give the orders) with a more collaborative leadership style outside of it in order to run an office. This isn’t always easy, and many surgical specialists who are successful at both styles of leadership end up in hospital roles like program director, section/division chiefs, or department chairs. 

Surgical career paths are one aspect of medicine that can especially benefit from the advice and guidance of a mentor; whether it’s a formal relationship through your residency program or an informal one with a colleague, finding someone in a role you admire and talking to them about the skills it took to get there is a wise choice. 

Conclusion 

Whatever your specialty, it’s important to establish your career plans based on the things you value and the activities you find satisfying. While financial security is a priority – and a necessity – for many physicians after medical school, medicine as a whole is a highly paid and consistent career, meaning that you might not feel the same financial pressure later on in life. When it comes to career planning, striking a balance between the work that pays well and the work that is meaningful to you will keep boredom at bay and keep you engaged and ambitious in your practice for many years to come!

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