The XX Factor

How I Realized Practicing Medicine Wasn’t For Me

From the time I was fifteen I’d had a plan-I was going to be an orthopaedic surgeon. From then on I knew exactly where I’d be in ten years. Other people had similar plans. I pitied them when they didn’t make it into medical school, or flunked out, or graduated but couldn’t get a residency. I felt superior to them; I considered them dumb or weak.

Then, during my orthopaedic surgery residency, I discovered I was one of weak. The “humane” 80-hour work week was too much for me. I didn’t deal well with sleep deprivation. I became insensitive to patients. I became overly sensitive to the frequent verbal beatings I received when my superiors vented their frustration. As I became ever more miserable and depressed, I realized I couldn’t go on.

When I finally quit halfway through a five-year residency, the director of graduate medical education sent me to see a career counselor. She suggested I try another area of medicine. (Some people do find success and happiness in their second residency.) I was adamant against continuing in medicine. She suggested I volunteer at Planned Parenthood. She suggested I sell medical equipment. I knew I’d make a lousy salesman. I decided she was clueless. I had some savings, some time, and a new six-step plan.

Step 1-Pay the $600+ to take Step 3 of the United States Medical Licensing Exam.

Step 2-Pay the $300+ to get a Virginia medical license.

Step 3-Move back in with my parents until the completion of Step 4.

Step 4-Get a job at an urgent care clinic where I could make enough money to live, pay off my $115,000 in student loans, and get an English degree without incurring more debt.

Step 5-Get a job as an editor for WebMD where M.D.s and PhDs were desired but still had to have editing or journalism experience.

Step 6-Turn my editing experience for WebMD into a job editing science fiction, my favorite genre.

It seemed like a good plan. And at first it worked. Steps 1 and 2 were expensive but successful. Step 3 was painful but successful. Then I began work on Step 4. I filled out all the required paperwork. The hiring director at the chain of urgent care clinics I’d applied to said she was excited to employ me; she said they were understaffed.

Then I got a phone call: “I’m sorry. The Quality Assurance Board has decided not to hire you at this time. We would be happy to hire you once you have been accepted into another residency program.”

I was devastated. I stayed on the couch for a week crying. For the very first time in my life, I was entirely without a plan. All I knew was that I needed money fast. My savings was about to run dry. I had officially reached crisis mode.

Medical temp agencies wouldn’t take me (I think for liability reasons), so I hired myself out to a standard employment agency. Eventually, I got a job as a secretary for a Northern Virginia school system. The work was honest, respectable, and low-stress. I answered phones, organized mass mailings, and picked up and distributed mail. I was paid $23,000 per year.

I read Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life ? It was a good read though it didn’t tell me what to do with my life. I read What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles. I never found out what color my parachute was, but I followed all the advice for career changers. I tried to re-word my resumes to make my experience in medical school and residency seem valuable in another career. I wasn’t successful.

I was under-qualified. I was overqualified. There were not many entry-level, college-degree-but-no-experience jobs posted on the on-line job search engines. Those employers who did post didn’t seem to think my M.D. or my medical experience were much of a bonus-or at least they never responded to any of my applications. I applied for teaching vacancies and got a provisional certification to teach biology. I wasn’t hired. The degree I’d worked so hard for was practically worthless. It didn’t even qualify me to teach middle school health!

I gave up and resigned myself to life as a secretary Then, I was told that my position was being eliminated for the next fiscal year. Two days later, I went to Craigslist and found my salvation in this listing:

“Orthopaedic Research Associate… Job responsibilities will include developing research protocols, obtaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, collecting and managing data, performing statistical analyses and writing scientific manuscripts… . ”

At last, a job that seemed created just for me. I actually had experience from medical school for everything they wanted. I applied the very next day. Less than one month after I sent in my resume, I had a new job that paid twice what I had made as a secretary. I didn’t have a 10-year plan, but the pains of underemployment and job hunting were over … for a while. I even believed that someday I might even finish paying of my loans.

I don’t believe in 10-year plans anymore. I’m being downsized again in December-budget cuts.

Photograph of Cara Powers courtsey of the author.