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How to Explore Nonclinical Career Options as a Medical Student or Resident

Exploring Career Options

There’s a common misconception that nonclinical careers are suitable only for mid- to late-career physicians with ample clinical experience. In fact, there are many opportunities for physicians of all types and career stages outside of direct patient care settings. While some of these opportunities require extensive experience, some are fitting for physicians with only a few years of clinical experience, those who are just completing residency, and even those without a residency at all. It’s not necessary to wait until you have years of experience or are ready to make a career transition to explore the various options.

Nonclinical careers cover a broad range of roles in many different industries and organization types. These include pharmaceutical and medical device industries, managed care, business consulting, public health and health care administration, research, and other areas. There are numerous ways for students and residents to get a feel for what types of nonclinical jobs may be a good fit for them and to obtain a bit of experience in these areas during their training – here are six.

Complete a nonclinical elective or rotation

Not all elective rotations are in a clinic or on a hospital ward. Many schools and programs offer nonclinical electives in fields such as quality improvement, medical administration, clinical informatics, and research.

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If your institution doesn’t have existing electives of this type, consider applying for an away rotation. Some programs also allow students to design their own rotations with the assistance of a faculty mentor.

Completing an elective rotation is a good option for students and residents who’d like an intensive, credit-granting experience in a nonclinical field but don’t want to take any time off from their programs. Even a one-month rotation offers enough exposure to a topic or field that you’ll likely get a solid feel for whether it may be a good fit for your career.

Take time off for a fellowship, internship, or other program

Students who don’t mind delaying their graduation date and recent medical school graduates with uncertainty about where they want to head with their careers may be interested in a nonclinical fellowship or internship. These are typically longer than elective rotations, ranging from three months to a year, on average. Some can be completed during a summer break, while others require a leave of absence or other longer-term arrangement.

While they usually don’t qualify toward degree credits or residency requirements, fellowships and similar programs provide an in-depth experience that can be quite influential on your career decisions and be a notable addition to your CV. Many fellowships and internships result in publications, professional networking opportunities, and even full-time job offers. For some trainees, these benefits may be worth taking time off from school or deferring employment after residency.

Nonclinical fellowships and internships are available through several types of organizations. The federal government has some excellent programs, including the Epidemic Intelligence Service through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ORISE fellowships at over a dozen federal agencies, and various NIH-funded opportunities such as the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program.

It’s common for pharmaceutical and medical product companies to offer leadership development programs, several of which are open to or specifically designed for physicians.

Management consulting firms offer internships to advanced degree professionals. Examples include McKinsey’s eight- to ten-week Associate Intern program, and BCG’s internships that extend from several weeks to a full year.

You can even complete a fellowship working on a TV show. Grey’s Anatomy offers a fellowship program annually for surgical residents.

Look for relevant opportunities at your university that are outside of your own program

Exploring nonclinical career options as a medical student or resident doesn’t require completing a formal rotation or program. Many of the universities affiliated with medical schools and academic medical centers offer a breadth of resources that can assist trainees in gaining insight and exposure into various career options.

Look beyond your own program for these opportunities. Your status as a student or resident within a medical school is likely to give you access to the resources at the affiliated university’s schools of public health, business, applied medical sciences, and undergraduate colleges.

Peruse the course catalogues of these schools for evening classes that you may want to audit. Business, economics, healthcare management, and many other courses can help to prepare for different types of nonclinical careers.

Consider joining clubs and interest groups that are relevant to nonclinical careers. For example, business schools often have management consulting clubs that help students prepare for the case-based interviews commonly used by consulting firms.

Getting involved in research projects is a great way to explore a nonclinical career area while simultaneously learning research skills and potentially getting published. If you dislike wet lab or “bench” research, search for faculty or centers within your institution that focus on health services research, health policy research, or translational research.

Finally, keep your eye out for guest lectures on health-related topics.

Do nonclinical freelance or volunteer work in an area of interest

If your schedule allows you any time to do some work on the side, freelancing is great way to gain experience in certain nonclinical fields as well as earn extra income.

Medical writing is one of the most attainable types of nonclinical freelance work for students and residents. It can be done on your own schedule and usually from the comfort of your own home. A variety of company types hire contracted medical writers, including medical communications agencies, test prep companies, and medical and health news outlets. Though this type of experience is most applicable for physicians wishing to pursue medical writing a full-time job, writing skills are relevant for many types of nonclinical jobs.

Other examples of nonclinical work that can be conducted as a consultant, a freelancer, or a part-time employee while still in school or training includes EHR implementation support and adjunct teaching or tutoring.

Volunteering within professional organizations can be similarly helpful in learning about types of nonclinical work that may be suitable for your interests and strengths. Most medical associations frequently look for both students and trainees to serve on committees, task forces, advocacy projects, and various initiatives on topics. By participating in these, you’ll gain exposure to areas outside of direct patient care in which the expertise of medical doctors is needed, including health policy, teaching, health education, and media.

Network and conduct informational interviews with nonclinical physicians

Expanding and using your professional network is one of the best ways to learn about career paths, challenges, and highlights of nonclinical work from physicians who have actually done it.

Be on the lookout both in person and online for doctors with nonclinical jobs that interest you. Reach out to them and request a short meeting or call in order to learn about their career. Most will be happy to assist, and will even enjoy passing along career advice to an interested student.

Each physician you meet probably knows at least a handful of other physicians doing nonclinical work. Ask for introductions.

You can also network by attending conferences that are likely to have physician attendees with nonclinical careers, such as meetings of the American Public Health Association and American Association for Physician Leadership.

Keep an open mind, educate yourself about the options, and do some soul searching

Deciding to engage in nonclinical work is only the first step in transitioning to a nonclinical career. Because of the broad range of nonclinical jobs available to physicians, it’s worth keeping an open mind as you explore the options. Take your time learning about the various career paths that can result from your medical background.

Gaining an awareness of the numerous types of nonclinical careers will help you figure out which ones may be a good fit for your interests and strengthsThe book 50 Nonclinical for Physicians: Fulfilling, Meaningful, and Lucrative Alternatives to Direct Patient Care is a good place to start in learning what many of the most popular options are.

Taking a nonclinical job doesn’t mean you can’t treat patients. Many doctors whose work is primarily nonclinical still do some amount of clinical work. Hospital and healthcare system administrators often spend anywhere half-day to a couple of full days each week seeing patients within their own organizations. Those whose organizations don’t deliver healthcare service sometimes have agreements with their employers in which they can take a time out of the office to see patients elsewhere. Other arrangements include using vacation time for clinical work or filling in on evenings and weekends as needed for a local hospital.

Moreover, doctors who transition to full-time nonclinical roles frequently return to patient care at some point later in their careers.

Your career path doesn’t need to follow a particular path or timeline. By remaining flexible and informing yourself of all the possibilities available to you, you’re more likely to find a career that is both satisfying and relevant to your training and passions.

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Sylvie Stacy, MD, MPH is a preventive medicine physician and blogger at Look for Zebras. Her book 50 Nonclinical for Physicians: Fulfilling, Meaningful, and Lucrative Alternatives to Direct Patient Care was recently published by the American Association for Physician Leadership. Sylvie Stacy, MD, MPH is a preventive medicine physician and blogger at Look for Zebras. Her book 50 Nonclinical for Physicians: Fulfilling, Meaningfu...
I enjoyed this article very much. Our profession has the staggeringly high rates of depression and suicide, which I attribute to a few reasons. One being a cog in the health care system, and all the stress from added pressures we continually face as a consequence of a system that demands unrealistic expectations. My thoughts on how to mitigate this risk is for physicians to diversify their careers. Whether it be administration, research, teaching, informatics, consulting, public health, etc. This allows us to not pigeonhole our career, allows us to explore complementary fields, and most importantly gain new skills and knowledge outside of medicine. In short, it makes us more well-rounded professionals, which hopefully leads to other avenues of compensation.
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