Becoming a Physician: Calling or Occupation?

June 17, 2014

There's no doubt that becoming a physician means hard work and long hours. Is the lack of work-life balance worth it?

Recently I listened to a radio talk show that featured an occupational counselor and author who argued against the notion that you need to "do what you love." For my generation at least, and even more so for the Millennials I suspect, this borders on heresy. From the moment someone first asked me "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I've been searching out that elusive career or profession that will complete me and my mission on this Earth.

At age three, I wanted to be a Baylor University cheerleader (my dad was getting his PhD at Baylor at the time) and a Publix (the local supermarket) checkout girl. My fascination with the cash register and laser barcode reader with its satisfying "beep" lasted for many years. Eventually, I embraced loftier goals, deciding to be the first female fighter pilot, an astronaut, a neonatologist, a lawyer, and so on.

At the heart of each of these fantasy careers was the question of what I'd love to do when I grew up. I never considered things like work hours, salary, how it would impact my family, geographical considerations, or even much about the schooling required and the educational debt. In fact, those considerations were rarely voiced to me by my parents, teachers, career counselors, and others. The implication seemed to be that if you are doing what you love, everything else falls into place.

Fast forward for many of us to careers in which we (for the most part) do love what we do. Being a physician is tremendously rewarding with the ability to directly see the positive impact you have on the world around you. It is a career that engenders respect and a comfortable lifestyle. It also affords a degree of flexibility that means you can often work where you want and select to go part time or modify your practice based on what your lifestyle demands.

However, even with all of the control physicians can have over their careers, I don't know that I would consider it a work-life-balance friendly career or that I would advise someone concerned about this issue to pursue medicine. I wonder if that is why so many physicians polled identify that they would not recommend that their sons and daughters select medicine as a career. Maybe this reflects the very idea that the occupational counselor introduced. Despite the rewarding aspects of a career in medicine - and there are many - there are real sacrifices in terms of years of your life and money that may tip the balance away from medicine.

While our careers have been selected already, there remains for us the possibility to take our educational assets, work ethic, and experience and re-select a job that is less a calling and more an occupation. This statement gives me pause just writing it, because it seems so contrary to everything I've thought about being a doctor. However, the idea is not meant to undermine the responsibility or privilege we enjoy as physicians but rather to reframe our selected career. It is possible to do an exceptional job, giving of oneself, and to also be concerned about how our job allows us to live outside the career role.