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12 tips for building your career as a physician

From finding a mentor to figuring out funding, these strategies will help you be successful

July 2021
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BY ANY YARDSTICK, Brad Sharpe, MD, has enjoyed a lot of success. Joining the faculty at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Health in 2003, Dr. Sharpe has since risen to become the division chief there for hospital medicine.

So how did he do it? During a presentation at this spring’s virtual Society of Hospital Medicine meeting, Dr. Sharpe passed on 12 tips that he either figured out early in his career or wishes he had. One subtext running through them all: “Chance favors the prepared hospitalist,” he said. “Some of my success is due to being in the right place at the right time. But some is due to setting myself up to succeed.” While his advice was geared toward a career as an academic hospitalist, his tips could potentially help boost a career in any setting.

• Be engaged. “When you’re starting a new job in a new place, you need to show up”—to faculty meetings, conferences, morning report, social events. By showing up, you’ll enjoy your job more. “The business literature is clear: The more connected you feel to an institution or enterprise, the more satisfied you’ll be at work,” he pointed out.

“When you’re starting a new job in a new place, you need to show up.”

Brad-Sharpe-MD

~ Brad Sharpe, MD
University of California, San Francisco Health

You also want to be engaged so leaders in your organization see you around. “You want them to think of you when opportunities come up, such as looking for someone to lead a committee that’s focused on a topic you’re interested in.”

• Meet people. As far as Dr. Sharpe is concerned, your main task during your first six months in a new job is to meet people, particularly those who share your interests or have a career path you may want to follow.

“Identify those people, then reach out via e-mail and ask to meet with them for 30 minutes,” he said. If you don’t hear back, send another e-mail a week later. If there is still no response after a second try, “let it go and try again in a few months.”

Most people like talking about themselves and their work. When you do secure a meeting, spend some time getting to know one another and asking open-ended questions about the other person’s career. Be sure to ask what advice she or he would give you to get ahead at your institution and which other people you should reach out to.

“You’re creating a network of people who right now don’t know you,” said Dr. Sharpe. “You’re also finding out how people have been successful in your organization.”

• Try new things. Hospitalists in Dr. Sharpe’s group have discovered new career paths simply by signing up for things they never considered before: a quality improvement project or utilization review, a new committee, diversity training, an informatics seminar. “You never know,” he said. “You may stumble onto a whole new career.”

• Teach. A lot. Dr. Sharpe knew teaching was one of his core passions as early as high school. But as an academic, he needed to find out what type of teaching he really enjoyed—and he discovered that only by doing all kinds. Do you prefer teaching to small groups or large lecture halls? Do you want to focus on clinical cases or teach the physical exam? Do you like interacting with housestaff, medical students or faculty? “This goes back to trying new things: You have to figure out what you like and what you don’t.”

• Just say yes. Dr. Sharpe admitted this advice is somewhat controversial. After all, if you just keep saying yes, you’ll burn out, so this tip comes with this qualifier: “Say yes” only if you’re not already overwhelmed and only if what you’re agreeing to interests you.

“No one expects you to sign up for the outpatient osteoporosis committee,” he noted. “But human beings tend to categorize people—and as a division chief, I categorize people not only by their interests, but whether they’re the type who says ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ” When opportunities arise, “you want to be recognized as someone who says ‘yes.’ ”

• Be great. No one, Dr. Sharpe admitted, actively decides to “show up to work and do a crappy job with a particular activity.” But when you’re given an opportunity, particularly one that will be highly visible to division or organizational leaders, “be particularly great.” As a junior faculty member, for instance, he was given the chance to lecture the entire first-year class on oral case presentations.

“I spent six months reviewing the literature and putting that talk together,” he recalled. “It went so well, they asked me to come back the next year and lecture on patient interviews.”

• Figure out how to get paid. Physicians who are clinicians/administrators/teachers get paid via four possible avenues: billing for clinical care, writing (and winning) a small grant, finding a wealthy philanthropist to fund them, and being in charge of something and having a leadership role. “Being in charge” runs the gamut from running a medical school course or devoting time to patient safety to heading up an entire division.

When you’re starting out, particularly if you aspire to be a leader, look around at who’s in roles that interest you and how they’re paid to fill them. “Scan the horizon for roles you could get some funding for if it would allow you to pursue your academic interests.”

• Give yourself a timeline. In Dr. Sharpe’s experience, it takes junior faculty three or four years to figure out what they really want to do and how to thrive as a faculty member. Often, he noted, young faculty are impatient to discover their niche and launch their career. “I tell them, ‘You have time,’ ” he said. “Let your work experiences wash over you and figure out where your passions lie.”

• Hone your clinical skills. This also falls within that three-to-four-year timeframe. “Spend time to improve your skills,” says Dr. Sharpe. That includes spending time on UpToDate, attending conferences, asking cardiology about an echo or going over an MRI with neuroradiology.

• Find a mentor. This may be, said Dr. Sharpe, his most important pearl. Mentors come in all types and flavors, from ones who guide you through a specific project to those who help steer your overall career.

“Career mentors, who are those who help you think about your career and future, are key to your success,” he said. “The evidence is clear that academic faculty with career mentors are more satisfied, less burned out and less likely to leave institutions, more likely to present at grand rounds, and more likely to take on a leadership role.” If you haven’t yet found a career mentor, approach your section or division chief and have her or him help you find someone, based on shared interests and personalities.

• Get help if you need it. “Don’t let yourself get burned out”—something that Dr. Sharpe said has happened three times over the course of his career. “By the time I went to my supervisor for help, it was probably six to nine months past when I should have reached out.” Each time, his supervisor helped him figure the way forward.

“Burnout,” he pointed out, “manifests itself in different ways.” Learn to recognize burnout symptoms in yourself: feeling exhausted, depersonalizing patients, doubting the quality of your own care and disengaging from clinical care. Are you no longer taking the time to get back to a family member who left you a message and wants to speak?

• Aim for the academic sweet spot. In his mind, Dr. Sharpe said, four questions can help you identify what you want in academic medicine: What do you love, what can you get paid for, what are you good at and what can advance your career? That last bucket can mean aligning yourself with people in the organization who have control, influence and money. Or it may mean learning a new skill or earning a new degree.

“You want to find,” he said, “where all those overlap in the context of your personal life and your interests outside medicine.”

Phyllis Maguire is Executive Editor of Today’s Hospitalist.

Published in the July/August 2021 issue of Today’s Hospitalist

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