There are many approaches to careers. Is it a linear path, a one-time decision that results in an upward or downward trajectory within a particular industry, organization or company; or rather, is it an amalgam of non-linear, serial experiences? For generations, the former path was most common. An individual would join a company or institution in an entry level position and work her way up the chain of command. In recent years, with our changing economy, professionals have had more freedom to veer from this traditional path – moving laterally between companies within the same profession; starting new businesses; or attempting entirely new challenges in a different field or role. Some people, especially highly trained scientists or physicians, have the education and training to be pioneers, to break out from the expected trajectory and make their own career. So, in launching one’s career, do you choose a proven path, wait for the first decent offer you receive, or Make Your Own Career (MYOC)?
When I first considered going to medical school, I assumed I would practice clinically until retirement. However, during medical school I became aware of the many problems facing both the profession of medicine and our healthcare delivery system. While on one-hand, these problems were discouraging and frustrating, I saw them as opportunities to make healthcare better for patients and their caregivers.
As I continued my medical training, I met people who shared my concerns and had developed ideas to help resolve the problems we identified. These interactions encouraged me to found, along with a colleague, a non-profit research and educational institute, the Pathos Project (www.pathosproject.org), which promotes personalism in medicine. In doing so I discovered that I had a passion for observing problems, talking with multidisciplinary experts on potential solutions, building a team to construct the solution, selling the concept to others, and executing upon that solution. This personal discovery, and a few fortunate contacts, led me to later found a for-profit health IT company, Clinixis Health Systems.
My experience helped me realize that pure clinical practice, for me, would not be fully fulfilling. Through self-discovery and multiple opportunities to explore beyond the traditional clinical path, I discovered what types of activities and daily work would be satisfying. In experimenting, and being a pioneer in these endeavors, I found new talents.
Importantly, none of these activities were formally presented to me as career options. There was not an activity or extracurricular fair during medical school which offered a student club for medical students interested in entrepreneurship, life-science investment-banking, or social-entrepreneurship. Nearly every mentor or professor in academia approached my training and any career discussions with a tacit assumption that my career would naturally be either clinical medicine or medical research. The question was simply which one and in what field. So my discovery of possible career options was through my own research, networking, and creativity.
When I consider how I thought then (and still do think) about career options, I first and foremost think about my personal interests/passions, skills/talents, and qualities/characteristics. In doing so, I thought of my professional career less as where are obvious places that I would fit and more about what do I have a passion for that would be fulfilling. Once I thought I had a sense for that, I started evaluating my own skills/talents, honestly taking stock of which things I may lack, but wish to acquire. (Note: this is what led me to get an M.B.A.). Lastly, I thought about my personality, my human qualities and characteristics. For example, do I like to work alone or as part of a team? Do I enjoy traveling or prefer to stay local? What is my family situation like? This self-evaluation, which in reality is constantly iterative, assisted me in mentally picturing my ideal career and daily work. It was a tableau of my ideal career path starting internally.
From the external perspective, I recommend a process of research, networking, and creativity. Whether or not you decide to look for a set career path or to Make Your Own Career (MYOC), these activities prove valuable. Likely anyone reading this column is comfortable and experienced in research. So, armed with your self-evaluation and reflection, begin to research actual industries, companies, market segments, and job functions that match you. The challenge here is that the primary sources of data for such research are not familiar resources like PubMed, Web of Science, or OMIM . Sources include the Wall Street Journal, industry trade organizations, and sites such as the Bio Careers.
Less familiar to some, given the hierarchy of academia and medicine, is networking. In the business world, networking is one of the most powerful talents and assets a professional can possess. Many of the best positions that you design yourself (in accordance with the MYOC model) are found or created through networking. These jobs may never be formally listed or even recruited for. In addition to discovering new options, companies, or functions with which one may not be familiar, networking often provides advantages in finally procuring an offer once you’ve found a career path, job or company you’d like to pursue. While professional social-networking websites like LinkedIn or Twitter may help, nothing replaces face-to-face, human interaction.
Lastly, and perhaps non-intuitively, is, in my opinion, creativity. Being creative in considering what type of professional work you would like to do, a career path you would like to follow, or role you would like to hold, opens up new opportunities. For many reading this, there is the possibility of applying your rigorous training and education in a previously untried manner, bringing a fresh approach, analytical skills, and multi-disciplinary insights. Just because there is not a job title or particular career path that does not meet your interests or fulfill your passion, does not mean you cannot forge one yourself.
The use of creativity for me resulted in my not asking which options I have and which set career path I want to pursue, but how can I build and develop the professional life and experiences I want to have. In other words, I changed my focus from the traditional clinical or research career markers to those goals that would allow me to fulfill, my desire to transform medicine for my colleagues and patients.
While much of my personal experience is the result of my own approach to make your own career, it is also the product of being willing to take advantage of every new opportunity. So, don’t be afraid to phosphorylate your own MYOC gene, and seek the professional career that you want, rather than the one that appears proscribed in front of you.