My 12-year old daughter declared at the dinner table recently that she wanted to be a cardiologist when she grew up. Amused, I asked her why and she responded that she loved what I did and that it seemed to be quite “cool”. I wondered what I would want her (and any young woman with a dream to pursue a career in medicine) to know. The following is what came up from this reflection, and consists of what I have learned from a decade of cardiology practice:
- Do not apologize: The common (and hopefully, fast fading) perception of women in competitive medical (or other) careers is that we must be cold, sterile and austere in order to succeed.
There is never any need to apologize for wanting to have or raise a family during training or practice. If the program or practice is unaccepting or disrespectful of this fundamental need, it is not for you. Keep looking.
- Negotiate wisely: The long years of training with the associated loans and frugal living lead to anxious wanting of financial security. However, a bigger paycheck or title always come with a greater pressure to deliver, particularly in the current dynamic landscape of healthcare.
It is all relative; you will have more than enough money to live comfortably, and certainly much more than the majority of the world’s population. Know what (time, energy, etcetera) you are willing to compromise in return for status, titles and paychecks.
- Put in your best work: The pressure to prove ourselves may seem to be considerably more acute for us than for our male colleagues. While it is not necessary to go overboard with our own expectations, it is essential for all doctors (male or female) to establish a strong work ethic and be committed to it.
Ask for help or advice when needed and pitch in whenever possible. If you excel at what you do and consistently live up to the ideals of earnestness and integrity, you will do well wherever you go. Focus on your own work and stay away from petty politics.
- Collaborate freely: The key to success, be it in academic medicine or in clinical practice is to collaborate and to share freely. Being humbly rooted as part of a whole and working toward the well-being and development of this whole is far more gratifying than to selfishly hoard successes and achievements.
Give freely of your time and talents so that everyone you associate with benefits.
- Believe in yourself: Even in this modern era, it is not uncommon to encounter sexist banter and behavior from male colleagues, patients (and their families), ancillary staff and even students/trainees.
Be steady in your conviction, knowledge and wisdom; your success and/or self-image are not dependent on anyone else. Stand up quietly for your rights and dust off the rest. The well-rounded men along your career path will remain your friends and mentors, and earn your loyalty.
- Equality does mean sameness: The abilities, talents and gifts that women bring to the field of medicine necessarily differ from those of men. There can be a distorted perception that equality means “sameness”, where we have to do things in exactly the same way as men in order to be considered their equals.
Do not be clouded by this misperception. Tap into your unique talents and joyfully integrate them into your work and life. Creativity and dynamism arise freely against the backdrop of calm confidence and self-assurance; they are therefore worth cultivating.
- You can have it all, but perhaps not simultaneously: We are not just doctors; we are also wives, mothers, daughters and sisters. The peak of our careers coincides with the peak of our biological systems. It is also the time when our children grow up and our parents age.
Growth in your career will never occur in isolation; your partner’s career and choices must be honored equally and your family’s needs met with grace. It is necessary to develop a larger perspective and to learn to prioritize according to ongoing (and constantly changing) life circumstances.
- Count on change: Change is the only certainty. Not only do our professional lives change as a result of policy and technology, but our personal lives also undergo profound growth and change as we age and mature.
Your career may take unexpected turns reflecting personal growth and/or life circumstances. What seemed crucial at the beginning of your career may fade into a non-issue down the road. Be flexible in your outlook; going with the flow will save you from needless inner turmoil and anguish.
- Make time for yourself: As clichéd as it is, women are nurturing by divine design and the ability to give freely of ourselves depends largely on being secure and content with who we are.
Becoming a doctor does not mean that you will have to permanently sacrifice your personal well-being. Nurture yourself with quiet time, friends, hobbies and activities that you enjoy. You will be a better doctor, partner, parent and friend for it.
- Tread the middle way: A balanced life calls for delegation when needed and letting go of stubborn attachment to always having things be a certain way.
Whenever possible, get help with housework and other noncritical tasks. Practice what you preach to your patients and stick to moderation in your own lifestyle.
Ultimately, a career in medicine is demanding and often all-consuming. Yet, there are few other professions as humbling or gratifying. In return for the service we provide, our patients generously teach us much about ourselves and catalyze our growth as humans; in truth, they serve us far more than we can ever serve them. For this alone, all the hurdles and challenges along the way are well worth it.