Find fulfillment in your career as a physician

Last updated Dec 27, 2020 | Published on Aug 27, 2017


On a flight a few weeks ago, the man seated next to me was reviewing a deck of PowerPoint slides. Without intentionally looking over at his work, I could tell it was a lot of financial information, with various bar graphs, pie charts, and tables. Then I intentionally looked over and noticed it was all about chicken-based products.

Wow, I thought to myself, a whole slide deck about chicken financials!

My interest peaked, and I then looked as closely at his slides as possible while maintaining confidence that he wouldn’t notice I was peeping. (Peeping! Eh?!)

The first slide I was able to view thoroughly was a quarterly breakdown of marketing expenses by chicken product. Drumsticks, precooked breasts, country fried pieces, 1-pound ground packs, and the like.

Later during the flight, he had put away his PowerPoint slides and was scrolling through emails on his phone. I caught a glimpse of one of the subject lines, and it read “Chicken livers again.” I almost cracked up. (Cracked up! Eh?!)

Perhaps Purdue sales reps have rewarding careers, but I do wonder if sometimes they ponder how their work “matters” in the grand scheme of things. How do chicken fingers really improve peoples’ lives or make the world a better place? There are plenty of answers to this question, and plenty of reasons that one would take a job in chicken sales.

But I imagine that finding meaning in the work would be a challenge from time to time.

On the surface, finding meaning should be easy for us as healthcare practitioners. Helping, healing, and treating patients should be inherently rewarding. Moreover, the fact that most people consider a doctor’s work to be quite honorable should make it even easier.

Yet, physicians often struggle to find the most fulfilling medical careers. The underlying meaning and significance of a career in medicine may be clear, but how to make it satisfying on a personal level is a different challenge.

So let’s explore ways to find fulfillment in your work as a physician.

Create multiple potential sources of fulfillment in your job

If you have multiple sources of income, the loss of a job is less atrocious. Similarly, if you have multiple roles or hats that you wear at work, disliking one of them won’t lead to overall dissatisfaction. Replace some patient care with other responsibilities. These can be administrative, research, education, or other types of responsibility.

Cardiac surgery procedures take at least 4 to 6 hours to complete. Then the surgeon has to stay in the hospital for a few more hours to make sure there are no complications. In some cases, the surgeon has to take the patient back to the operating room. In such scenarios, there is no way to avoid the long hours. Even in the best of hands, cardiac surgery has complications that have to be dealt with emergently. If the surgeon is simply unhappy with the stress of surgery or the long hours, then the best answer might be to avoid too many surgeries or take on another more administrative role.

Set boundaries between work and personal life

For some physicians, the unhappiness about medicine is more to do with a total lack of balance in life. Rather than quitting the profession, try get the balance back. The first thing is to set boundaries. We need to protect home life from work life and find ways to accommodate both.

Boundaries can take several forms. Maybe set a rule in your household that finishing patient notes, responding to emails, or other residual work is off limits for 2 or 3 hours after you get home each day. Or, get in the habit of saying “no” when a colleague asks you to fill in or take call for him. Trouble saying no? Practice with your spouse or even in front of the mirror. Seriously – this helps!

Enhance the quality of your work

Setting boundaries doesn’t mean letting the quality of your work deteriorate. Enhancing the quality of your work is likely to also enhance the fulfillment you find in your work. We all need to find something about our work that brings joy and then take steps to do more of it. If a physician can’t find anything that is fulfilling at work, than chances are that a career change may be the only option.

But if you can think of just one thing that is gratifying and exciting, then do more to augment the goodness in order to feel content and satisfied. One has to feel worthy and grow as a human being.

You can do this with aspects of work that you don’t like, as well. Think about whether there is a task at work that you dislike but that you do because it’s required, expected, or simply “the way you’ve always done it.”

If you don’t like the way you’re currently doing something, dig into the rationale for why it’s done. Or reverse engineer the process to find elements that are time wasters or could be revamped. Or come up with a way that you can delegate part or all of the task to a subordinate, contractor, or co-worker.

Make enjoyable activities an obligation, not a reward

Make plans and set goals for activities and events that you enjoy. It’s easy to put these off indefinitely, but making concrete plans means we’re more likely to actually do them. You probably get up early to go to the clinic or hospital as part of your job, and are tired by the end of the week. You might be in the habit of sleeping late and lounging around on your days off, and then wondering where the time went once you have to go back to work. Set goals or a schedule for your days off.

This can mean anything from going hiking in the woods, volunteering at the animal shelter, or playing catch with your kiddo. Also consider planning out at least one substantial vacation every year. Take the time to book it early so that you can look forward to it and so that you don’t back out of it once the time gets close.


Once these goals have been developed, protect them just like you protect patient work. A simple rule should be that non-medical activities deserve the same attention as medical work. There is a natural tendency to protect work-related activities because they are a livelihood and an obligation. But we must also protect activities that bring joy and pleasure.

A career in medicine isn’t a career in chicken sales

It’s a unique profession. Most of us enter medicine because of a calling. We all feel that we want to do some good. Unfortunately, some of us burn out along the way. But despite all the negative sentiments about medicine, it is still one the most prized professions and can truly offer more fulfillment than many other professions. Hence, for physicians who feeling like they are burning out and want to drop it:  seriously reconsider your thoughts.

The burnout can be reduced and the stress can be eased, but you also have to make changes in lifestyle.

Being fulfilled requires reminding yourself that this is one of the best opportunities to serve others. You could make a living selling chicken thighs, but you would never get the same satisfaction as treating illness and improving health.


  1. Kernan manion MD

    That was a really great post, esp. in re: treating fun and fulfillment as an obligation! Nobody but nobody is going to look after our wellbeing as physicians except us! We have no choice but to assert – and I mean that literally – our requirements for what WE need to do our work well. Because when we assert that, it’s clear that we’re asserting what we feel is necessary for our patients and their care.

    • L4Z

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I agree. Being assertive is a challenge for a lot of physicians, especially those who are early-career. We go into medicine knowing that the path to get their can be grueling, but it’s hard to see a clear line between reasonable challenges and a bleak path to burnout.

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