Q:I’m in my second to last year of residency, and really want to travel. Not just vacation travel, but like a full year or so exploring the world. I never did a semester abroad when I was an undergrad and I kind of regret it. I don’t have the money to not work for that long, and I also think that not working after residency would make it hard to find a job later on, so I started looking into maybe doing something like Doctors without Borders. Basically, combining work with travel somehow. Do you have any advice for how to go about this, or other ideas for how I can scratch my travel itch but not go more into debt that I already am, and also not make it super hard to find a job when I come back to the US?
A:Traveling the world as a physician is definitely doable – and can be done on a budget! Doctors without Borders or working with a similar organization might be a great way to meet your travel goals. You’d be able to immerse yourself in a different culture while also receiving an income and keeping your clinical skills fresh. Many physicians in non-surgical specialties are eligible for Doctors without Borders right after residency. For this to be a good fit, though, these should be true:
- You want to treat the patient populations that Doctors without Borders serves
- You’ve already done some sort of travel outside of the US or work in a rural or remote area and you liked it
- You expect to feel confident practicing independently once you’re done residency
But be sure to think about whether working full-time during your travels would successfully scratch your travel itch. Would you feel like you had enough time to explore? Would you be content with the counties to which they are currently assigning doctors to?
If you want to travel to a lot of different countries or spend a great deal of time checking out new cities, or both, you may be better served traveling for pleasure without having a job to constrain you.
Your concern about already being in debt is an important one, since it does cost money to travel. However, unless you are tied to the area in which you’re living now, finishing residency would likely be a time that you’d move anyway. You could consider selling or storing your belongings and vehicle before you travel so that you wouldn’t be responsible for paying rent, car insurance, and so on while you’re out of the US. Another way to go about this is to get a job in the US after residency, and work hard for a couple of years – potentially moonlighting in addition to your day job for extra income.
Live simply and save as much income as you can, and then quit your job as soon as you have enough saved up to embark on your ideal travel scheme.
Paula Pant is the woman behind Afford Anything, and she did something very similar. She is not a physician, but has a terrific story about traveling for two years straight after saving as much as she could the previous couple of years. And get this: she made only $21,000 per year at the time! If you pursue a similar plan on a physician’s salary, you’ll be golden.
How would you keep up your skills and ensure you could find a job once you return? Here are several ideas to consider:
- Dedicate a portion of your travel time to a medical mission trip
- Volunteer in a hospital abroad
- Do some non-clinical freelance jobs, such as medical writing
- Be a peer reviewer for a journal in your specialty
There are many more options. But despite these ideas, I wouldn’t worry too much about your ability to find work once you’re done travelling. One reason is that worrying interferes with pleasure. The other main reason is that employers (at least the ones you probably want to work for) typically don’t frown on intentional gaps in your resume that served a purpose for you.
Once you’ve been traveling for a while, think about ways that your traveling experience has made you a better doctor and will make you more successful at your future job. If you can communicate this to a hiring manager, you should be just fine in finding work. Between those two extremes, you could consider taking a job outside of the US in which you have ultimate say in where it is and what your responsibilities are. This could be a permanent position, though it sounds like international locum tenens may do a better job of assisting you in “exploring the world.”
You could potentially take a series of locum tenens assignments either back to back, or with weeks or months in between in which you take a break from work and travel for pleasure. Global Medical Staffing is an example of a company that specializes is international locum tenens. This option would allow you to see multiple geographic areas and have some degree of flexibility with your schedule, but also provide income along the way.