5 reasons every doctor should have a side hustle

By Leif Dahleen, Physician on Fire
Published January 27, 2021

Key Takeaways

You spent at least 11 years in post-secondary education to become a doctor. You probably put in 50 to 60 hours a week or more on the job. And yet, if you don’t have an active side hustle, you might want to think about starting one.

Tens of thousands of US physicians are actively discussing their passion projects on Facebook groups like Passive Income Docs, Physician Side Gigs, and Physicians on FIRE.

But why are physicians turning to side jobs as a supplement to their day (and night) jobs when our main jobs pay so well and take up so much of our time?

Types of physician side hustles

The different types of physician side hustles run the gamut from closely related to medicine to as far away as one could get, according to Your Money Geek.

You might consider moonlighting in your specialty, working extra nights and weekends, or covering others' vacation time by using your own vacation days working as a locum tenens physician.

Also, there’s the option of clinical work outside of your specialty, but well within your lane as a physician, by performing insurance physicals or sports physicals. You could also leverage your expertise by doing nonclinical work as an expert witness or performing case reviews.

Maybe you’re well-versed in personal finance, career issues, or physician burnout. You could address these topics along the lines of Physician on FIRE, The White Coat Investor, and The Physician Philosopher, to name a few.

Other doctors distance themselves from medicine as much as possible with their side hustles. South Bay Brewing was started by an anesthesiologist (one could argue that alcoholic beverages and anesthetics bear some similarities). Some physicians create art, invest in real estate, and engage in countless other pursuits with little or nothing to do with medicine.

Regardless of what side hustle calls to you, there are a handful of reasons you may want to consider picking one up.

So, why start a side hustle at all? 

You might be deep in debt

The average indebted medical student, which is about 71% of them according to the latest AAMC survey, has around $200,000 in student loan debt when finishing medical school.

The balance typically grows during a 3 to 7-plus year stretch of residency and fellowship training before one can start earning a physician’s salary. A doctor that has no family help and attended private or out-of-state schools for their undergraduate and medical studies can easily rack up $500,000 or more in student loan debt.

A side job may help you avoid treating your school debt like a mortgage. You can opt for a 25-year repayment plan, but with some hard work and discipline, even the higher balances can be eliminated in less than a decade.

Those who work a side hustle for this reason will typically find one that pays well right off the bat and requires little additional knowledge or training. Think moonlighting in your own field and locum tenens work.

Personal fulfillment

It’s possible that you may not have dreamed of becoming a physician from the time you were a toddler.

Yes, many of us have felt the calling to heal from an early age, but quite a few came to that choice in a more roundabout way. “I got excellent grades, liked science, and medicine seemed like a natural fit. Plus, my parents really wanted me to be a doctor.” I've heard many variations on this theme.

Perhaps what you really wanted to do in life didn't translate well to an actual career. That's where the side hustle can come into play.

Being a physician pays the bills and then some, and can also provide the seed money for any number of unrelated pursuits.

The closer you are to financial independence—and your retirement goals—the more freedom you have to do whatever it is outside of medicine that feeds your soul.

A goal-driven nature

Perhaps this sounds familiar to you:

Excel in high school. Attend a well-regarded college or university, preferably with a merit scholarship. Earn a strong GPA and ace the standardized tests. Beat the odds and get accepted into med school. The fun is just beginning.

Drink from the firehose of information that comprises the first two years of medical school. Impress your attending physicians with your knowledge, confidence, and wit. Receive outstanding letters of recommendation that will ultimately help you land a prized residency spot in your specialty of choice.

Similar fun awaits you in residency and fellowship, where you'll often be working 80 hours a week. Master your craft and please the right people, and you'll be awarded a great job—a real doctor job—when you finish your training.

And then … you work.

Unless you stayed on in academic medicine at an ivory tower institution, you likely ran out of hoops to jump through. The only milestones you may have left are when your employer acknowledges that you've been with them for five years, and then 10 years … 15 years, and you feel a certain void that's hard to pin down.

After a lifetime of people-pleasing and achievement, you may want to accomplish something more. That's where a side hustle can be invaluable.

Starting something completely novel—often from scratch—can give you a whole new set of goals to set and pinnacles to reach.

That may be exactly what you need.

Another retirement account

You likely got a late start on retirement savings and likely celebrated becoming “worthless”—that is escaping a negative net worth to break even, at some point in your 30s.

A side hustle can now allow you to open another type of retirement account, such as a solo 401(k) or SEP IRA, with earnings from the extra income.

For example, a lucrative side hustle could have allowed you to put as much as $57,000 into an individual 401(k) or SEP IRA in 2020. Tax-deferred contributions of that magnitude can be powerful in both boosting retirement savings and reducing taxes for high-income professionals.

An additional advantage of having an individual 401(k), as long as the plan accepts rollovers, is that it can be a place to consolidate any “old” accounts like a 401(k) or 403(b) from a previous employer, or a traditional or SEP IRA.

Eliminating any IRA money in your name opens up the possibility of making $6,000 (or $7,000 if age 50 or over) in annual backdoor Roth contributions. High earners cannot contribute to a Roth IRA directly, but there is a two-step workaround, and that's one more retirement account to help these late starters play catch-up.

If you want to pursue a side hustle primarily to open a new retirement account and perhaps to pave the way for backdoor Roth contributions, you may do something small and simple. Filling out paid medical surveys in your spare time is a great example.

A transition to an encore career

An “encore career” is a vocation finale after one’s primary career has ended. Given the amount of time and energy that goes into becoming a physician, the practice of medicine will be the primary career for the vast majority of medical school graduates.

Later in your career, you may decide to scratch the itch and try your hand at another profession entirely.

Suppose it works out. Great! You may choose to wind your medical practice down while devoting increasingly more of your time to this new endeavor.

If the idea flops or you find out it’s just not for you, it’s no hardship. Your primary gig has already given you years of fulfillment and financial security.

The bottom line

Do not be surprised or alarmed if you find yourself yearning for a side hustle. It could help fast-track your debt payoff, pursue a passion project, set new goals, boost retirement savings, or introduce you to an encore career after your first one is through.

This post originally appeared on Dollars for Docs, a blog for healthcare professionals, brought to you by Your Money Geek. Dollars for Docs provides the medical community with the latest information in personal finance, careers, and lifestyle.

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