Reinventing retirement for women in medicine

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published February 8, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Retirement gives female physicians the time and flexibility to explore long-held passions and interests that their medical career did not allow, leading to fulfillment in new and rewarding ways.

  • Retired doctors can give back meaningfully by teaching, mentoring, writing, volunteering, or serving on boards—allowing them to pass on knowledge to the next generation.

  • Retirement provides the opportunity for female physicians to redefine personal success beyond status/income and focus more on activities that nourish the soul.

Physicians in general tend to view retirement differently—and retire later—than people in most other professions. Female physicians are no exception to this. Senior women in medicine looking toward retirement may be uncertain of what to do next. However, there are many opportunities for "second acts," at any age—let's dig a little deeper.

Retirement from a physician’s viewpoint

While the average retirement age for the general American public is 63, a 2017 JAMA survey reported 68 as the average age at which physicians said they plan to retire.[] According to the survey results, this was due to enjoyment of the practice of medicine.

That survey, however, was undertaken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. A more recent survey, conducted in the last half of 2020, found that 1 in 5 physicians intended to leave medical practice altogether within 2 years. Issues of burnout, workload, anxiety or depression due to COVID-19, and the number of years in practice weighed heavily in physicians’ decisions to leave current practice.[]

For female physicians, there may be uncertainty about what to do in retirement. As one researcher of the challenges facing senior female physicians, Kimberly Templeton, MD, has described, “One of the most impactful [notes] to me was from a woman in her sixties. She said this was the first time in her life that she ever felt vulnerable. She just felt uncertain or unsure.”[]

What to do next

Whether you decide to retire early or late, do you have an idea of what you will do next?

Having a plan for retirement means more than having a financial plan, although that is undeniably important. Those who stay busy in retirement, preferably in ways they choose for themselves, tend to be happiest, healthiest, and most fulfilled.

Related: 6 investment accounts to help you retire early

The good news is that there are more opportunities available to fill your time meaningfully than ever before. Women in medicine, in particular, bring a range of unique experiences and skills with them into retirement, some of which may manifest themselves in surprisingly rewarding and fulfilling ways.

Pursuing passions

Many female physicians discover new passions or rekindle old ones when they retire. Whether it's traveling, volunteering, writing, or spending more time with family, retirement provides the gift of time to explore interests that a busy medical career may not have allowed.

The key is to listen to your heart and reflect on what brings you joy, then make time for those activities.

"Retirement provides a rare opportunity to rediscover passions and use your gifts in ways that feed your soul."

Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP

You may have always wanted to become a full-time novelist. Now is the time to do so! Don’t hold back.

Giving back

Many retired physicians also enjoy giving back by teaching, mentoring, or sharing their medical expertise. Opportunities abound to serve as adjunct faculty at medical schools, mentor aspiring students, residents or fellows, teach community health classes, consult for hospitals or clinics in underserved areas, serve on medical nonprofit boards, volunteer with global health organizations, write medical textbooks or articles, and more.

The list is endless when your career spans decades of medical knowledge. And the flexibility of retirement allows women physicians to find the right fit based on their interests and expertise.

Whether it's a few hours a month or a major time commitment, retired doctors have much to offer in knowledge transfer and guiding the next generation. The intrinsic rewards of passing on hard-won experience are immense.

Related: 7 great gigs for retired docs

You don’t have to volunteer within the medical field, either, especially if you are truly looking for a fresh start or if you’re feeling burned out on medicine at first. For instance, a neurologist I know retired from medicine and began volunteering nearly full-time with an adult literacy program. Another retired physician friend volunteers as a dog trainer and caretaker. Yet another volunteers as a docent at a local art museum, and still another helps out at the nature center of a regional park.

Traveling the world

Travel is one of the most popular pursuits for retirees, and female physicians often discover that retirement gives them the time and flexibility to take trips they’ve been putting off for years. This is the time to embrace those globe-trotting adventures after decades focused on career and family obligations.

Whether taking a multi-week vacation overseas, fulfilling a bucket-list item like seeing the Northern Lights, or spending a few months at a time at a vacation home abroad, retirement provides ample opportunity to satisfy wanderlust, learn about new cultures, and even to immerse oneself in learning new languages.

Redefining Success

Ultimately, retirement is a chance to redefine personal measures of success beyond prestige, status, or income. Many women in medicine shift focus to activities and relationships that feed the soul and prioritize inner fulfillment over outer achievement. Quality time with family, attending to long-neglected friendships, discovering new passions, or having space to process decades of intense work and callings finally become possible.

And in the process, retirement becomes less of an ending than a joy-filled new beginning on your own terms.

What this means for you

If you're an experienced woman in medicine who is contemplating retirement, an exciting new chapter filled with possibilities awaits you. Retirement is your chance to discover what truly feeds your spirit after so many years devoted to hard-driving career pursuits. Options range from traveling the world to finishing that novel you’ve always dreamed of writing. It's time to set your own priorities and define success on your own terms.

Read Next: The gender-based financial gap in retirement
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