The biggest career mistakes doctors make

By Jonathan Ford Hughes | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published October 8, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • A career in medicine is rewarding in a variety of ways, but it won't always go perfectly.

  • Know that you'll make mistakes, and be aware of common ones to avoid.

  • Personal and financial savvy will go a long way to keeping your career on track.

If you’re like most doctors, you’ll work until you’re 65. And most of you likely finished residency around age 30. Thirty-five years in the profession is a long time. The odds of having an unblemished medical career for the duration are not in your favor. Chances are, you’re going to make more than a few career mistakes along the way. Here are some common ones to watch out for.

Unwillingness to accept that you’ll make career mistakes

Doctors are smart. The IQ of the average American physician falls somewhere between 120-130, putting most doctors in the Very Superior Intelligence category on a standard IQ test. Doctors also tend to be perfectionists working very long hours. That can be a dangerous combination.

Regardless of how skilled or smart you are, you’re only human. At some point, you’re going to make some career mistakes. Whether it’s one of the career mistakes described below, or a medical error, the odds of perfection are not in your favor. It helps to get comfortable with your fallibility now so it’s less of a shock later.

Failing to negotiate

Whether you’re a resident who just received their first job offer or a seasoned veteran looking to transition to a new gig, you need to note this well. Everything is negotiable and the guaranteed way to not get what you want is to not ask for it.

Physicians joining a group practice have a bit more leverage here. When you’re free of traditional corporate structures, everything is on the table for negotiation. Want a childcare stipend? Free lunches? Personal assistant? It doesn’t hurt to ask.

Doctors working for a hospital or healthcare group might be a bit more limited in what they can negotiate for.

Generally, these types of employers offer standardized packages, tailored to positions and experience levels. However, if you ask for something, the worst thing they can say is no.

Just keep your feelings and emotions out of it. The hiring manager or physician is likely telling the truth when they say that they’re limited in what they can offer.

Thinking money will change everything

After years of working for what amounts to minimum wage in residency, that first full-time physician paycheck can be a bit of a shock to the system. Many doctors make the mistake of thinking that this drastically changes their financial circumstances, and start spending accordingly, but the truth is that it doesn’t.

The price of medical school has changed the financial picture for the newest physician cohorts. That doesn’t mean that a medical career can’t be financially rewarding. It’s just going to take a little while longer to get there than it used to.

Before reaping the rewards, you’d be best served to follow these steps: set a budget, build an emergency fund, pay down student loans, obtain disability insurance, and save for retirement. Delayed gratification on those big-ticket purchases is your friend.

Misplacing your trust

Of all the lessons in this post, knowing whom you can trust is perhaps the hardest one to learn. Regardless of career choice, we all start out more than a little naive. This is true even for more experienced doctors switching to a new employer. It takes a while to get a sense of each individual’s sense of morality and ethics.

To gain a better understanding of how trust takes root, check out Stephen M.R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust. The use of the word root there is intentional. The Tree of Trust is a metaphor Covey carries throughout the book. The roots are integrity, the trunk is intent, the leaves and branches are capability, and the treetop is results. Integrity and intent represent the category of character, and capabilities and results, the category of competence. Looking for these four qualities goes a long way in avoiding misplaced trust in a doctor’s professional life.

Digital recklessness

Recklessness in your digital life can prove costly for new and established physicians. For new physicians who grew up at the dawn of the digital age, there are probably things in your web presence that it would be better for employers and patients not to know about. The time to scrub your web presence is now. In fact, it’s probably best if you make your profile private and give your friends list a once over.

For more established physicians, digital recklessness typically takes the form of ignorance. They don’t have any web presence and they don’t care.

But this can prove costly, particularly when it comes to the failure of attracting new patients. You don’t need to become a social media junky, but you do want to make sure you have the basics covered.

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