What to do when you feel like giving up residency

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published April 7, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • It’s tempting to consider quitting residency due to its many hardships and challenges, but residents should think hard about it before they pack it in.

  • Try to understand the reasons why you may want to do this, and then try to find solutions.

  • Don’t rely on substances to get you through. Talk to someone about it. Time off may help you recharge.

Residency is one of the most challenging experiences you'll endure. The hard work, adverse conditions, and lack of personal time can leave many residents wanting to leave.

If you’re thinking about quitting, you’re not alone.

So what should you do when you consider bagging it for good?

Reasons for quitting

According to a survey published in JAMA Surgery, 58% of 288 residents surveyed said they seriously considered leaving residency training.[] The most frequent reasons for wanting to quit residency were:

  • sleep deprivation on a specific rotation (50%)

  • an undesirable future lifestyle (47%), and

  • excessive work hours on a specific rotation (41.4%).

Common triggers for wanting to quit residency include:

  • Bullying

  • Anxiety

  • Burnout

  • Depression

  • Concerns about the future of medicine

  • Lack of fulfillment

  • Potentially missing out on your true calling

  • Another good opportunity

Quitting residency isn’t necessarily bad, but it can leave you with piles of student debt and a potentially difficult future career path. This decision is a very serious one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

If you’re contemplating this choice, don’t burn bridges or make abrupt decisions. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Why you feel this way

Quitting residency is a life-altering decision, so it’s important to do some soul searching to figure out why you’re feeling this way.

Are your underlying reasons due to triggers that can potentially be fixed? Are you burned out and need time off? Are you depressed and maybe need to seek professional help?

It’s crucial to understand the reasons why you want to leave, as there may be solutions to your underlying problems.

Coping strategies

Don't rely on alcohol or drugs

It may be easy to bury your thoughts and feelings with drugs, alcohol, or food. Unfortunately, numbing your feelings with substances can lead to addiction.

More than likely, your feelings will bubble over, as residency’s a pressure cooker. You may make rash decisions or careless mistakes, or even lash out at someone in your program.

Talk to someone

Thankfully, talking about burnout in residency is becoming more acceptable, as it once was a taboo, shame-inducing topic among doctors. Mental health and burnout are essential topics that have now taken center stage for many residency programs.

Thoughts about leaving residency due to burnout and poor mental health are honest ones that need to be addressed. When these emotions are suppressed, they can lead residents to dark places. For example, many of your fellow doctors will know of a resident who sadly committed suicide during residency.

Residents and practicing physicians are some of the most intelligent, compassionate individuals in today’s society. We make endless sacrifices throughout our lives to finish medical school, match into residency, and take care of our patients to then succumb to our deepest, darkest, loneliness desire to end our internal suffering.

Before you allow these feelings to take over, talk to someone about your thoughts, emotions and reasons why you’re considering leaving.

Talk to close friends and family, and people in medicine such as your program director, mentor, fellow residents, or medical school classmates. Talk to someone who‘s been in your shoes before so they understand where you’re coming from and can give sound advice.

Take some time off

Residency’s not a race. If you’re struggling for whatever reason, ask your program director for time off. But before doing so, tell them how you feel, so asking for a leave doesn’t come as a shock.

Your body and mind need space and rest; taking time off allows this.

Nobody wants a burnt-out resident responsible for patients. Fellow residents may complain about picking up your slack, but they’ll have a better reason to gripe if you quit. But you may be surprised how compassionate some will be in empathizing with your situation.

During your time off, take a hard-inwards look and evaluate what you really want for your future. You must convince yourself that the sacrifices you’ll be making to continue are worth the work you’ll face for the rest of your career. If that doesn’t work, investigate other fields in medicine.

Additionally, take care of yourself. Go to therapy, spend time with loved ones, and do things that bring joy.

Residents end up delaying graduation for many reasons that include but are not limited to:

  • Personal illness (mental or physical) or burnout

  • Pursuing research

  • Family crisis or maternity/paternity leave

  • Academic struggles

Throughout medical training, we often fixate on the next step ahead:

  • Making it through undergrad

  • Getting into medical school

  • Finishing a clerkship

  • Matching into residency

We often forget to slow down to experience (and even enjoy) the journey.

If you need to, or to take time off during residency, do it. Residency is indestructible; it will eagerly await your return.

What does this mean for you?

Residency is hard, and the circumstances can be tough to bear. But if you take the time to consider the impact of leaving behind everything you’ve worked so hard for, you may want to stick it out. And if you do, there is help for you, in the form of therapy, the advice of friends, and time off for self-care.

Related: How can medical residents strike the best work-life balance?
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