Would you stay in medicine just for the paycheck?

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published October 28, 2022

Key Takeaways

I did not go into medicine for the money. I doubt that anybody starts a medical career solely for the paycheck.

I genuinely believe that a fulfilling career gives you purpose in life, challenges you, and drives you to help others. Of course, making a decent income while having a fulfilling career is nice—but people don't spend decades of their life in school and training (while potentially taking on massive debt) to work long hours and care for sick patients only for the money.

Although I honestly believe this, in my early career I encountered plenty of physicians who seemed to care more about their paycheck and lifestyle than about their patients.

"I’ve worked with many doctors who take more pride in their vacation homes, fancy suits, and luxury sports cars than their work accomplishments."

Kristen Fuller, MD

These encounters helped me understand why there is a preconceived notion within society that physicians go into medicine strictly for the earnings. But I don't believe this is true.

I do feel, however, that some physicians may stay in medicine for the money, especially when they're supporting a family. I know plenty who are burned out and tired of practicing medicine, but they don't know how to make the same paycheck if they were to leave.

I know physicians who grew their practice because they wanted a higher income. I know many who were not initially motivated by money but have stayed in medicine because of it.

Medicine is a calling, and although it can be a lucrative career, it requires so much devotion and hard work that it may not be satisfying if you’re only there for the paycheck.

Why stay in it for the paycheck?

"Physicians are some of the hardest-working, most empathetic people I know, but they are also very susceptible to burnout."

Kristen Fuller, MD

This can lead to apathy, drug and alcohol misuse, mental health disorders, and a purposeless life.

Burnout can result in physicians working for “meaningless wealth.” Those who are primarily focused on the paycheck are often financially strapped despite their high incomes, as they spend more than they earn, potentially as a coping tool to deal with underlying stressors.

They are missing out on meaningful wealth, which represents the people, places, things, ideas, actions, and events that make life worthwhile or valuable. It's the experience of a life worth living that is aligned with our authentic, highest values and principles.

Who suffers?

Staying in medicine solely for the earnings is not only a disservice to your individual happiness but could negatively affect your patient care and personal life.

"Are you truly happy with your purpose in life if you’re only in medicine for the money? Probably not."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Doctors who do so may be stressed, depressed, exhausted, and potentially living an unhealthy life without even knowing it because they are using money as an unhealthy coping tool.

Take a break, evaluate

Should you stay in it for the money? The short answer is no, but that doesn’t mean you should necessarily quit medicine. If you realize that you're no longer happy treating patients, but are still very happy with your income bracket, it may be time to evaluate your motives.

What makes you happy? Why did you go into medicine? What are you lacking in your life? It may even be wise to take some time off and do some soul searching.

"Maybe it’s time to change things up."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Consider a career shift to research, writing, or another area of medicine that’s different from your current work situation.

Talking to a mental health professional about these feelings may also be helpful, as therapy may enable you to uncover some deeper underlying issues you're experiencing—and perhaps rediscover your purpose in medicine.

Read Next: Real Talk: Why doctors go broke—and how to avoid it

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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