The X-ray Beam: Look For Zebras
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Welcome to another installment of the X-ray Beam series.
I am pleased to bring the physician behind the website, Look For Zebras, whose purpose is to guide physicians towards a fulfilling career and life with multiple resources for those looking towards a non-clinical medical career.
If you can please give a brief introduction of yourself (age, medical specialty, years of medical practice):
I’m a preventive medicine specialist in my 30s.
I love the moniker of your website. Look for Zebras is a wonderful adaptation of the popular medical school saying, “If you hear hoofbeats think horses, not zebras.” What were some of the other names you considered before going with this one?
The main risk with the name Look for Zebras is that the topic of the blog isn’t clear from just seeing the name.
I ultimately decided to take that risk and go with the witty name because it was so fitting for the message that I wanted to send to readers: to look for “zebras” in their medical careers in order to finding fulfillment, prevent burnout, and maximize financial reward.
I honestly don’t recall most of the other names I considered.
At some point I was tossing around “More out of Medicine,” “Physician 180,” and “Physician Lifestyle Design.”
None of the other contenders really captured what I had in mind as well as Look for Zebras while also leaving some room to adjust or expand its realm of content in the future.
Speaking of our profession in medicine, when did you know you wanted to become a doctor? Were there any influential people or events that made you embark on this career path?
Going to medical school was a childhood dream of mine.
I sort of had blinders on until I got there.
The more important time point for influential people and events came while I was in already in medical school.
Once I started med school, it didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t going to be happy with a traditional career as a physician practicing medicine in a conventional way.
So I put a lot of effort into making sure I really explored all my options with regard to how I could put my medical degree and training to use.
Throughout med school and residency, I always made a point to have a conversation with anyone I met who I thought had an interesting career or who were working in a position that I could see myself being happy in.
The mentor who has been most influential in terms of how I’ve cultivated my career path is an Associated Professor at my med school, Dr. Glenn Pranksy.
I contacted him after attending one of his lectures, and he subsequently offered me a summer internship, expanded my network, and helped me choose a specialty and focus my career.
(On a somewhat unrelated note, he also is the reason that I ended up meeting the man who is now my husband!)
Great mentors are priceless.
What were some of the deciding factors that led into choosing the medical specialty of Preventative Medicine? Were there any other specialties that you considered?
I considered all the specialties – at least for a brief moment.
Preventive medicine was the only one that truly checked all the boxes for me.
First, I found it frustrating that so much of clinical medicine is focused on putting a temporary or non-optimal fix on a health problem without putting in the effort to prevent it or stop it from recurring or progressing – especially with regard to diseases that can be prevented or improved with lifestyle modification.
Second, preventive medicine training has a large focus on health services management, administration, biostats and epidemiology, health policy, and other nonclinical aspects of medicine.
I felt that this training would open up doors in my career to unconventional jobs and nonclinical work.
Indeed, it did.
If you had to do it all over again, would you choose the same medical profession/specialty?
If you were not a physician, what alternative career would you have gone into?
I think I wold have made a solid librarian.
Have you personally fallen trap to any of the typical mistakes physicians make, and if so can you name some of your biggest ones?
Yes, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes.
One of them is not getting a handle on personal finances as early as a should have.
I would have made better decisions about investments and retirement savings if I’d educated myself on financial topics earlier.
For example, I didn’t even know what an IRA was until I could have already contributed for several years.
I also didn’t use the smartest strategy when paying off my med school loans.
What inspired you to start a blog? Were there any surprises along the way? Do you have any advice to individuals who may be contemplating starting a blog of their own?
I started a blog mainly because I felt like I had information and insight to share that would be helpful to other medical professionals.
I started earning extra income with nonclinical side gigs while I was still in residency.
And my first job out of residency was largely administrative.
Peers often asked how I came across freelance writing work and other side work, as well as how I landed a largely nonclinical job early in my career.
It became clear to me that most physicians who are dissatisfied with their traditional “doctor jobs” don’t even know where to begin in order to start thinking about a career pivot.
And those who aren’t satisfied with their income or work-life balance often feel like they’re stuck with it due to the specialty they chose, the contract they signed, or another factor.
I wanted to support these physicians, as well as motivate them and provide a helpful community.
For those wanting to start a blog, I’d definitely say give it a try.
The upfront costs are minimal.
You can stop any time without any poor consequences.
Also, learning a bit about website development and marketing might come in handy if you decide to start some other type of business down the road.
Your website is a wonderful resource for those physicians who are looking for alternative, nonclinical jobs. How did you develop an interest in this particular niche? Was there any contributing background story that served as an inspiration focusing in this particular area?
My own experiences in nonclinical work and side hustles have been quite varied.
In addition to practicing clinical medicine, my experience and sources of income have included:
- Utilization management and managed care
- Medical communications
- Medical education
- Clinical documentation improvement
- Regulatory science
- Clinical informatics
- Expert consulting and paid surveys
With the breadth of areas I’ve had experience in, I’ve learned quite a bit about what’s lucrative, what’s risky, what’s not worth the time, etc.
Look for Zebras is an avenue to share some of this insight, and to share opportunities for consulting for full-time work in these and other medically-related fields.
What is your advice to the medical student/resident/early physician who may be facing a change of heart regarding their profession early on in their career?
Medicine is an incredibly broad field.
Health and healthcare are even bigger and very relevant to your background and training.
It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll need to “quit medicine” to find a happiness and fulfillment.
You just need to put in the time and effort to explore all the options that medicine has to offer!
Do so by finding and talking to mentors, being intentional in choosing your rotations/electives in residency, and keeping an open mind about what it means to be a physician.
Also, if I may put in a plug for myself, sign up for the Look for Zebras email list and job opportunity digest to benefit from our resources.
Can you list some of the most frequent explanations by your readers regarding why they are pursuing careers that are alternative/non-clinical in nature?
The big ones are:
- Looking to earn extra income
- Feeling burned out
- Wanting more flexibility in their work responsibilities, location, schedule, etc
There is a population of physicians, most notably foreign medical school graduates, who have not been able to obtain a residency position either because they were unable to pass the USMLE licensure exams or they have difficulty in matching into a residency program despite having an MD behind their name. What advice would you offer these particular individuals?
Physicians in this situation still have options that take advantage of their degree and skills!
My advice is to spend some time exploring various types of work for physicians without a residency.
Moreover, keep an open mind.
The vision that you had when setting out to become a doctor isn’t necessarily the scenario that is most fitting for you in reality.
But shifting your vision doesn’t mean you’re failing, settling, or letting anyone down.
If your child came to you and expressed a desire to become a physician how would you feel? Would you offer encouragement or try to dissuade that pursuit?
I would definitely offer encouragement!
I’d educate them on all the flavors and different types of opportunities in medicine and various forms that a career as a physician can take.
But I would also be frank about why many physicians are frustrated with medicine, and offer advice about how they can avoid this.
Complete the following sentence: I would consider the Look For Zebras website to be a success when I achieve….
I already consider it to be a success, since I know it’s helped people and I’ve learned quite a bit myself along the way, so I consider it to be a success.
That said, though, I hope it becomes successful in many more ways!
Currently, Look for Zebras’ job opportunity digest – The Stampede – is a weekly email of open positions and freelance work for physicians that’s nonclinical, remote, part-time, freelance, or unconventional in some other way.
I’m working on expanding this to an online job board in which readers can browse and employers can post open positions any time.
When this becomes a leading resource for docs to find nonclinical work, that will be a major success.
For a reader unfamiliar to your website, what are three posts you are most proud of that they can gain an insight about you and your philosophies?
For those wanting to earn more income and direct their own careers, working as an independent contractor for either your main or supplemental income is almost inevitable.
Therefore, being able to thoroughly review and negotiate a contract is imperative.
How to review a physician independent contractor agreement walks readers through a contract and provides important considerations for each section.
A lot of physicians find their way to Look for Zebras by searching for information about nonclinical job options.
Our most popular posts are a series of 17 articles that are each about different types of nonclinical careers.
I think many doctors underestimate the extent to which volunteering our time and skills can open up doors and propel our career paths.
I wrote an article about skilled volunteering and pro bono work, and how these can much more beneficial than just the fuzzy feeling you get from volunteering.
What is the biggest non-medical accomplishment you have achieved to date?
Fitness has been really important to me in the past several years.
Working out is not only great for your body, but it gives your brain a break from thinking and your eyes a break from the computer screen.
As of this past year, I can do a set of 5 pull-ups (no kipping involved!) and a headstand in yoga.
The topic of physician burnout has been gaining momentum in social media. Have you experienced burnout in your medical career? What steps have you taken to minimize the chance of burnout?
I haven’t experienced burnout myself.
I realized early on in my training that, based on what I knew about my personality, I was going to burn out if I didn’t deliberately take action to avoid it.
Preventing burnout has been an important factor in my decisions related to specialty choice and job applications.
I don’t like the unwritten expectation in medicine that trainees and early-career physicians need to “do their time” (ie work themselves to death) before they can take time for their own sanity, health, and loved ones.
We all need to take our own careers by the reigns.
Never prioritize career over happiness.
Let us say you have hit your target number for financial independence. Would you a) continue to practice medicine the way you do now, b) continue to work but reduce clinical workload/eliminate certain components, or c) exit medicine completely regardless of age?
I would continue to work but eliminate certain aspects.
I’d likely do work as an independent contractor, and have a low threshold for turning down work that I didn’t want to do.
I’d accept gigs that I know I’d enjoy, with clients who are pleasant to work with and always pay on time.
I’d turn down the rest and go kayaking instead!
I appreciate your candid response and great advice.
I wish you continued success in your career and look forward to more high yield posts from your website.
If you are interested in checking out previous individuals that were brave enough to expose themselves to the beams of the X-ray, please check them out here.
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