July is a time of new beginnings and transitions in academic medicine. It ushers in new milestones: residency, fellowship, the first faculty job, etc. It is an exciting time, and also a time for reflection. As I wrapped up my fellowship, I thought often of the adage: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
In conversations with coworkers and friends, the following remarks often come up: “I never had that opportunity,” “Things could have been much different if,” “This is not the career I envisioned,” or “I wish I had this or that.” The sentiment is common among trainees and junior faculty in competitive environments and is part of our human nature. I wish I had done more. I didn’t get that job position I wanted. I pushed off having kids and now it might be too late. I had kids and I’m not sure if that was the right time. There is a prevalent dissatisfaction brought on by years of delayed gratification. Social media is full of “success stories”—a twitter feed scroll brings to light new publications, as well as new job positions and roles.
In a career where your performance is constantly evaluated against your peers, and where competition fuels the path, it is difficult not to look around and feel discouraged, especially if you are not part of the “traditional” pathway. The metrics of success are often geared towards publications and national presentations, and less on community service. They focus more on how your work impacts a national/regional level, and less on your meaningful one-on-one interactions with patients, caregivers and mentees. Additionally, the “ideal family” situation that society tells us we all must aspire to is a “spouse and kids” and anything else is inferior by default.
Added to the fact that imposter syndrome disproportionately impacts women and underrepresented groups in medicine, you have a recipe for burnout. We all work hard in this field, but we are not all handed the same opportunities. Privilege and luck, often a taboo to discuss, play a big role—and some simply don’t catch that lucky break. Much focus has been brought on by gender and ethnic disparities in medicine and academia in recent years, but the gaps continue to widen.
I don’t have wisdom to impart—I struggle myself, especially as an oncologist, to make sense of the “fairness,” or rather “unfairness,” of life. Here are a few reflections.
Remember to lift as you climb.
If the culture is “I suffered, therefore you must, too,” then nothing will change. I may not have had the same privilege and luck others did, but I can always try to help junior trainees when I can. Mentorship and providing opportunities are a must, and institutions should foster an environment where trainees and faculty are supported.
Leverage your privilege wherever possible.
Simply acknowledging that a problem exists is insufficient to impact meaningful change. The onus should not be on the minoritized groups to shoulder the extra burden. Speakers should recommend others to sit on panels and refuse to participate in “white manels”. Rather than the same speaker being present on all panels, opportunities should be offered to more junior faculty to encourage new voices and perspectives.
Compensate people fairly for their time and effort.
We should not expect others to work for free in what is deemed “non-traditional” in academic medicine. For example, participation on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committees is a time and labor- intensive effort that requires adequate compensation and recognition in academic promotions.
One size doesn’t fit all. Advising people to “focus on starting a family” is unnecessary advice that promotes the stereotype of how a family is structured and what priorities there should be. Advising trainees to avoid discussing a Med-Ed, or community career paths, and labelling these rewarding careers as “inferior” is simply inappropriate. Advice should be tailored to the individual and their unique passions and personality, and comments on personal decisions should not be unsolicited.
Find work that is meaningful to you.
You don’t have to conform to the “traditional” metrics of success. Ultimately, finding a position that brings you joy and satisfaction is more important. If you constantly seek external validation of your decisions, then you will often be disappointed.
Find your tribe.
Nothing beats a support system. You are indeed the sum of the 5 people you spend the most time with. Are you surrounded by people who inspire, uplift, and encourage you or not? Are you surrounded by people who promote and motivate you?
Don’t compare your inside to their outside.
Finally, always remember people showcase the best parts of their lives on social media. The “perfection” you may see does not necessarily reflect underlying hardships and struggles. Be inspired by those around you, but don’t dwell on the “what if” and the “why not me?”, especially since you only have a glimpse of a small fraction of the full picture.
Remember that there are many different paths in life and career. Often when senior staff, mentors and national speakers are asked “how can I get to be where you are at?”, they acknowledge that the right opportunity came at the right time. Hard work is a must in our field, but there are components of luck, circumstance, and privilege which we cannot control. Try to also look back every now and then to appreciate how far along you have come.
May this new academic year bring you joy and contentment!
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