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The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP 92: Should You Leave Medicine? with Chelsea Turgeon, MD

Physicians often reach out to me for advice about whether they should quit being a physician. I have a hard time giving advice on that subject because it seems like there are really only two options. The first option is to tough it out and finish what you started. The second option is to follow your dreams, even if they lead you away from medicine. So how do you know which path to take? 

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Chelsea Turgeon wrote the book on it – literally. Keep reading to learn more about her story and the framework she created for deciding if a career in medicine is right for you long term, or if you should consider pivoting out of the medical field entirely. 

Who Chelsea Turgeon, MD is

Chelsea Turgeon is the bestselling author of the book Residency Drop Out and host of the Life After Medicine podcast. In her work as a certified career and burnout coach, she helps healthcare professionals discover their unique purpose and create fulfilling and nontraditional careers. 

In school, Chelsea was a high achiever, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, dutifully following the standard formula for success. But she never really took the time to stop and consider whether it was what she really wanted, or whether it made her happy. She thought that if she was loyal to the formula, and checked all the boxes, then on the other side of that she would find happiness. In the meantime, though, she was miserable. That’s something I see frequently as a coach, and I could really personally relate to that pattern as well. 

Chelsea ended up in medical school because she liked science and wanted to use that affinity to help other people. It seemed like the natural progression of her interests and talents, especially when she got into her top-choice residency in med school. She had interviews at Harvard and Yale and graduated AOA, continuing to check the boxes. On the outside, her life looked like a huge success story, but on the inside, she felt like she was barely holding it together.

Chelsea’s residency drop out

Chelsea hit what she called her rock bottom in residency. It resulted in taking a five week leave of absence, and during that time, she allowed herself to reflect, meditate, journal, and turn inward. She didn’t get on Google or browse the Reddit threads to read what everyone else was saying about leaving residency. She listened to herself.

It was on a camper van road trip around Utah when she finally came to the decision that she didn’t want to be a doctor anymore. She turned in her resignation letter, bought a ticket to South Korea, started teaching English in-person, and for the past three and a half years, she’s been traveling around the world, building her online coaching business.

Deciding whether to leave the medical field

Many doctors come to a point where they face a crossroads in their career. In her book, Chelsea calls this the “peace out versus power through dilemma,” a term that really resonated with me. It’s when you aren’t sure if you want to continue on your path as a physician, but you’re scared to consider leaving. You aren’t sure whether it’s a momentary struggle you’re facing or if medicine as a whole just isn’t the right place for your talents. At this point, many people are advised to power through. “Just finish what you started.”

When Chelsea was in that place, she asked herself two questions. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? And is the tunnel worth it? Bottom line: is there a version of medicine that you could see yourself practicing? If so, it’s important to look at what it’s going to take to get there, and whether it’s worth it for you. For Chelsea, it wasn’t, which led to her ultimate decision to “peace out,” or leave the medical field. 

Figuring out what’s next

I’ve struggled with a lot of the existential kind of questions that Chelsea’s book asks. And as a philosophy major myself, I noticed that her attraction to the social sciences and psychology seemed to impact her decision for what was next in her life after medicine. That’s what drew Chelsea to coaching – to use psychology to help people figure out the problems they’re facing and making a living doing it felt like the easiest decision in the world. 

One tool Chelsea shares in her book that can help you change your perspective in terms of what you really want is the ‘why times five.’ We’ve all heard “know your why” but a lot of times our inquiry stays at the superficial level. Why times five helps you dig deeper into your own driving forces by asking yourself your why through 5 deeper levels. For example: why is medicine important to you? I want to help people. Why is helping people important to you? And based on your answer, ask again “why is XYZ important to you?” until you’ve asked it five times. The point is to strike a nerve within yourself that resonates to the point that you get a true, clear understanding of your motivation.

Pursuing a path outside of medicine

Maybe you’re thinking you do want to leave medicine. Finding your footing in a new field is going to take a mindset that allows for criticism and judgment from others (because it’s going to happen when you make an unconventional choice), as well as an honest look at your limiting beliefs. 

Something I see often in the medical field is the belief that the physician’s skill set is not transferable. “I can’t do anything else because I don’t know how to do anything else.” Chelsea goes into this in her book, and she noticed several ways that skills she honed in residency could be applied to other areas. If you’ve been through the medical training process, you’re a quick learner. You have the ability to think critically. You develop a bedside manner. You know how to hold difficult conversations. You can present yourself as confident and authoritative. All these things are valuable skills that can translate to new paths outside of medicine. 

Creating your own approach

I still practice medicine three days a week and I have my own business, so I created my own hybrid approach for thriving in the medical field. There’s no one right way to redefine your relationship to medicine. For Chelsea, it looked like leaving the field, and that might be what you want, too. 

But if you don’t want to quit being a physician and the idea of creating your own approach is more appealing, just know that’s available to you. Try one of Chelsea’s journaling tools or the ’why times five’ framework to get beyond the limiting beliefs on the surface and find some perspective on what your truer, deeper motivations are.

Today’s thought is, if you’ve thought about leaving medicine, know that you aren’t alone! You have options – options to stay, options to leave, and options to take a hybrid approach, too.

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