Portfolio careers for doctors

by Barrie Hopson on February 22, 2011 · 0 comments

in portfolio careers

In the book we mention that portfolio careers are an option for doctors too and give one example. I posted recently showing an advertisement for doctors who might want to consider a portfolio career so you can imagine my delight in seeing a posting from Fiona Pathiraja and Marie-Claire Wilson recently who argue in the most recent edition of the British Medical Journal that portfolio careers are the future of the medical profession. Consequently I asked them if they would guest post for us on this topic. And here it is:

“Portfolio careers have been known in medicine since at least the 19th century, when Anton Chekhov combined his medical practice with writing plays. Medicine no longer has to be a doctor’s sole occupation or a job for life, and today it is common for consultants and general practitioners to diversify into other areas.

Within medicine, the portfolio career was pioneered by general practitioners and is gaining popularity among hospital doctors. Common portfolio careers include management, medical education, medicolegal work, or research, but a growing number of doctors are developing portfolios in less traditional areas such as business, media, humanitarian aid, and health policy.

What are the pluses of a portfolio career for medics?

Medical students soon find their various interests squeezed out by the pressures of burgeoning careers, demanding training schemes, and subspecialisation. A portfolio career can help to redress the balance, bringing enormous personal satisfaction by enriching a doctor’s skill base, presenting new challenges, and reducing the risk of burnout. It has also been suggested that portfolio careers could help to reduce unhappiness in the medical profession. A happier workforce is less likely to take sick leave and is more likely to be productive. Furthermore, the new skills gained in a portfolio career mean higher quality employees for the NHS.

The disadvantages of a portfolio career include overcommitment, exhaustion, and loss of interest in the main employment. Importantly, a considerable amount of time will need to be spent in the areas of special interest before these become paid jobs. Junior doctors may face longer training if trying to create a portfolio career while progressing up the career ladder. Anyone pursuing a non-traditional career path risks criticism from their peers and seniors. However, one consultant who was berated as a junior for pursuing other interests now leads his field, and quotes Robert Frost to explain that it was all worthwhile: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled, and that has made all the difference.”

The first step

Start by working out what your interests are and which ones could realistically be pursued as employment. Then think critically about your career. What does ultimate job satisfaction look like to you, and where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time? Answer these questions honestly—you may surprise yourself.

If you have a well cultivated interest, try to find a sponsor or role model in this area. A good sponsor can be instrumental in providing useful contacts and advocating your skills; they can also help you to define clear goals for your portfolio career.

Most importantly, remember that a medical career is a long journey. Think beyond your certificate of completion of training or even your first few years as a consultant; you don’t want to be wondering “is this it?” a few years from now.


Anyone doubting the power of a portfolio career should look to Atul Gawande. Arguably the doctor with the most high profile portfolio career, his resumé lists his work as a practising surgeon, Harvard professor, bestselling author, World Health Organization patient safety lead, New Yorker magazine staff writer, and former health policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. Gawande is included in the current TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world and provides a powerful endorsement for the portfolio career through his realisation that “in turns you can be a doctor and be almost anything else.”

Doctors, lawyers, accountants, vets – is there any profession now left where it is impossible to find some people developing a portfolio career? Please let us know if you can think of one in which you believe that this career pattern could not exist. Police? Armed services? …….

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