10 things that medics in non-clinical jobs find weird

So ends my first week as officially not-a-doctor.

It’s been a challenging start; I’ve had to start at the beginning with most aspects of the job, but thankfully I’ve just been shadowing the current marketing manager here. She’s breaking me in slowly – a stark contrast to my first week in Paediatrics, where we had one day of child and baby resuscitation training, a quick summary of all the serious health problems that we might see and some guidelines on how to treat them, before being thrown into a row of night shifts where I was suddenly responsible for a ward full of babies.

The pressure I feel now is of a different kind. I’ve entered a world where under-performance will get you fired. In the NHS, sheer desperation and bureaucratic inadequacy means that incompetent staff can easily hide their flaws. I’m glad to say I’ve only ever met a handful of doctors like this – some of whom would have been OK with a bit more support and training, and some of whom made me wonder how the hell they ever got through medical school.

Despite the threat of dismissal however, there are many pleasant things about this new job, and some of them I find downright bizarre…

1. Coat hooks

In my first rotation as a newly qualified doctor, I worked in the busy acute medical unit at Queen’s hospital. The unit looked very new and flashy (PFI, of course) but there was very little space for the staff. The nurses had a small room away from the unit, and the consultants were crammed into offices the size of cupboards. As for the junior doctors, we had the hallway between the unit and a storage hall. There was a handful of lockers there, but not enough for everyone, and a filing cabinet upon which, if you got there early enough, you could grab a space for your bag and coat. If not, then you had to put your stuff on the floor. There was no lock on the door and several people had things stolen. As a fresh-faced F1, I just accepted this, but as time went by, I became aware that other people had a different opinion.

My friends would ask me where I kept my money and phone. It shocked them when I said that I kept a small amount of cash in my handbag for emergencies or lunches. When we were told not to carry handbags any more as they were ‘unhygienic’, I kept them in the pockets of my scrubs or wedged into my bra.

As I hung my coat up on a hook in the office this week, I suddenly realised I’d never have to scrape its trampled form off a hospital floor again to brush off the muddy shoe prints. Luxury!

2. Lunch breaks

On my first day, I was taken out for lunch by my new boss. Some of the team came along as well – they told me it was a company tradition. We ate at a nice Thai restaurant and the IT team even had some beers. All in all, we were out of the office for nearly one and half hours! I thought back to one lunchtime in orthopaedics, when my bleep went off so many time that it took my all afternoon to finish one sandwich, and wondered how these people ever got anything done.

3. Everyone really respects the fact that I’m a doctor

When I met one of my new colleagues, she actually exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, so you’re an actual doctor?” I guess you would expect to find a doctor in a hospital, so it’s not a big deal. It’s even less significant when you’re surrounded by brilliant senior doctors who are much more qualified and cleverer than you. As a result, I’ve never really thought of my degree as being anything special, but here in the real world, having a junior doctor on the team is almost revolutionary. The head of PR is excited because he’ll no longer have to waste time getting medical articles proof-read by busy consultant partners, and my partner in marketing is relieved she’ll no longer have to struggle to translate medical language into lay terms. I kind of wish other doctors like me had the chance to see their skills in this context, because you suddenly realise you are an exceptionally trained and rather useful individual.

4. My appearance

I’m wary about saying this, given the recent allegations in the media that us poor, pathetic, baby-making females are responsible for the downfall of the NHS. I merely note this as a difference in my life now.

As a junior doctor, my focus wasn’t on the way I looked. I admit, I started out as well groomed and image-conscious, but that was quickly knocked out of me by the strict rules that exist in hospitals. I looked my worst during nightshifts, as I was just too tired to bother. After my shower, I’d pull my hair back into a quick ponytail, and wouldn’t bother with make-up. In the changing rooms at work, I’d change my sweatpants and T-shirt for oversized scrubs and my indoor trainers. If I went to the loo, I’d avoid looking at myself in the mirror.

When I did clinics, I could dress a little better, but the bare-below-the-elbow rule still stood, so no bangles, watches, false nails, nail polish or rings (except a wedding band) were allowed. This is all for the sake of hygiene, though interestingly, there isn’t any solid evidence behind it. So much for our “evidence-based NHS”. I didn’t mind it that much however, until I got engaged. I loved my engagement ring and all it stood for, and taking it off every morning was a bitter reminder that this profession would eat into my personal life as long as I remained in it.

5. Individual adjustments

I guess this ties in with the respect thing. My colleague suffers from back pain, so she sits on one of those exercise balls while she works. She must have exceptional balance because she never rolls off.

It reminded me of one manager I had as a doctor, who treated the doctors like we were his minions. He also had back pain, for which he was given a specially-made chair which must have cost the NHS thousands. Meanwhile, we doctors would spend any free time we had on night shifts trying to put our heads down on a desk or the floor. I once thought myself very clever and pushed two wheely chairs together to make a bed. I curled up between the hard plastic arms, and I did fall asleep for a few minutes, but as I lost consciousness, the wheely chairs slowly wheeled apart and I fell straight down the middle. As I rubbed the bump on my head, I looked at the clock: 3 am. Still 7 hours to go. Brilliant.

the difference bteween a lady and flower girl

6. Being able to do other stuff

I haven’t really tried this yet, but looking at my colleagues in the office, it’s definitely possible. I always wondered how my fiancé seemed to get so much done – buying things online, organising appointments, sorting out holidays and payments… I thought he was just better at life than me.

The problem was, having a bleep on me meant I couldn’t just pop to the bank or the post office in my (usually non-existent) lunch break. The terrible phone signal that many hospitals seem to suffer from made sorting my life out pretty difficult. I remember leaning off a stairwell towards a window during my last placement, trying to speak to the letting agency about our broken extractor fan. The irony if I’d broken my neck in process! Frankly, I was often just so busy, that the thought of doing anything else overwhelmed me.

7. Sitting at a desk

As my role now mostly involves the internet, I spend a lot of time sitting at a computer. I suppose I did so as a doctor as well, but my screen sessions were always interspersed with exercise. I could walk literally miles seeing patients, going to the lab or the imaging department, or following seniors around. Then there was heavy lifting: after hunting endlessly for a patient’s notes you discover them in another patient’s slot and realise they are absolutely massive. While struggling to pick them up, about 20 bits of paper fly out, littering the floor. You sigh and bend down to pick them up, wondering what on earth they did with the £10 million that was promised to make a ‘paperless’ system.

Then of course, there was running to crash calls. I used to sprint at school, so I quite enjoyed this bit, especially once I’d worked out what to do when I got there. I tracked my footsteps one day with an app on my phone and it came to 12000 steps. I don’t think I’ll ever get anywhere near that in this job.

8. Access to the boss

I appreciate that this is unusual, and it’s one of the perks of working for a small startup. I see the CEO every day and have access to the medical lead by phone if I need her. She came in on Friday and we sat down to go through the way the website’s content is written. I told her that I thought the language was a bit too medical in places, and that simplifying it might be more comprehensible for potential customers. She took my opinions on board and we made a plan for going forward within a few minutes. In the NHS, to change anything takes weeks of planning, getting permissions, consulting, battling through red tape and reviewing – and that’s as a consultant.

I once tried to change things as a junior and ultimately it got me trouble with the Deanery. I’ll tell you about it some other time. For now, it’s nice to have a voice.

8. Administration

Before I started my orthopaedic job, I was sent an email with a request to send documents such as my GMC certificate, my proof of no criminal record certificate, my immunisation records for Hep B and other infections, my proof of identity, proof of address, medical degree, etc. etc.

Also attached were about 15 different forms to fill in – IT access, smartcard appliation, parking permit, library access, mess subscription and more. I did everything about 2 months before starting and sent it all in. On my first day at the hospital, we were informed that the paperwork for several of us had been ‘lost’ and that we’d have to fill in all the forms again and bring in all our documents. We weren’t allowed to start work until everything had been done and approved.

I started this job with my passport and a couple of references.

10. Fridays

Fridays in hospitals feel like a mass panic. Everyone knows that for the next 2 days, there will be only emergency cover available, so you do everything in your power to get things done in advance. If you think your patient might go home on Sunday, you prepare all their paperwork so that some poor soul on call doesn’t have to waste time writing a discharge summary. You fight your colleagues for access to the handover systems to give the on call team a summary of your patients and make any requests for blood tests, scans or reviews over the weekend, and as everybody is doing this at the same time, the system inevitably crashes at 4pm, leaving you banging your head on the keyboard for the next couple of hours. And if you happen to be the one on call on a Friday, good luck to you. Freed from the demands of work and school, the people come flooding into A+E, followed later by the drunk party goers who’ve fallen down staircases or decided that jumping off that roof was a good idea.

So there I was on Friday, trying to get things finished off quickly before the weekend, when my colleague tapped my shoulder and offered me a glass of wine. I turned around, and on the table was a selection of cheese and biscuits, some chocolate cake and a bottle of red. I must have looked dumbfounded, as my colleague, who is an ex-doctor as well, just smiled and said, “Well, it is Friday, after all.”


Something Unexpected Happens…


After my unsuccessful bid for the charity job, I renewed my search for work with vigour. Medic Footprints put me in touch with another recruiter, who spoke to me about some promising leads in medical education and clinical editing. I signed up for an online business course, which reminded me of the joy of learning. My mentor Dr Gyles Morrison and I have been talking about setting up a business together that combines our shared clinical background with my creativity and his expertise in User Experience Technologies. I worked on my novel, interviewed another ex-doctor for the Medic Footprints blog, and continued scouring the Guardian’s job section for any enticing offers.

Then suddenly, something happened. You may have read my blogpost from the day of the junior doctors’ strike, in which I explained how I went down to visit a startup online and telephone GP service. I only went there to help them out with their coverage of the strikes and do some vox pops. The team were lovely and I had a great time with them. I showed them my work with Medic Footprints and this blog, and we had a quick chat about my decision to resign, but I never expected anything to come of it.

“They liked you, I’m sure of it,” Gyles told me, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they said they want you on their team.”

I didn’t dare believe it, but sure enough, a few days later, the CEO emailed me, asking if I would come back to have a chat.

I read it twice, three times. Was I dreaming? No – we talked on the phone and the offer seemed to become more and more unbelievable: they wanted me to hire me to co-manage their marketing strategy, despite my complete lack of any experience or knowledge of the sector! They were happy to train me in all the necessary skills. My medical knowledge, combined with my creativity and curiosity to learn new things were of enough for them to believe I could do the job.

I went along for an interview, which lasted nearly 3 hours, as I met and spoke to the rest of the team, had a tour of the website and current situation. It was a funny, informal chat and I felt really comfortable. I liked the fact that it was a small team that I could develop relationships with. One of the things I found unsavoury about my medical training was the constant moving around – every few months there was a speciality change, team change, even hospital change. I guess some people might like that, but for me, not being able to put roots down and get really good at something just didn’t suit my personality.

A good friend of mine, who transitioned last year from publisher to professional chef, once told me that you never know whether you really want a job until you’ve had the interview. After my experience with the charity, I didn’t feel that keen on the role, but the feeling I had this time was completely different: I knew I really wanted this job. It seemed ideal – the chance to try lots of new things, to learn about online business and to combine my medical knowledge with a non-clinical role. It was almost agonising waiting for the confirmation that I’d got the job. Gyles didn’t have any doubts but I didn’t want to be overconfident…

Then, last Friday evening, the call came. They offered me the job! And the proposed remuneration was…

Phone cut out. Damn! Why now of all moments?

Anyway, when we finally resolved the technical issues, I got offered a salary comparable to what I was earning when I was a full time doctor, but with a third less of the hours! I really couldn’t believe my luck, and of course, I accepted. They wanted me to start immediately, so in short, today was my first day. I’m shadowing the current marketing manager this week with a view to trying things on my own by next week, and I can’t wait to get started.

As the weekend went by and the last of my unemployed hours passed, I reflected on how strange it was that I was unable to truly appreciate my time off because I was so anxious about finding a job. I thought about all the gloriously free hours I wasted freaking out, beating myself up and crying my eyes out, when I could have been writing my story or studying or seeing my friends. I didn’t trust in my own abilities. If only we had the ability to go back to bygone days, like Tim in the film ‘About Time‘, not to change events, but to change our attitudes. How much more relaxed and enjoyable life would be if we knew that everything truly was going to be all right in the end…

I rang my dad to tell him the news. He congratulated me, but advised me to do some locum shifts in my spare time, just to ‘keep my hand in.’ Classic medic thing to say!

Job interviews and Rejection

“I’m really sorry, but they’re not going to offer you the job.”

I was on my way to Sainsbury’s when the recruiter called. I was feeling quite cheerful and positive, listening to my new playlist of brave, defiant, can-do songs.

“They thought you were lovely, but the leadership experience just isn’t there.”

“Oh, that’s OK.”

I had kind of been expecting it. I had the feeling during the telephone interview that they wanted someone who’d basically already been a senior manager, so I was surprised when they called me for formal interview. My mentor, Gyles Morrison, was less shocked. He thinks that if a healthcare charity receives a job application from a doctor, they can’t possibly ignore it. They have to at least interview. Gyles himself told me he got several interviews purely on the back of his medical degree when he first left medicine.

It was my first ever job interview. It seemed ridiculous that I’d got to the age of 27 without having that experience, but every job I’ve ever had has either been voluntary or in the service of friends/relatives/friends of friends. I was fortunate growing up, because I never needed money. My parents gave me everything I needed without being extravagant, which was wonderful and advantageous in every way except for one: I had no idea how to go about getting work. Medicine was no help at all; in your first years as a UK graduate doctor, you’re basically handed a job on a plate. Actually no, you’re thrown head first into a job whether you like it or not. The only thing to fight for really was the location of that job, and even then, the only weapon available was a stupid tick-boxing exercise called the Situational Judgement Test – the most pointless exam in the history of the medical profession.

I put on my least tatty skirt and a cardigan without any holes in it. I couldn’t find my heels, but thankfully it was cold enough to justify boots. Working part time and taking home just £1300 a month for that last 4 months of F2 has taken a toll on my wardrobe. Incidentally, ‘part time’ for me was 30 hours a week, which apparently, for sane people, is not far off full time. I couldn’t complain though – my paediatrics rotation before that was double that.

I had to prepare a presentation about how I would lead the charity’s new initiative. Gyles thought this was odd – how could I possibly suggest anything without first being introduced to the team and understanding how they worked? I called round some colleagues however, to ask them what they thought was needed from their experience, and came up with some ideas based on that. I don’t mind making presentations, having had to do it so much as a doctor.

I prepared as much as I could. My career coach did some interview practice with me which went better than I expected, and I spent the preceding days googling things like ‘common interview questions’. When I realised one of the common questions was ‘do you have any questions?’, I googled ‘good questions to ask in interviews’ and came across some quite useful suggestions. I felt I’d done as much as I could, and I was ready.

Unfortunately for me, the Victoria line greeted me with ‘severe delays’ that morning. I’d left a full hour and 10 minutes before my interview slot, but as the train crept along, I couldn’t help cursing the universe. Of all things to be late for! I ran from the station to the charity’s headquarters, praying that I wouldn’t look too hassled and sweaty when I got there. My hair, having woken up early to wash it and pin it up smartly, was now tumbling out of its confines. To add to my woes, I still had a trace of that nasty cough that made me lose my voice.

I clattered into their office feeling like a mess. To make things worse, they sat opposite me on the widest table I’d ever seen, so when the CEO came in, I couldn’t even reach over to shake her hand.

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I answered the questions as best I could, but I could sense that they were aimed at a level higher than mine. At one point they asked me to give an example of how I’d ‘met an unexpected demand from an external stakeholder’ and the only thing I could think of was the time I turned up in a rural village of Nepal expecting to teach English to kids, and being asked instead to teach deaf young people art in Nepalese sign language! It was one of the best experiences in my life, but I wasn’t sure it impressed them.

“They didn’t hire anyone” the recruiter told me, “I have to start looking all over again.”

Well, that was reassuring. At least there was no one better than me.

“I think the problem is that the new role takes over a lot of what the CEO is already doing herself. There are probably some serious letting-go issues there, if you ask me…”

I laughed out loud at this, but maybe he was just trying to make me feel better. I didn’t know why I cared, really, I knew the job wouldn’t suit me. They had made it clear that they expected results fast, and what I needed was a more nurturing environment that would allow me to be curious and to develop. I guess I just wanted to prove to myself that I can get a job. And it’s never nice being rejected.

However, part of this transition is learning to see the positive side of things, and to stop beating myself up for not being perfect. It’s not always easy; in the last week I’ve have several mini freak-outs, during which I’ve felt like a worthless human being for not working. The last one coincided with a phone call from a friend asking me whether I was ‘just at home these days doing the cooking and cleaning?’

I have made progress, though, compared to when I first quit. I have strategies now for those moments of panic or darkness – TED talks are one of them – I’ve listened to this one by Joseph Liu, an ex-medical student, at least 5 times now.

As nice as it would have been to be able to turn my nose up at a job offer, I’m just happy I got through the interview. After all, it was my first one, and rejection happens to all of us at some point. Perhaps success will be all the sweeter for it; the important thing is believing that one day, there will be success.

The Perks of Being a Doctor


When you grow up in a medical family, you notice how useful it is to know a doctor. Our friends come to my father constantly with their problems; whether it’s for advice, reading a scan or even organising a scan, knowing a brilliant Radiologist like my dad is an exceptional advantage.

My uncle is my dentist. I still feel a bit guilty when we go to his house for dinner and eat dessert in front of him.

Down the road are a married couple. She’s our family’s GP and he’s a paediatrician (and formerly my boss) at the hospital, but they’re old family friends as well. If ever I need advice, both their mobile numbers are on my phone. I don’t feel guilty about his because it means I won’t take up valuable patient slots at the practice. I guess it helps that I’m a doctor myself and tend to know what’s wrong with me already, but it’s just so practical to not have to make an appointment when I know that all I need is a quick chat. That appointment can be left for someone who really needs it.

I remember when I accidentally dropped my brother down the stairs when he was a baby (yes, it was an accident, although my brother now teases me mercilessly about how I did it on purpose, and declares that any mental deficit he suffers from is my fault). After my dad arranged head scan for him, and a paediatrician friend checked him over, they confirmed he was absolutely fine, so I now tell my brother that all his failings are his alone!

It’s not just family and friends. The cleaning lady, the postman, the handy man and even the gardener have all asked for assistance and advice, and my dad has always been very giving of his time to those in need. Cynics call it nepotism, and the GMC has very strict rules about how far you can go as a doctor to treat those you know personally, but I really think society has become so obsessed with this concept of impartiality that they’ve forgotten that it’s human nature to use what you know to help those around you.

Which brings me to what happened last night: over the last week or so, my fiancé has been complaining of a ‘spot’ on the back of his hand. It did just look like a regular spot, but it was hurting him a lot. As the days went by, the area became redder, more swollen and more painful. I treated it with all the over-the-counter things I could think of, but nothing seemed to be working. Last night, when he came home from work, it looked worse than it ever had before, and I was certain it was cellulitis. There was possibly also an abscess, and he needed antibiotics. My fiancé, however, has only just started a new job, and was irritated at the thought of having to take time off work so early. Making an appointment at his GP practice was always difficult, and he had no desire to wait around in a hospital for treatment.

I was at my wits end trying to figure out what to do. My home town was too far away to ask my GP or family for help. If I was still practising, I could so easily solve this problem! Even though you’re not allowed to prescribe for family members, it would have been simple enough to take him along to the hospital and get one of my colleagues to see him. Hell, I could have even lanced the damn abscess myself! As it was, I couldn’t even put a dressing on for him. When I was a doctor, I had access to all this stuff.

I really felt that I was failing him. And yet, I chose this. It’s not my job any more.

Luckily we had a hand from a consultant friend who told my fiancé it was serious and needed immediate treatment. I’m so thankful she called, because I would never have been able to convince him to go to A&E otherwise!

11.30pm. Along we went to Whipps Cross. Funnily enough, we were in and out within an hour. I guess that, with the strike going on, people were staying away from A&E. We were seen by a lovely nurse who made us both laugh. She dressed and cleaned the hand, and gave us the antibiotics and painkillers he needed.

While we were in the waiting room, my fiancé asked me why I was upset. I told him how I felt; that I missed being a clinician. I was so frustrated that I knew exactly what to do and yet couldn’t make it happen. I felt like crying. Medicine was such a huge part of my identity, I didn’t know how to be without it – I didn’t feel like anything without it. I know this sounds melodramatic, but I was tired and frazzled, and seeing my fellow doctors strike earlier had stirred up a lot of emotions.

“Medicine’s not who you are, it’s just something you did for a bit,” my fiancé told me kindly, “You’re more than just a doctor, you know.”

I told him about a doctor I’d met that morning on the picket line of Guys and St Thomas’ hospital. I interviewed him for this blog and he told me about how he used to have anxiety attacks every time he came near the hospital. He pushed through it, however, and is now a paediatric trainee.

I remember that feeling. I remember feeling sick with fear before every shift. I remember having to coax myself out of bed in the morning, just to get up the courage to go to work. I remember the amount of wine I needed to get myself through a run of nightshifts. It wasn’t a healthy place to be, but I felt I had given up too early. Should I have just carried on, hoping one day it would finally be ok? Should I have, as some friends suggested, restarted my antidepressants, just so I could get through my training?

“What are you talking about?” said my fiancé, “You did something you hated for 8 years and now you think you didn’t give it enough of a chance? I never got to see you when you were a doctor. You were constantly tired, and always ill. We never knew where you were going to be from one year to the next, and we couldn’t plan anything in advance because you never knew your rota. You were grumpy and miserable, and you just weren’t you. It’s different, now you’ve stopped; I actually get to spend time with you.”

It was the first time my fiancé had ever told me honestly what it was really like for him when I was working. It dawned on me that maybe my inability to treat his cellulitis didn’t fail him as much as my former lifestyle had.

We walked out of Whipps Cross together, after a free appointment, with two boxes of free medication in our hands. The NHS really is amazing. I definitely took what I did as a doctor for granted – it was my job, after all – but it was incredible, and that’s why it’s so hard to walk away. But looking at the striking doctors from a distance, I can see things in a way that I couldn’t before: even after everything the NHS puts them through, doctors still continue to fight for it, and when you put it like that, their struggle is more poignant than ever.

Striking Doctors and Healthcare Innovations

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I can hardly believe it’s happened. Yesterday, for the first time in 40 years, doctors went on strike. I went out to the picket line at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital today to speak to and support the doctors out there. It was incredible how dignified this whole campaign has been. They know they have the moral high ground, because ultimately what they’re fighting for is the future of the NHS.

I have to say, it’s really weird not being one of them anymore. Weakening my bond to Medicine under normal circumstances would be difficult, but with all this unprecedented action going on, I feel like I’ve abandoned my colleagues and my profession when they most need support.

However, it is liberating not to be threatened with legal action and GMC hearings, as unfortunately some doctors have been lately. I feel I can truly speak my mind without having to worry about my career.

With this in mind, I said yes when my friend and mentor Gyles Morrison asked me if I’d spend the strike day with a small private healthcare company that provides advice and treatment over the phone or email. I know there’s a lot of controversy, even within the medical profession, as to how much private and public healthcare should be mixed, and with certain branches of the media so desperately keen for sensations at the moment, a training doctor couldn’t really be seen as being connected with a private company. Even though I’ve left, I have to confess feeling some trepidation as I made my way over to their office in Waterloo today. I could almost see the papers now… ‘Doctor spends strike day at private healthcare company.’ Well, at least she writes her own derogatory headlines…

One of the things this company were doing today was taking calls for free in support of the strike. I spoke with the CEO of the company. He told me that, while working in the city, he found it difficult to get GP appointments without taking time off work.

While I agree with reducing time-wasters for GPs, I know there are many who would say this kind of private initiative undermines the NHS. It’s a tricky one. When I met the founders of Doctify last year, Dr Stephanie Eltz explained how the idea for the online specialist database came from her own personal struggle to find someone who could treat her. She explained:

If you try to innovate within the NHS, you’ll be waiting forever. There simply aren’t enough resources. If you want to develop something new for the NHS, you have to do it outside of the system, and then take it back to the NHS once it becomes successful.

It’s difficult as a doctor to think commercially sometimes. We automatically reject any talk of monetary value, because our priority is our patients of course, and the thought of having to decide how money is spent on them is honestly a bit repulsive. When you choose to be a doctor, the financial side of things just doesn’t come into it.

Instead we let non-medics dominate the world of clinical commissioning and health policy. I met Dr Harpreet Sood, a Senior Fellow for NHS England, and he completely shocked me when he told me that when he arrived, there wasn’t a single clinician at the top level of NHS England. Until it became desperate, everyone accepted this situation. Now, however, we’re left wondering where the hell the £130 million NHS budget goes, and why NHS services are being out-sourced to private companies. The few medics that do exist in that ‘world’ have often turned out to be the rotten eggs – money-grabbing sell-outs who crossed over to the ‘dark side.’

Could the solution be these innovative start-ups, hatched and grown in the private sector until they’re ready to tackle the NHS? I really don’t know. This is a world I am new too and O just don’t understand it yet.

So… what do you do?

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December is the prime time for this question, or versions thereof. With everyone getting together for Christmas and New Year, I knew I would be catching up with friends and relatives and meeting new people, so small talk would be abundant for a good two or three weeks. I have to admit, I was dreading it. I was afraid of their judgement and remarks. I suppose I was also afraid of how I would react to their reactions. I could hardly justify my situation to myself, so how could I justify it to others?

I have always taken it for granted that I could give people a satisfactory progress report. “I’m in year 13” turned into “I’m in year X at medical school,” which turned into “I’m working at such-and-such hospital.” The only variation to contend with was the inevitable follow up question: “Have you chosen your speciality yet?”

Traditionally, the responses I have given to these queries have depended largely on how I feel about the person asking them. With kindred spirits – the people I feel will really listen and might understand my point of view – I am honest, but mostly I’ve just been busy hiding my true feelings about it all these years, even from the people closest to me.

As Christmas loomed, everything seemed so complicated. What was I supposed to say when people asked me what I was doing now?

“I had a quarter-life crisis and quit my job with no plan B, so I’m now officially unemployed and relying on my savings and my fiancé to get by. I have no current certainty or prospects, and not much of an idea about what to do, except a vague plan to write a novel that I’m unjustifiably optimistic about.”

It sounded terrible. I almost wanted to avoid the festive parties altogether to save myself from this humiliating admission. I also felt bad for my parents – when people asked them how I was getting on, they would be having exactly the same problem.

Then, two things happened to me.

The first was deciding to locum after my little visit to the job centre. That gave me something solidly medical to say, and was a relief. “I’m locuming at the moment” is a brilliant answer for those you don’t really want to talk to, and who are just asking you for the sake of saying something. It’s satisfying for both parties and the perfect precursor for a swift exit line.

The other was this: at the start of December, in between dancing for joy and plunging into the depths of despair, I started job hunting on the Guardian website. I found an ad I was interested in for a managerial role in a charity, but being inexperienced with this sort of thing, I was doubtful. I worried that I didn’t meet the criteria in many of the job specifications, because a lot of them stated the necessity for formal qualifications or specific experience. But, as my fiancé told me, job specs are not hard and fast rules. They represent the ‘ideal’, and most companies would rather hire the closest match than wait for the perfect candidate. My career coach has also been helping me to realise the value of the skills and experiences I already have.

So I shot off my CV, not really believing anything would come of it. Then two weeks later, I got a call. The charity had said my application was certainly unusual, but they had loved it. They offered me a telephone interview, and after that, they offered me a formal interview. I’m going in for it next week. Whether or not I get the job in the end, it’s been such a boost for me just getting to interview.

It’s also nice to sing my own praises. It’s not something I got to do much in medicine – it was more about people assessing me. ARCPs are tick-boxing exercises and applying for clinical jobs requires more form-filling and exam-taking than knowledge of your true strengths, skills and weaknesses. It’s just the nature of the medical profession that everybody is presumed to have all the necessary skills for their level. As a result, the thought of doing a non-medical interview is scary. No longer can I rest on my laurels; I actually have to prove myself. It’s made me sit down and think about what I’m really good at, what suits me and what I really want – perhaps for the first time in my entire life.

As the Yuletide approached, I started to see my situation is a different light. Yes, there are things in my current situation that I don’t like, but there is also plenty of potential. This is a really exciting time for me, and I really need to give myself a break. It sounds cliché to ‘have faith in yourself’ and to ‘stay positive’ but these little things can be incredibly difficult to do. I still struggle sometimes, but I’m working my way towards another cliché where I see my glass as half full.

So now, when people ask ‘what are you doing now?’ I have an answer I’m proud of:

“Well, I’m planning to locum while transitioning into a new career. I’ve got an interview with a charity soon for a management role. In the meantime, I’m volunteering for Medic Footprints to help other doctors in their careers – a role that I got because the directors were impressed by an article about their conference on my personal blog. I’m also researching the British colonization of Asia to give historical accuracy to the novel I am currently writing.”

There. Sounds much better doesn’t it? And the best things are: it’s all true, and I can say it to everyone.


Image from Malla.

Malla is a small business coach and expert at answering this question!

Officially Unemployed

When I talked to my dad about my resignation, it was difficult to bear the disappointment in his voice when he said:

“So, what, you’re officially unemployed now are you?”

He didn’t say it at all cruelly – it was just the statement of the awful truth that hurt. It was qpainfully real.

I hit all kinds of low when I took myself along to the Job Centre before Christmas to register as unemployed. It was my fiancé’s idea – he did it when he graduated until he found his first job, and didn’t see any shame in it.

“You might as well try it,” he said, “You might not get the allowance anyway because you left voluntarily, but it will be a new experience for you.”

So I went along with some reluctance. It was so strange. As I went through the doors, narrowly escaping a dubious-looking guy at the front door who was attempting to sign people up for something, I felt an extreme sense of shame. It’s hard for me to write about it now, in fact. All my hard work and good grades had come to this.

I took a seat inside and waited to be called. They were running late by quite some time, so I had a good opportunity to look around at my fellow claimants. I live in a fairly run-down part of London, so I wasn’t surprised that many of them looked unkempt and down-trodden. We all kept our heads down and avoided eye-contact. This wasn’t a situation that encouraged chit-chat. A loud argument broke out between a claimant and an irate employee nearby. It seemed he hadn’t brought any paperwork at all with him and expected her to simply believe he was who he said he was.

My name was finally called. My assessor was a Muslim lady who did a double take when she looked at my application. She was (quite rightly) astounded that I was a qualified doctor. Why on earth was I here?

“What happened?” she cried.

I began to speak, and as I did, I think I was more honest than I have been with anyone for a long time. I told her how I simply couldn’t face going in anymore. I told her about my illness and how it knocked me. I told her about the anxiety I felt about working as a doctor. As I spoke, the reality of how little I valued myself began to sink in. I felt completely pathetic – a broken woman – crawling along, a shell of her former self. Without Medicine I felt totally worthless.

Her eyes softened as she listened to my story. She then talked me through my options, and told me about the process of claiming the benefit. She said we would need to meet at least once or twice a week, and that I would need to keep a log book, and how I would need to prove that I was trying to get work by signing on to a specific forum and spending 35 hours a week actively looking for work. It felt very demeaning and paternalistic, like I was a prisoner on parole.

At the end of our meeting, she noticed it was my birthday the next day, and asked me if I was doing anything nice. I told her I didn’t really feel like there was much to celebrate this year.

“Oh, don’t say that,” she said, kindly, “Sometimes when thing like this happen, it works out for the better in the end.”

She told me about how she had trained and worked as a dental hygienist many years ago, but something happened that made it impossible for her to practice.

“At the time I thought it was a disaster, but now I realise it worked out for the best. My nephew is quite seriously unwell and is often admitted to hospital, but my brother doesn’t have the time to look after him because he’s a GP. There’s no one else but me who can be there to pick him up from school when he’s ill, or sit with him for hours in A&E. Some of my family still say it would be better for me to go back to my old job, because it’s a better career, but sometimes you just have to look at the bigger picture.”

She told me to go out with my friends for my birthday and have a good time. Despite my desperate state, she saw someone deserving of a celebration, and I will never forget that. The kindness of a stranger can be incredibly touching, and for a moment I had a weird feeling that I was meant to meet this good lady, that there was a reason it was she who saw me that day.

As I walked out of that building, once again dodging the guy with the clipboard, I knew I would not be coming back. I realised that behaving like the pathetic and helpless person I felt I was only propagated the idea, and I was better than this! In some bizarre way, I was living up to the new expectations that were placed upon me: weak, dependant and needy. Other people had given up on me, so now I had too.

I decided I wasn’t going to do this anymore. From now on, I was going to define myself by what I knew to be true. Regardless of whether I would be approved for unemployment benefit or not, I resolved to withdraw my application, and not to take a penny. (Just as well, really, because I was not approved!)

When I got home, I sent off my paperwork to the locum agency. Previously I’d felt incredibly anxious and scared about walking into a hospital again, so I kept putting off applying for locum work. I guess I still feel a bit anxious, but I no longer feel crippled by it. My fiancé laughed when I told him about my change of heart.

“Haha! It’s because I’ve shown you the alternative!” he said, referring to the process of claiming benefits.

I stuck my tongue out at him, and denied it, but he was right. By making me do this, he has shown me a very alternative way of thinking. An alternative where, instead of thinking about what I can’t do, I think about what I can.