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.

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Image from Malla.

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

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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?”

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.