Alternative Careers for Radiologists: How to Make a Change

October 6, 2016

This is the first article in a series about alternative careers for radiologists.

With 49% of radiologists feeling burned out, some imaging experts are leaving practice for good or exploring other job possibilities on the side.

“Burnout is propelling physicians out of full-time practice or into nonclinical careers,” said Peter Moskowitz, MD, executive director of the Center for Professional and Personal Renewal in California. He’s a retired radiologist who counsels physicians making a career change. Of course physicians aren’t only leaving due to burnout. Some leave medical practice because of illness or disability, financial problems at their practice, employment issues, or retirement.

But this isn’t a story about why physicians are shifting careers, it is a practical story about how those interested in making a change can approach the process.

“About 20%-30% of physicians, according to the latest stats, are thinking of moving to a nonclinical career but they don’t know how to get started,” said Steven Babitsky, founder of SEAK, an organization providing physician education on nonclinical careers. “The biggest problem we find is that physicians have to overcome inertia.”

Where to Start
As a career counselor, Moskowitz first wants to find out why the physician wants to leave practice, to make sure it’s for the right reasons.

“Stress and burnout are one of the primary drivers of physicians leaving practice,” he said, though he doesn’t think that is the best reason to leave. He recommends that the physician first try to improve their life balance, which might involve modifying how they practice. If successful, the joy of clinical practice usually returns. “Leaving is not always the best solution,” he said.

Part of that questioning might involve asking whether the physician wants to continue being a radiologist in a different type of practice or even working at it part time, said Babitsky. Also, would the physician want a job in the medical field or using that medical training, maybe working at a pharmaceutical company or advertising agency doing research?

If the radiologist wants to move out of the field because they’re passionate about something else, that’s important to note. “Passion is the driver of anyone’s career success,” said Moskowitz. “If you don’t have passion for what you’re doing, then why do it at all?”

Moskowitz works with physicians to identify their passion, and to make sure it’s a good match for their personality, career values, and motivated skill set (which he defines as skills an individual is good at and loves doing). That may be easier said than done.

“When physicians come to me, they’re not clear about any of those things. They rarely define what their purpose is. They almost never have a clear understanding of their personality style, and how it influences their work,” he said. “If you select a new field in which you can’t make use of your motivated skills, you won’t be happy.”

Once a person finds a career that fits with these areas, he recommends that the physician conducts informational interviews with several people in the field. Questions to ask include how to break in, companies that are hiring, typical incomes, and the person’s greatest challenges and satisfactions, for example, to get practical information.

Practical First Steps
If a physician is seriously considering a transition, said Moskowitz, he recommends getting a good career coach that is knowledgeable about physicians’ careers. “It will save them an enormous amount of time and money to work with someone who does this on a daily basis,” he said. “Physicians are trained to trust no one, and do everything for themselves. But that doesn’t work well for career transitions. People tend to get stuck with indecision or obsession, and get nothing accomplished.”

He also recommends working with a certified financial planner. “If they’re going to be making less money in a new career, they have to plan carefully and thoughtfully so they don’t jeopardize their financial security,” he said.

Both Moskowitz and Babitsky recommend that physicians thinking about a career transition attend the annual SEAK conference, in October. About 40 physicians speak and mentor the 400-500 attendees. Moskowitz said in each of the last two years, about 20 radiologists attended.

Radiologists’ Skills
Assessing one’s skill is important to figuring out career options. “A lot of radiologists start out with the assumption that they’re a radiologist and all they can do is radiology. That’s a mistake,” said Babitsky. In terms of skills and attributes, Babitsky said that doctors are smart, hardworking, and dedicated. Employers have a hard time finding people like that, he said. Plus, physicians are used to making life or death decisions and working independently, which is also helpful.

Moskowitz adds that radiologists are quick learners, generally savvy about technology, excellent communicators, have a broad clinical knowledge, often have good leadership skills, and have good 3D perception, which is helpful in many fields.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"52602","attributes":{"alt":"Radiology career change","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_8630156859164","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"6527","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"height: 180px; width: 200px; border-width: 0px; border-style: solid; margin: 1px; float: right;","title":"©Ikon_Grafix/Shutterstock.com","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]

What Kind of Jobs are There?
So what nonclinical jobs are good for radiologists? Many fields are open, said Babitsky, including consulting, medical informatics, pharmaceutical science (with varied options including as a medical science liaison), entrepreneurship, medical writing, insurance careers, and financial planning, to name a few. “The options span all industries,” said Babitsky.

The hard part of the process is determining what you want to do. Finding the job, in Moskowitz’s experience, is much easier.

One area that seems like an easy transition for radiologists, said Moskowitz, is working for a medical imaging company. However, “these companies don’t need clinical radiologists,” he said. “They are interested in physicians who have technical experience, master’s degrees in computer science, or a PhD in engineering, not image-interpreting radiologists. It’s not easy for practicing clinicians to transition into that industry.” He’s found it easier for seasoned radiologists to find nonclinical careers outside of imaging, unless they have a strong technical background.

Transition Full Time or Part Time?
Moskowitz started his transition to life and career coaching while working full time as a pediatric radiologist with several decades of experience under his belt. He completed his certification course during his off hours, which was difficult. When opening his new business, he negotiated a half-time position at his practice, which wasn’t easy to do in the late 1990s. It took time to build up his counseling business, during which he was only earning half of his normal salary. “That was a huge challenge, to reduce my income by 50% and start a new business from scratch. Essentially I had no income from it for months, while I ramped up the business,” he said.  

When deciding how to make a move, the physician will need to consider their financial needs and situation, including their marital and family status, and preferred lifestyle. For some, starting a portfolio career is a good approach. Moskowitz explains that this is what he did, maintaining two jobs or careers at the same time and earning money from each. “It’s very possible to do that as a diagnostic radiologist,” he said.

Making a transition is time consuming. Moskowitz divides transitions into three categories. The first is a mini transition, which takes six months or fewer to complete. The physician doesn’t have to change location or job, but gains additional skills to do new work. This might mean attracting different patients or interpreting different kinds of images.

A portfolio career allows a physician to continue practicing part time while doing something else too. This can happen quickly, or take a few years to develop, like getting an additional degree.

A full life transition takes longer, it involves leaving the current field to do something else entirely. Moskowitz said that this can take two to three years, though many doctors think it will happen in a month or two. The longer time frame accounts for the soul searching and practical planning that takes place.

Should You Tell Colleagues?
While it’s tempting to want to tell colleagues about thoughts of leaving radiology for potentially greener pastures, Moskowitz has some advice: “Tell them nothing! Don’t do it.” Telling colleagues can destabilize your relationship with your employer or partners prematurely. The time to tell them is when you’re ready to make the move, after you’ve done the hard work and research to figure out what you want and how to get there. “I’ve seen physicians get fired for disclosing that they’re even thinking of doing something else,” Moskowitz said.

Plus, colleagues engaged in their practice don’t want to hear about it. “They don’t care what you’re thinking of doing,” he said. “It’s upsetting to them that you might be planning to leave. They’re not going to be particularly sympathetic and they may even be resentful, which is worse.”

So who to talk to about your career concerns? Talk to a professional, whether that’s a therapist, career coach, clergy, or your spouse. In other words, talk to someone accustomed to honoring privacy. That doesn’t include your kids, Moskowitz said, at least if they’re still living at home.

Even if you don’t make a change, seeking information is a good idea if your curious. “The biggest thing for the doctor is to look themselves in the mirror and decide if they’re happy going to work every day, doing what they’re doing. If not, they should look at an alternative. At least look around to see what else is out there,” said Babitsky.