You Don’t Need to Sacrifice Your Life to Become a Physician

I have read over and over about all the sacrifices one makes to become a physician, as if we are the only profession who has this issue. How the decade of our twenties is lost to studying medicine, as if it would not have passed by if we had chosen to study something else. 

Our twenties will pass by no matter what we do, and when it is gone, we will be physicians and live a privileged life compared to most others. Even the lowest paid specialties are in the top 5% of income in America. But we shouldn’t waste the opportunities presented to us during those years because we have our nose in a book.

Many people mistakenly believe their career choice determines their home life. We each determine our own home life and what we do with our spare time. I wrote earlier about why Choosing to Be a General Surgeon is Not Choosing a Bad Lifestyle. If you don’t like your lifestyle, then change things you have the power to change until you do like your lifestyle.

Medical training delays my earning power

Many physicians say that going to medical school has “delayed their earning power” and they are jealous of their friends who went to work right out of college, because they are getting ahead financially. But where are the college students who complain about how they are jealous of their friends who went to work directly out of high school and are getting ahead of them financially? Isn’t it the same issue?

You are going through medical training to become a physician to fulfill your dream. Professional athletes train a long time to hone their abilities. Professional musicians spend long hours practicing to become good at what they do as well.

By the time you reach your 50s, as a physician, you are likely to be financially far ahead of all your friends. They may have had a head start, but it is likely you are the one who will win the financial race. If you don’t win the race, it’s because you didn’t run well, not because you got a late start. After all, you out earn more than 95% of the population so you should end up well financially.

Being a physician means long hours and missed family time

We do not face life with different rules than everyone else simply because we chose to become physicians. If I choose to let life pass me by while I am in college and not live life every day, that is a choice I make. If I choose to let life pass me by in medical school/residency and not live life every day, that is my choice. If I choose to be at a committee meeting in the evening instead of home with my family, that is my choice also. We should not let life pass us by no matter what profession we choose. 

I know farmers who work long into the night trying to get the harvest in before the rain comes, or are up milking the cows before sunrise and then again in the afternoon. Others who stay up all night drying the corn they just harvested before putting it in storage bins. 

One fond memory of my childhood was having my parents on the sideline cheering me on at sporting events. Many of my teammates did not have even one of their parents on the sideline. Almost none of those missing parents were physicians. All professions have to work, not just physicians. All professions complain about not having enough family time or missing family events. 

Accountants don’t get much sleep during tax season. Architects and engineers put in many late nights trying to finish a project on time. Professional athletes get drafted and don’t get to choose the city they will live in for the foreseeable future just the same as residents do in the match. Airline pilots are often at the other end of the country during family events. Single moms working three jobs don’t make it to their kids’ soccer games either.

Every job requires around a third of our time. But each individual decides what they will do with their time when they are not working. If a physician worked 60 hours a week, then they get to choose what to do with the other 108 hours in the week. It works the same for whatever profession is chosen. If an individual spends seven hours a night sleeping, that uses 49 hours of their week. That leaves 59 hours a week for everything else. Since that’s about the same number of working hours, we should be able to get a lot of fun packed into those 59 hours every week. We shouldn’t complain about not having enough time, since we have all the time there is. It works out to about 1/3 work, 1/3 sleep, and 1/3 everything else.

Medical training leads to huge student debt

This is not unique to the medical profession. Everyone seems to complain about student debt these days, not just physicians. Yet when I work with physicians in my financial makeover program, it is often not the student debt that is the problem. It is the home mortgage, the luxury car payments, the visa payments from the recent vacation, the boat payment, and the furniture payments that are added onto the student debt that cause the real problem. 

Although the electively self-imposed debt is the main culprit, it is usually the student loans that are blamed for their financial situation. I hear, “If it wasn’t for this student debt, everything would be fine.” No one ever says, “If it wasn’t for my huge mortgage payment, everything would be fine.” Or “If it wasn’t for these two luxury car leases, everything would be fine.” Yet almost every physician could pay off their student loan debt in three to four years out of training if they made it a priority. They could then live a much better financial life free from student loan debt. But that is not the usual path.

Life is not on hold while you train

Life does not get put on hold while we go to college, medical school, and residency. Life goes on. We still eat, sleep, socialize, find a mate, recreate, start a family, and live. We are not different from anyone else.

If one goes through the training years and lives as if it is the only thing in life, then there will never be a time when life can be lived. There will always be something important to take the place of having fun and living life. Life needs to move up on the priority list.

I need to find a job, I have this important project to finish, we are in the middle of building a new office that takes all my time, we are remodeling the house, or the wedding is only three months away. Anything can become an excuse to not live life to its fullest and it can happen at any point in our lives, not just during medical training.

I recently had a coaching client who found a way to cut back his work schedule to enable him to spend more time at home. He was loving his new life. Then he noticed that his schedule was booked out more than it used to be, so he added hours back into his work schedule to reduce the back log. 

I asked him why he didn’t just work on Saturday and Sunday to catch up. He could have chosen to work on the weekend, but he chose his family instead. He drew a line in the sand.

There are more patients wanting to see us than we could ever see. We could work 24/7 and still not see them all. So, we set artificial bounders in order to keep us healthy. So why not move that artificial line a little bit more in our favor? We have the power.

How to live life every day

We all have choices. We end up with the life we want because we make the choices to get us there. We do not need to be retired to travel and have a fun life; we only need to make the choice and schedule it.

I looked back at all the things I did in medical school wondering if I had lived while I was training. I came up with the following list:

I river rafted, visited the Smithsonian museums, walked the Atlantic City boardwalk, saw a play on Broadway, walked the cliff walk in Rhode Island, toured the White House, ate lobster in New England, toured the Vanderbilt mansion, walked on the beach, wrote and recorded a music album, played an original song on television, attended the Oregon State Fair, saw America in concert, attended Octoberfest, stood under the Saint Louis arch, rode a ferry through Puget Sound, took a carriage ride in central park, toured a tobacco farm in Kentucky, had dinner on top of the space needle, saw the great lakes, visited Sea World, stood at the top of the empire state building, enjoyed cross country skiing, flew an airplane, flew a helicopter, took karate lessons, and found and dated my future wife.

That was not a comprehensive list, it is just some of the highlights. What did you do during medical school? Did you only study while you let life pass you by? 

Many of the things listed above on my activity list were done in conjunction with an interview trip. If I was already flying to Saint Louis for a residency interview, why not do some site seeing while I was there? Life is happening all around us.

Make your life count

I love the ending of Saving Private Ryan when Ryan asked if his life mattered. Was he worth saving? Let’s stop complaining about how hard our job is and just get it done so we can get home and live life to its fullest. It is up to us to make it happen.

If you are not enjoying being a physician, that is a different issue and you may find help in the book The Doctors Guide to Smart Career Alternatives and Retirement

Don’t let life pass you by.

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6 thoughts on “You Don’t Need to Sacrifice Your Life to Become a Physician”

  1. The problem is working nights, weekends, and holidays. 60 hrs/wk of free time during the middle of the day is fine if you want to do things alone. But if you want a social life, you need to be available Friday night, etc. Want to see your kids? Well this is tough to do if you work a swing shift and they get out of school when you have to go to work.

    I appreciate the glass half full attitude, but saying other people have sucky jobs too misses the point. Also, this article would carry more weight if the author were still practicing medicine.

    • Bob, If you are unhappy with the hours you are working, swing shift, it is not hard to find a better job as a physician. There is a bit of a shortage so lots of hiring opportunities are out there. Granted, someone has to work during those hours. But since those are not the hours people like to work, you should be working somewhere that they rotate that around. I put in my time working nights and weekends too.

      • My job’s great! I feel blessed to have stumbled upon it. However, depending on where you live and where your life is, however, no there are not a lot of hiring opportunities. Currently for RNs there is a shortage and lots of hiring opportunities. Not so much for physicians. Unless you want to pick up an move to a rural location. That would be sacrifice. When you put in your time working nights and weekends, I guarantee you made sacrifices. Don’t get me wrong, you have a good message. We can still enjoy our lives. Not all is lost. But it’s a fallacy to suggest you don’t have to make sacrifices as a physician.

        • Bob, you seem to have missed my point. It is not that physicians don’t make sacrifices, it is that everyone makes sacrifices to have a job and everyone still has a life to live. Physicians are not unique. Whatever your situation is, go out and live a great life and stop complaining about your job. If it is bad enough to complain about, then it is bad enough to change. There is ample opportunity out there to change to a better situation, with or without going to rural America. And I can speak up that working in rural America is not a step down or a sacrifice from working in the big city, in fact, many of us believe it is a step up. (My commute to the office was about 30 seconds. It was about 5 minutes to the hospital.) The bottom line is physicians need to to quit complaining about their jobs. Either do it 100% or go get a better one! You do not have to stay with a job you don’t like. Life goes on no matter what job you have chosen.

  2. Great piece. I get so tired of physicians complaining about their “hard lives” when so much of their hardships are self-imposed. Stop and smell the roses or the only roses you’ll see will be on your casket.


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