Find Your Niche


Before you go off trying to find your claim to fame, keep in mind that the first few years out of residency are a time of transition. Simply put, taking on too much, too early, could capsize your vessel.

“You must define yourself as a hospitalist.” I smiled uncomfortably at my colleagues across the table as I pondered how best to respond to this statement. This seemingly innocuous comment had me perplexed, despite the fact that I aced the “What I want to be when I grow up” question as a fifth-grader. What had changed in all these years?

It was my first job as a hospitalist. I was two months out of residency and had accepted a position at the large academic hospital where I’d spent the previous three years of my life. The comfort was alluring and the transition appeared mundane. However, I naively did not realize that the difference between residency and the launch of a professional career was far greater than a miraculous transformation of paychecks.

Don’t get me wrong—throughout residency, I knew that I had a wealth of untapped energy and ideas; I was just too exhausted from patient-care duties to put action and plans into place. But as I vaulted into my career, I realized I now had the opportunity to act on these ideas and transcend the physician-in-training stereotype.

And so here I was, sitting with colleagues, attempting to define what would occupy the nonclinical portion of my upcoming career.

You might be wondering, “Isn’t great patient care enough for me as a hospitalist?” Indeed, in residency, we are praised, ranked, and valued almost solely on clinical acuity. As a hospitalist, however, we have the unique opportunity of defining ourselves in ways beyond bedside skills. While we are all astute clinicians, an important secret was kept from you during residency: You can choose another hat to wear and—unlike during your training years—you will have the time to do so.

Not buying it? It’s true. Simply pause and reflect on the hospitalists or general internal-medicine physicians you once admired; odds are they weren’t just clinicians, but they were also clinician-educators, clinician-researchers, clinician-administrators, clinician-fill-in-the-blank. In essence, they found a niche, a path that defined their careers.

And now, it’s time you did the same. But how, you ask? Here are a few pointers to get you started:

No. 1: Take Your Time

Before you go off trying to find your claim to fame, keep in mind that the first few years out of residency are a time of transition. Simply put, taking on too much, too early, could capsize your vessel. Learning to become an attending comes with a myriad of diverse responsibilities and a slow march to confidence in your clinical skills. This is a full-time position and one that requires diligence, both to ensure that you gain a strong clinical footing and fully understand the dimensions and nuances of potential “niches.” Get secure in your new role before beginning the search for your new calling. Once you feel comfortable with the resident-to-attending transition, you might find yourself itching to take on that new role in the hospital.

No. 2: Identify Your Passion

My mentor in residency was Dr. M, an all-star attending who had the energy to inspire by building an effortless bridge over the intern-resident-attending communication gap. As I studied her actions during my intern year, I found myself asking, “Could I ever be that successful in my career?”

As we shared experiences, I realized Dr. M genuinely was happy and passionate about her job every day. Her ability to effectively communicate to residents, nurses, and patients was a simple segue to her niche. So what is her niche? Dr. M is a clinician-communicator. Whether it is blogging about a recent patient experience on the wards or appearing as a physician correspondent for an Atlanta news affiliate, Dr. M’s strength is effective communication. Despite being a great clinician, it was her drive outside the wards that helped me understand she had found, and was living, her passion.

During residency, every physician had that one thing that continued to drive us when the going got tough. For some, it was the eager medical student who deserved to learn about that critical aortic stenosis murmur, even if you were 28 hours into your shift. For others, it was quality-improvement (QI) projects that arose from experiencing firsthand the effects of haphazard care transitions. Still others became passionate about patient advocacy after watching patients struggle to understand complex diseases.

Why are these examples relevant? Because each example represents a pathway to your niche. The first person might find a niche as a clinician-educator, exploring opportunities with the medical school during their first year. The second might align themselves with like-minded colleagues in QI and begin projects that will solve frustrations or improve physician efficiency. The third might get involved with local health fairs or local news stations to promote health awareness. The common link between all of these examples is that a clinician’s niche is based on their passion.

No. 3: Stay in Your Own Orbit

We’ve all been go-getters. We’re used to stretching ourselves thin to show what efficient, all-around superdocs we are. And this drive to say yes to your boss, that clinical nurse specialist, and to your colleague who schedules medical student clinical exams will lead to fruitful clinical ventures. Ultimately, however, this approach will leave you exhausted and will leave your colleagues wondering what it is that you actually do with your nonclinical time.

The solution? Learn to invest yourself, and your time, wisely.

During the first week of my new career (when I was asked that fateful question to define myself), I received the best advice. Dr. S (yes, another mentor—it’s OK to have multiple mentors) drew a series of random dots on a sheet of paper. Each of these dots represented opportunities that would arise during my first year. Circling a dot in the middle of the page, Dr. S looked at me and said, “One of these dots represents your passion. The remaining dots are where others’ interests lie. Pick one of these and work in its orbit only. Sure, you may jump up to another dot for a project, but the more you stay within the orbit of your passion, the happier and more productive you’ll be.”

In your first few years on the job, do say yes to joining committees, taking on projects, and collaborating with colleagues. But as you do, ensure that each of these decisions is within your orbit. Saying yes is easy, but saying yes and making it count twice is a skill that you will develop as your career progresses.

Not sure what your orbit is? I encourage you to refer back to tip No. 2 and start seeking out opportunities that center around your passion, not someone else’s.

Simple Strategies to Expand Your HM Network

  1. Establish goals
  2. Make a plan
  3. Let the networking begin
  4. Follow up

For more information and dozens of articles on this topic, search “networking.”

No. 4: Master the Network

Networking is an art in which our business-minded friends from college excel. Unfortunately, studying for exams and resting after a 30-hour MICU call is a solo venture that leaves little room to hone networking skills. But now, the onlooker must become the master … of networking.

Networking is an important skill to develop, and you start the very first day of your career. The relationships you forge with successful colleagues and superiors will provide you with opportunities beyond the clinical arena (see “Simple Strategies to Expand Your HM Network,” below).

Not sure where to start? A mentor can help. Look at the well-respected leaders in your department and institution, and take note of how each of these people always talk about their mentors and the role they played in crystallizing their career paths. Good mentors steer you toward other like-minded professionals. They help you navigate the complex relationships that are at the base of a successful networking strategy. A wise strategy is to find multiple mentors who serve different purposes in your career; this usually leads to untold opportunities.

Can’t find a suitable mentor at the workplace? Fear not. Consider networking at local, regional, and national society meetings (www.hospitalmedicine.org/events). When the opportunity arises, do more than just attend the clinical sessions during these meetings. Learn which committees are available through the various societies and contact their leaders to express interest in joining next year’s group. Your fellow committee members will be a natural place to practice your networking skills. High-quality relationships made during this time have the potential to grow, and they could lead to more opportunities as your career progresses.

No. 5: Take Calculated Risks

This might sound simple enough, but it is not easy. It is uncomfortable to make mistakes in front of a public audience (and believe me, we all make mistakes). But you will be successful, too, and you must learn how to promote yourself during these times.

Challenge yourself by attending SHM’s Academic Hospitalist Academy (www.academichospitalist.org), or by taking on that project discussed at the last committee meeting. Say yes to your mentor when they learn your passion is QI and appropriately volunteer you to lead a resident research project. Submit your most recent project to an abstract competition, such as SHM’s Research, Innovation, and Clinical Vignettes (RIV) competition. Before you go, research others in your field with similar interests and seek them out during the meeting to share your experiences. Be ready to explain your pitfalls as well, and use this as an opportunity to learn from experienced colleagues.

Whether it is speaking in front of a group of strangers at the academy, giving a presentation to your colleagues, or meeting HM leaders at the national meeting, opportunities abound and often pay off in the long run.

No. 6: Ready For Change

Wait, change? Back up to tip No. 2. I know you’re saying, “But I’m following my passion.” Remember that, fresh out of residency, your interests likely are somewhat different than those of your future self. Thus, as the saying goes, the only thing that is certain is change.

Through networking and putting yourself in new positions, you will discover a world that was never revealed to you in residency. Case in point: my friend and colleague Dr. H. As a chief resident, Dr. H was exposed to a year of educational opportunities before she embarked on a hospitalist career. Education seemed like a natural fit in her first year as a hospitalist. In fact, she never imagined that it would be her experience with the inner workings of her hospital’s electronic medical record (EMR) during her chief year that would catapult her career as the physician director for information services. Yes, she is now a hospitalist-administrator. The bottom line: Remain resilient and ready to take up that next interesting opportunity.

Residency provides you with the skills to be a confident and effective clinician. But as residency comes to a close, think about what really drives you. Where do you see yourself in five years? How about 10 years?

Plot your course to live your passion at work every day; as you start your new job, find, refine, and define your niche.

Dr. Payne is a hospitalist in the Department of Internal Medicine at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, and a clinical instructor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

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