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5 Career Tips That Just Aren’t Enough

Dr. Marjorie Steigler joins us on the blog today to discuss 5 common career tips that in her opinion are NOT enough.  These morsels of advice are ESSENTIAL.  But they are not as self-explanatory as them seem.  And we, as female physicians often STRUGGLE to operationalize the advice.   Sometimes, following the advice can actually have a negative impact on our career, when we don't apply it appropriately.  ⁠

We already know that women in medicine aren’t supported and promoted as they should be. We know the US healthcare system is a toxic environment, and we need systemic change to achieve gender equity among healthcare professionals. But if you’re a woman physician today, you’re likely to be waiting for that culture shift for longer than you should.

In the meantime, we’ve seen a heightened focus on professional development with the goal of helping women be more effective in advancing their careers. Within that, there’s been a swirl of advice that sounds great at first, but rings a bit hollow when you start to really dig in and try to implement what you’ve heard.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe these are the top 5 bits of career advice for women physicians that simply don’t help. Before I get into those, let me be clear: it’s not that these topics are unimportant. On the contrary – they’re essential. It’s just that they aren’t as self-explanatory as they seem, and our teachers and mentors are often ill-equipped to help operationalize them. With that important note out of the way, let’s jump into the list.

Here are 5 career tips that just aren’t enough:

1. “You’ve got to speak up.”

Of course you do! This isn’t exactly a secret. The problem isn’t that women don’t know they should speak up and advocate for themselves. Rather, it’s usually more that they a) are waiting for permission or an invitation, b) don’t know what to say or how to say it, c) don’t know how to prepare in advance to speak up spontaneously, or d) a combination of those.

Ever walk away from a high-stakes conversation and wish you’d said something else - something that came to mind a few minutes too late? This is a universal experience – we’ve all been there. Usually, the context is either an unexpected/informal meeting, or an unexpected interaction within a planned meeting. And because it is unexpected, the ‘speaking up’ requires thinking on the fly under stress, which typically results in a suboptimal response. BUT, there are ways to prevent these types of situations. The more powerful career advice would be a framework for responding to difficult situations combined with the development of a few key messages that can be articulated without stumbling. These messages are your ‘elevator pitches’ – or as I like to call them, your professional brand value propositions. You should have a few – one for yourself overall, another for a current problem or challenge you’re working to solve, another for your long term aspirations, and so on. Finally, effective advice would include language rubrics that help facilitate mutual understanding and shared purpose so you can clearly help decision-makers understand how what you want is actually a win for them. Because women know they should speak up, and this is so much easier to do when you already know what you want to say and exactly how to say it, whether your opportunity to speak up is spontaneous or pre-planned.

2. “Always negotiate.”

We’ve heard it before – women are less likely to negotiate. We don’t know how. We don’t know what to ask for. We don’t know how to ask. And is ‘negotiating’ the same as ‘asking’? You can make major strides in your career advancement by knowing how to have difficult conversations with those who hold the cards. Communication is notoriously hard, especially when the outcomes are important and you may only get one chance. But this is a learned skill, and it’s more than just a skill. When done well, it’s a deliberate reflection of your values and beliefs (which you’ve explicitly considered and addressed in advance, of course! (Wait, you haven’t? Keep reading.)

Simply advising someone to negotiate is actually very superficial. Important, yes, but actionable – not so much. More useful career advice would include coaching on a) language and strategy for the ‘back and forth’ conversation (e.g. who should make the first offer, anchoring, BATNA…), b) a method to find out what’s actually fixed (i.e.., not within the decision-maker’s power to change) and what can truly be on the table for negotiation, and c) addressing the self-limiting beliefs and behaviors that prevent us from confidently negotiating even if we’ve mastered everything else in this post.

3. “Learn to prioritize.”

A no-brainer concept, really. But there are two huge problems. First, how to operationalize effective prioritization in a culture that expects us to continue to do everything and then some, no matter how great the amount of work or how little the resources. And second, how to actually figure out what to do when there’s too much to do, assuming you felt you actually could say no to some things. Of course, there are a million organizational and productivity systems, but those are really only supportive tools. In order for any of them to work best, better career advice would include development of a personal mission and value compass. Without this, things get muddy really quickly. It becomes much harder to stick to your prioritization plans when you feel like you can’t say no to an urgent request or to the person making the request. And they aren’t really coming in as requests, are they? Instead of volunteering, you’re being ‘volun-told’ to do something.

This is the inspiration for the recent #TrueValuesChallenge on Twitter (an adaptation of the most important session we do at the TransforMD retreat). As with all of the items on this list, knowing what to prioritize requires you to get deeply and very consciously aware of your values. This is 100% necessary before any real prioritization strategy will work. Most people believe they know their values, but when they dig into these exercises, they often find that a) they have a really hard time choosing one over another (i.e., they value all of the ‘good’ values equally, and can’t discriminate or force rank), or b) they find that their activities don’t reflect their values. It’s usually a bit of both. As an example, it’s easy to say you value dependability. Who doesn’t? But it dependability more important than honesty? Or, if you had to choose who can depend on you most, would that be your patients, your colleagues, your family? It’s practically impossible to deliver everything to everyone all the time, and a strong motivation rooted in core values provide the strength you need to stick with your priorities. You probably already know how to prioritize, but these values-based exercises are where you can really get results.

4. “Set boundaries.”

Yep. Everyone talks about setting boundaries and sticking to them. Easy enough to say, but much harder to practice. Better career advice would include an analysis of exactly which boundaries can give you the most benefit, and a specific plan to go about actually articulating and achieving them. You are still going to have to work within the reality of your organization and family dynamics. You may not win on everything. Choosing the boundaries that matter most is important, because you probably do want to preserve your work and family relationships, and you don’t want to jeopardize your status as a contributing member of the group. So, wise choices are important, and the ‘right ones’ will vary from person to person. This will (again!) depend on your most important values.

You’ll help yourself much more by identifying the boundaries that will yield the most benefit, and spending some thoughtful time on an implementation plan. This is another hot topic at our retreat, because it’s all too common that we intend to set a boundary, but something goes wrong. Either we are unable to sufficiently communicate or establish it, or we choose something and stand our ground but it doesn’t really give us the benefit we had hoped (and maybe even comes with a social cost). It’s also extremely common to allow our own self-sabotaging behaviors erode the boundaries we set until they are not respected and become essentially meaningless. So, ‘set boundaries’ by itself is just a waste of breath.

5. “Get a sponsor.”

Better yet, get several sponsors. Yes, yes, we all know about the value of having those sponsors to put us forward when there’s a chance to step up. I’ve written about this before, and I personally believe sponsorship can be a true game-changer. But women already know this. They’ve already heard they need mentors AND sponsors. The most common barrier many women identify is an inability to find and connect with those sponsors. Unlike a mentor, a sponsor really can’t be ‘assigned’ to you. Remember that sponsorship isn’t charity – a person of influence is using your skills and hard work to benefit the company/organization. This is win/win/win because you get the chance to shine and deliver, your sponsor gets kudos for identifying the talent (that’s you), and the organization gets what they need. Clearly, this all depends upon a person of influence being aware that you exist, being confident in your abilities and talents, being certain of your delivery, knowing what kinds of opportunities you’d like to take on, and choosing to tap you among all of the other possible candidates he or she could sponsor for any given opportunity. This is the larger problem; we hear it all the time.

However, this doesn't have to be an obstacle. There are steps entirely within your control that you can take to meet influential leaders within your organization, outside your organization, and outside of your discipline (an often-overlooked but oh-so-important category). There are also strategies you can deploy to improve the likelihood that others will think of you and recruit you for the right opportunities. The digital world makes this all the more important, and all the more accessible. You don’t need to wait for an introduction or an invitation, but you do need to be savvy about identifying potential sponsors, and you do need to be strategic about how you end up on their radar, how you connect with them, and how you communicate your value (because it’s not charity – see above). It’s not luck, it’s not magic – it’s a learned skill. So better career advice would be to suggest truly effective techniques for networking, scripts for reaching out cold, and how to nurture relationships with potential sponsors.

Whew. As you probably can tell, I think all of these categories are extremely important, and also very much a mystery for far too many women in medicine. There’s much more to say about specific solutions to those challenges, but this is already a pretty hefty post. Plus, to really get the most bang for the buck here, the approach for each of these – speaking up, negotiating, prioritizing, setting boundaries, and leveraging sponsors – is highly individualized. These are among the reasons we founded TransforMD, and I know they’ve helped me personally in so many ways in my own career. I hope I’ve planted a few seeds for you to consider, and I hope you’ll raise these with your mentors, leaders, and colleagues for deeper conversations and better results.

You deserve to create a rewarding and meaningful career that you love. And you can!

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