I have to believe that the women who told me to quit medicine had the best intentions, but when I look back on those moments through my training, I just wish they’d kept their thoughts to themselves.
I had my doubts about a career in medicine. I’m the first in my family to choose this path, and until you’re really in a field, you don’t really understand the commitment and reality of it. The late nights, the hours of studying, the patients who don’t trust your opinion, the attendings who belittle you – many experiences left me doubting my choice. But it’s the unsolicited advice from female doctors that left me with the most unease and worry. It happened when I least expected it, and it left me shaken.
One night on my emergency room rotation in medical school, I was reading a film with a female radiologist. It was 3AM, and we were the only ones in the reading room. The patient had been in a knife fight, and I’d been sent to the reading room to get the low down. My heart was still pounding from the rush of seeing my first real trauma, and I was thrilled with the responsibility I’d been given: “Go to the reading room and let us know ASAP if he’s got a pneumothorax.” I didn’t really notice the radiologist at first – I was on a mission. Looking back on it, she looked tired, sipping stale coffee, and pulled up the image when I asked but slower than my eager medical student urgency requested. She gave the read (no pneumothorax) and before I left said bluntly, “Are you sure you want to do this?” I stopped. “Do what?” “Go into medicine? It’s not too late to change your mind.” I answered a curt ‘Yes’ and hurried back to complete my task of reporting the read to the team. Only later did I really think through that unsolicited question and peek into her own doubts.
The last month of medical school, we met in groups with faculty to reflect on school and look toward the future. We went around the room and answered the question “What do you want to have accomplished 10 years from now?”
I went last after listening to my classmates’ passionate calls to go into academics, further research, operate, and more. When I said, “I want to be a great Mom,” the room stopped, dead silent. I went on to state that I wanted to be a leader in my field, educate others, and give compassionate patient care, BUT the most important goal for me personally was to have children and to be a wonderful Mom. This was before I was married, and I really wasn’t planning on kids soon, but it’s always been in my plan. Afterward, some of my female peers and friends gave me support, but one of the female faculty members pulled me aside a few days later and questioned my choice of going into obstetrics and gynecology. I cannot remember the exact words and she didn’t specifically mention what I had said in the meeting, but it was implied that I needed to be careful with my choice of a surgical specialty since it might not be ideal for a woman who wanted to be a ‘good Mom.’ I’m glad I ignored her.
These are just two examples from 11 years of training – medical school, residency, and fellowship – and I’m glad now that I ignored all the warnings and ‘well-wishes’ of others. As a woman, I have enough imposter syndrome and self-doubt about a place in medicine without others adding to the worries.
I believe in best intentions and choose to believe these women were trying to help.
To women giving other women in medicine unsolicited advice, be careful with what you say. Your words can have a lasting impact, so make them positive.
To women receiving unsolicited advice like I experienced – take a step back and think through what was said. This person is likely reflecting on their own doubt in their career path and cannot possibly know what’s right for you. A career in medicine is full of many choices: which residency, fellowship or not, academics or private practice, full time or part time. When you face these choices, get advice, ask questions – but in the end, listen to your own voice – don’t let others choose for you or choose a path because it ‘seems like the right one.’