A game plan can transform your job search from something stressful to something empowering. Just follow a physician job-search timeline.
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” wrote C. Northcote Parkinson in a 1955 article for The Economist, thereby coining Parkinson’s Law. It may not be a legitimate law of the universe, but Parkinson’s Law is a tried-and-true time management principle. And it’s especially useful when it comes to the physician job search.
On the one hand, you want to give yourself enough time to tackle the many steps: identifying your priorities, writing your CV, interviewing and more. On the other hand, you need deadlines to stay on track. Otherwise, the first few steps may expand to fill your entire job-search window.
This article aims to help you strike the balance. We’re breaking down the job search into a series of steps and explaining how much time to budget for each. Starting early will minimize stress, and having clear deadlines will maintain your momentum.
“Residency is stressful enough,” says family medicine physician Andreia White, D.O., who practices at Cahaba Medical Care in central Alabama. “You can’t control everything, but if you start [your job search] early enough, this process can be a little less stressful, and you can breathe a little bit easier.”
With a clear plan, this phase might just feel less like a major stressor and more like a major celebration— as it should. After all, this is what you’ve been working toward for more than a decade.
“You can finally see that light at the end of the tunnel,” says White. “This is the fun part. This is the part that we’ve all been waiting for—for a lot of us, our entire lives.
24–12 months out: Identify your priorities
Keep the scope of your search manageable by identifying what matters to you. It’s best to do this one to two years before your ideal start date. Examples of considerations include:
Location: You may be interested in a specific city or region or simply a type of location (e.g. rural, suburban or urban).
Practice environment and type of clinical work: Consider hospital settings, private or group practices, academic settings, etc., and what clinical work you would do in each.
Lifestyle: Determine what kind of schedule and flexibility you want. This includes hours, call, vacation, holidays and more.
Family needs: If you might be moving, identify what you need in terms of school systems, proximity to family and extracurricular opportunities.
Finances: Consider cost of living, your desired compensation and loan assistance options.
The factors that matter to you may not be the ones that matter to other job seekers. Rather than considering every potential preference, identify what’s most important to you. Let that guide your search. This will make it easier to find matches—and weed out bad fits.
Jimmy Turner, M.D., anesthesiologist and author of the book “Determined: How Burned-Out Doctors Can Thrive in a Broken Medical System,” started his job search by identifying his priorities.
“There’s a way to find balance in the [job-search] process—by getting really clear on where you potentially want to go and what you potentially want to do,” says Turner. In addition to working at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he coaches other physicians through a program called the Alpha Coaching Experience. “Some people cast a really wide net because they have no idea what they want. So I spent the time upfront, figuring out that piece. It led me to interview in the Southeast, mostly at academic places, and put out some feelers to private practice groups. My net was much smaller, so it didn’t require as extensive of a search. …But it has the potential to be pretty intense for people who haven’t spent the time figuring out exactly what they want first.”
Turner had completed medical school, residency and fellowship at Wake Forest, but staying wasn’t an automatic choice. He needed to figure out what he really wanted. That meant considering clinical work, schedules, location and financial factors. He realized he preferred the depth and teaching opportunities of academic medicine over the broad scope of private practice. At Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, he could work with fantastic clinicians in an excellent anesthesia department. The academic schedule also appealed to him.
Additionally, Winston-Salem was a great fit for his family and has one of the nation’s lowest costs of living. “It made sense from a financial standpoint, from a work/life standpoint, from what I wanted to do with my career. It was those three things that led me to stay.”
18–12 months out: Write your CV and establish references
Now that you have an idea of the type of opportunity best suited to your interests and needs, it’s time to update your CV (the free tool at Physiciancv.com can help) and prepare for applications. The first step was about identifying the best fit for you. This second step is about showing employers why you’re a good fit for them.
“Our CV in medicine looks different than an undergraduate CV, which is heavily based on education,” says Kelly Cavalli, D.O., internal medicine physician with Suburban Geriatrics in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. The post-residency CV retains the education component and adds much more about experience and special interests. “During residency, sometimes you’ll have moonlighting experiences and so forth. Put those on there [along with] education, board certification, memberships, anything you published and references.”
Many employers also want a list of physician references who can vouch for your clinical skills, experience and character. Some simply want contact information, while others want letters of recommendation.
Either way, it’s smart to go ahead and line up your references for a few reasons. First, it gives you time to vet your potential references. Ask candidly whether they feel comfortable giving you an endorsement. Second, it gives your references plenty of time to write letters of recommendation. Third, it allows you to ask if they’ll review your CV.
Every CV benefits from an extra pair of eyeballs, so if you think one of your references would be willing, ask for feedback.
15–10 months out: Start putting out feelers and sending applications
With CV in hand and references at hand, it’s time to start expressing interest in jobs. You can do this informally through conversations and formally through applications. At times, you may simply be putting out feelers to specific physicians and practices. At others, you’ll be applying to specific openings you see online or learn about through your network. Either way, tapping into the power of your connections is a good idea.
“One of the biggest pieces of advice I give people is to talk to prior graduates that came through your program,” says Turner. “Figure out how they found great jobs. Touch base with them on whether that was word of mouth or by using online searches — PracticeLink, for example. … Word of mouth in medicine is still very much a thing.”
Turner searched for anesthesia jobs online and reached out to specific groups that interested him. “I would look at all the bios for the docs in the group,” he explains. “I’d see if anybody trained at Wake Forest, and then I’d email that specific person.” He also used his department’s list of prior graduates.
If Turner didn’t have an existing contact, that didn’t stop him. “I would absolutely just find out who the person of contact was … and just send them an email and my CV and tell them why I was interested,” he says.
Though the standard advice is to begin applications 12 months before you’d like to begin practicing, it varies from situation to situation.
“It makes sense to really start looking intensely at least a year minimum before you get ready to graduate,” says White, who completed residency at Cahaba Family Medicine in Alabama before staying with Cahaba to practice.
Cavalli, who completed residency at Mercy Suburban Hospital (now called Suburban Community Hospital) in Norristown, Pennsylvania, navigated a delay in the typical timeline when she welcomed a baby. “I actually had my first son during residency. It put me behind a little bit—three months,” she says. “Others usually start in the fall sending out CVs.”
Still, she didn’t let the delay keep her from exploring her options. “Mercy knew that they wanted to keep me…but I still interviewed at multiple places within the area, [and] then I ultimately stayed with Mercy for three years,” says Cavalli.
Having followed a non-traditional timeline, she encourages others not to fret if they find themselves in a similar boat.
12–8 months out: Complete your interviews and research the contending jobs
If applications were date invites, the interviews and research that follow would be the dating process. You’re not committing yet. You’re just gathering more information to see if you and the employer are a good fit. As White puts it, “They’re interviewing you, but you’re interviewing them as well.”
The process typically begins with phone interviews, which lead to on-site visits that may span multiple days. These talks and visits show potential employers all that you have to offer. They’re also a chance for you to revisit the priorities you identified early on. Ask detailed questions about what matters to you: the group structure, the type of work you’ll be doing, the workload, schedule and flexibility, the team morale, the community, the compensation and more.
You don’t have to rely solely on what you pick up during your interviews. In- ouse recruiters are usually eager to answer candidates’ questions. If something occurs to you before or after an interview, simply send an email or pick up the phone to ask. In-house recruiters are used to helping physicians settle in and happy to make introductions. They can put you in touch with real estate agents, school administrators and other community members who can answer specific questions about the area.
White also advises job seekers to reach out directly to other physicians within the practice or department to learn more about their experiences. “One thing that I probably would have done a little bit differently [during my job search] is that I would have reached out to some of the physicians that were in those particular groups — whether that was a phone call or a Zoom or in person — just to see what their thoughts are and ask them some questions. …Do they feel fulfilled? Are there any gaps that they wish were filled there? Overall, just get a glimpse of their experience.”
If taking a job would involve a move, she also recommends taking family or friends to scope the area out. This could be coupled with your site visit, or it could be a standalone trip.
“If you have a family, maybe go and spend a weekend there…just to get a feel of the area outside of just the work opportunity,” says White. “What does it feel like on the weekends? What are some things that we can possibly do? Do they have hiking trails? Do they have parks for the kids?
…If you are a single person, maybe you want to take some siblings or some friends [to] help you to figure out [if] this is a place that you can see yourself living.” This type of boots-on-the-ground research helps ensure you find a job— and a community — that fits your needs.
10–6 months out: Evaluate your offers
After your interviews, you may land multiple appealing offers. As exciting as this is, it can also be daunting. How do you choose the best fit for you?
One way to begin is to revisit the priorities you identified early on. See how the opportunities stack up in terms of location, lifestyle, practice type, family needs and finances. Another way— one physicians will appreciate — is to let the research guide you.
“It turns out there are three things that everybody needs in a job [in order] to love what they do,” says Turner. “This comes from the research by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the early 2000s. It’s called self-determination theory [and] basically states that you need three things: …autonomy, belonging and competence.”
Most physicians have the competence component covered, even if they struggle with impostor syndrome, says Turner. Because of this, he advises job seekers to consider whether a job provides autonomy and a sense of belonging. He suggests asking some pressing questions as you evaluate offers.
“When you’re looking at jobs, figure out how much control you have over your schedule at that job,” he says. “What cases are you doing? How many patients do you have to see? Who gets to determine that number? And if it changes, who has a say in whether that is a reasonable change?”
If these questions weren’t addressed during your site visits, it’s not too late to reach back out to recruiters or physicians. Getting clarity will help you make a better decision.
“In terms of belonging, you’ve really got to get a deep sense for how people feel at that job,” says Turner. “Get a sense for how valued people’s opinions are at that clinic, hospital, operating room, emergency department, whatever environment you’re going to be in.”
By considering offers through the lenses of autonomy and belonging, you’ll be better able to identify a job you’ll love for years to come.
10–6 months out: Work with an attorney to negotiate and accept your final offer
Getting a great offer that lines up with your priorities isn’t necessarily the end of the process. You may still need to negotiate to ensure you’ve got the best terms.
“I felt like coming out [of residency] that I couldn’t negotiate my contract,” says Cavalli. “And you can absolutely. Don’t be afraid to just because you’re a first-year.”
Working with an attorney who specializes in physician contracts can help negotiations go smoothly.
“Always get someone to look over your contract,” says White. “There’s a lot of language in those contracts. Some of them can be 12 to 20 pages, and you want to make sure that you understand it. …You may want to negotiate that some things are tweaked a little bit just to make sure that you’re on the same page with the company.”
White met with her lawyer two or three times to look at her contract. “It wasn’t a long, drawn-out process, but for some people it may be longer.”
White also encourages physicians to revisit their priorities as they negotiate. “Go back to what you want your career to look like,” she says. “You may not get it to be 100 percent, but when you’re negotiating, if you can come to a common ground that makes both you and the job happy, that’s what you’re trying to get to.”
Once you’ve found that common ground: Congratulations, it’s time to accept the job and sign your contract!
6–3 months out: Leave time for licensing, credentialing and other admin
Everything’s coming together. You and your employer are getting ready for your start day. But don’t start coasting now. It’s important to leave plenty of time for licensing, credentialing, insurance setup and other administrative requirements.
“Credentialing can take 90 days or more,” says White. Sometimes the seemingly straightforward process hits a snag. If you’ve budgeted the time upfront, these delays are no big deal. “[You may] have to go back and forth, answering questions or figuring things out. If paperwork gets lost or they enter a number incorrectly, you want to allow yourself enough time for those human-error things so that it won’t delay when you’re starting.”
During these final months, you can also work on board prep and, if necessary, relocation to-dos. You may even want to speak to a financial advisor or accountant to ensure you have everything in line financially in advance of your start date.
One month out: Take a vacation
You’ve made it—not just through the job-search process but also through residency and potentially fellowship. It’s time to exhale! If your start date allows, budget some time off.
“You’ve worked so hard, made so many different sacrifices,” says White. “I didn’t know if I’d ever in my life be able to have this type of break again. So I spent that month off, did some things with my family, relaxed, just took some time to breathe [and] then hit the ground running. …If you can, take at least a couple of weeks. You’ll always have time to work.”
That time off isn’t just for recovery from the gauntlet of training and job-searching. It’s also a chance to celebrate, relax and remind yourself that you, too, are a priority. If you take that attitude into your new job, you’ll be better able to care for your patients and yourself. •