A life coach’s guide to easing career transitions

By Dr. Murray Erlich

Doctor looking into microscope

Throughout one’s career there are three common stages that often pose a hurdle: the early years of growing one’s career, career adjustments, such as promotions, leaves of absence, and new jobs, and then, retirement. While all of these transitions can be exciting times of change and development, they often come with stressors and triggers. In my time as a life coach for medical professionals, I’ve been able to prepare clients and guide them through these exciting chapters in their careers, and help them seize the opportunities that arise through these changes. 


How can life coaching benefit a new career transition?

The first career transition medical professionals experience is shifting from student to resident. This means increased responsibilities, working in a hospital, and taking on the role and title of doctor. It can be daunting for many. Most feel (although they may hesitate to admit it) that they often find themselves in situations where they’re feeling in over their head. They’re doing things that feel just a bit out of reach, and while the hope is confidence grows with experience, in the meantime, many residents experience impostor syndrome, and self-doubt.


They also make mistakes. 


It goes without saying that everyone hopes to avoid mistakes, but they happen. Medical professionals are human. (I’d shout that from the rooftops if I could!) Learning to tolerate mistakes, and grow from them, is a challenge for many, but a necessary one in order to overcome mental anguish, and evolve in one’s career. Most people who go to medical school have had very successful academic careers. Not knowing something, or making a mistake, is an uncommon experience for them, and it can take time and practice to accept imperfections. Doctors must first accept that mistakes will happen, and then learn how to appropriately handle mistakes. They must learn how to admit mistakes, ask for help, learn from their mistakes, and forgive themselves.


An additional area of challenge for many medical professionals early in their career is truly facing death. They’re learning how to speak to patients and their families about uncomfortable and heartbreaking matters. Medical professionals are learning this on the job, and there are often missteps. 


For many young doctors and medical professionals, it’s normal to feel adrift in uncertainty, but coaching can provide direction, and the reassurance that these feelings are temporary.


How can life coaching aid a mid-career transition?

When medical professionals finish their residency training and begin practising as doctors, there’s a whole host of new challenges that are faced.


A common one I see in coaching are the unexpected responsibilities, like running an office. Medical school doesn’t train students on how to run a practice, but it’s a necessity. Doctors learn as they go, and while most eventually figure it out, it can cause a great degree of stress that wasn’t at all anticipated.


Medical professionals are also faced with so much choice: do I work in a hospital? Full-time or part-time? For so many, the path to become a doctor is clear-cut, but the path beyond that is open-ended, and the choice can be a point of challenge.


For others, the lack of choice is an issue. For certain disciplines in certain cities, it can be challenging to find positions, and many are forced to look outside the cities they prefer. This can lead to dissatisfaction and frustration, after so many years of hard work to achieve a goal, only to be faced with further sacrifices.


Don’t forget, this is all happening during a phase of life that comes with many personal changes as well. People are buying homes and starting families. They may also have aging parents. It’s an overwhelming time for many.


I’m currently working with two women clients who are in the early stages of their careers, while also growing their families. One was at a point in her career in academic research where she could have grown internationally, but was already spending less time with her children and family than she would have liked. She ultimately made the choice to shift her career in order to spend more time with her children. Another client, a hospitalist, decided to shift to non-clinical work in medicine, which allowed for more time with her family. These are really courageous and tough choices to make. 


Careers in medicine are an incredible achievement, but so too are lives that feel balanced and fulfilling. Coaching helps clients see the value in identifying happiness in their lives, whether that’s in medicine, or family life, or volunteering, whatever it may be, and helping them carve a path in life that protects that happiness.


Many medical professionals end up on a track that’s been laid out for them: do well in school, become a doctor, build a successful career. And hey, if that’s really what an individual wants, that’s great! But for others, maybe it’s not quite as satisfying as they hoped it would be. Coaching looks at what’s going on inside, rather than what’s been projected on someone externally, by family, or society.


How to view retirement as a time of opportunity

In the early and middle stages of one’s career, transitions are typically met with excitement and praise. Starting your first job, earning a promotion, earning recognitions; these are all achievements. Retirement isn’t always met with the same eagerness.


Doctors and medical professionals have been on a track for decades. They enjoy the work, and the feeling of contributing to the world around them, and being productive each day. It’s challenging for doctors to slow down, and do things that they might not view as productive. 


And for many, they’ve spent the majority of their lives prioritizing work above all else. They may not have nurtured hobbies, friendships, even relationships with their partners and children. So it’s hard for many to feel excited to have so much newfound time for these areas of their lives. They haven’t experienced how fulfilling these areas of their life can be. 


In my practice as a life coach, I tell clients approaching this phase in life that it’s very important to have something to retire to, and not just retire from. I work with clients to uncover what else may give them fulfilment, what makes them feel alive. I ask, “What have you always wanted to do that maybe got sacrificed? Was there an alternative career you could have had? What legacy do you want to leave to the world?” Through life coaching, we work to shift perspectives.


The stakes are lower after leaving medicine, but doctors have strong inner critics, they’re perfectionists. But when it comes to hobbies, or volunteer positions, exceptional isn’t a requirement, and that takes some adjustment for retired doctors.


Learning to just be in the moment, and release yourself from judgement, and the urge to be productive, is a goal many of my retired clients work towards.


When should you begin life coaching to aid career transitions

The beauty of life coaching is that it’s always there for you. Much like therapy, people often come to coaching when there’s some kind of pain. Something is nagging at them. And that’s fine. Coaching can assist at any point. But there’s a saying I always refer to with clients, “Listen to the whisper before it becomes a scream.” If people reached out for coaching at the first inkling of discomfort or doubt, early intervention could prevent greater stress. For example, with retirees, there’s a lot of excitement as they approach their last days, so they may not necessarily feel the need for coaching. But when they find themselves sitting around at home, bored, and wondering what to do with their lives, they may be very eager to reach out to me. To be able to prepare clients on what to expect, and what to prepare for themselves, makes for a much smoother experience.


And I always remind clients, as Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Retirement, or a new job, may feel like an insurmountable hurdle, but what opportunities can grow out of this? That pain, that crisis, that unhappiness, it can all be a springboard for something greater if you work on it. 


Think you’re too busy for life coaching?

I hear it all the time: I’m too busy and too stressed to add one more thing to my plate. And to me, that translates to “I’m too busy to take care of myself.” It’s like saying you have too far to drive and no time to get gas. Just like that car, you’re going to run out of gas. And we all know the panic of driving on empty. That’s essentially what we’re doing to our minds and bodies when we don’t take care of ourselves.


Life coaching teaches you how to read the signals and instead of saying, “Next time, I’ll fill up next time.” coaching teaches you how to slow down and take a pause, in order to prioritize your health and wellbeing. 


Periods of transition and stress in careers can feel overwhelming, and even take on a negative spin (even when in actuality, they’re signs of success). You don’t have to endure these transitions alone. It’s OK to ask for help.


Life coaching helps you see these transitions as they truly are: periods of possibility, growth, and opportunity. Life coaching will give you the tools to navigate times of stress, pinpoint where you can shift your perspective, and develop yourself into a fulfilled, satisfied individual.