Once you have secured a place on a clinical degree programme, you may think your future career path should become clear. After all, you have spent time considering your degree choice, and are on track to join an established profession.

However, once at University and you begin talking to fellow students and colleagues on placements, it make strike you that there are still lots of decisions to make about where your training is taking you, the most suitable specialisms and organisations, and how best to shape your career. Different healthcare professional groups have their own structures for career choices and development – and to complicate matters further these are often changing. There are though some common issues facing today’s health professionals – and some key skills you can pick up in shaping your career.

Choices, choices

One thing that is increasingly apparent is that there is no ‘right’ way to manage clinical careers. There are many potential ways for people to ‘get on’ in different professional groups, and this brings opportunities as well as challenges in terms of managing one’s own career development. Across many industries, there is an understanding that careers have become more flexible and less stable. This is a difficult thing to measure and there is some research to suggest this trend may be overstated. At the same time it is certainly true that many people feel they need to be more active in shaping their own career.

One thing that is particularly evident from our conversations with medical students is the importance of talking to each other about your emerging career ideas. A very common feeling is that our peers have a much clearer idea about the choices open to them – and how to navigate these choices – than we do. But research and common experience tells us that we can all feel unsure of our future direction at one point or another. Some career theorists suggest we embrace uncertainty in a changing landscape of healthcare and remain open to new ways of doing things.

In this conversation, I share some of my thoughts around career development:

In this second video, I speak to Stephen Timmons about his experience on the decision panel for Medical Clinical Excellence awards. From this he considers some of the key areas we can engage in to get ahead early in our careers.

Keeping up with Change

Each clinical professional group has their own structure for career development. The actual structure of clinical careers is changing all the time for each professional group, so just because someone tells you this is how it was when they were training does not mean it works in the same way today. Government policy clearly has a part to play in the way that the training pathways and contracts work for different professional groups – and certainly there has been some key changes in public policy over the past few years. One public policy trend is to try to change professional contracts in a way that gives more control to healthcare organisations to manage their ‘human resources’ more flexibly in light of their own operational requirements. This has seen attempts to move away from ‘traditional’ professional career structures to more ‘managed’ approaches to career development. For example, changes to the ‘Junior Doctors’ contracts (in fact the contracts of all training grades) were a big focus of political debate in recent years which resulted in changes to doctors working hours and salary structure which are still being reviewed and possibly subject to ongoing change. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye on the latest information produced by each professional association as you continue to explore your options.

For medical careers, the different training pathways are introduced on the BMA website. Similarly, the Royal College of Surgeons website contains up to date information. The British Medical Journal have produced dedicated learning courses for planning medical careers (requires NHS subscription).

The Royal College of Nursing website has a number of resources that are useful for nurses – as well as other professional groups.

For Pharmacists, the Centre for Pharmacy Postgraduate Education website includes professional development resources, as well as particular material for career development (you will need a professional registration details to access).

Careers, networking and equality

One key element of career development is continuing to learn about new opportunities. An important way of doing this is speaking to a wide range of people, as well as discussing your ideas will those you know well and trust. A well researched area in social sciences is how talking to people outside our close social circle can lead to new understanding – one of the most cited sociological papers of all time by Mark Granovetter demonstrates how many job openings come from talking to our ‘weak ties’ outside our immediate family and friendship groups.

Talking to a wide range of people during clinical placements, conferences and events about career options and their own career path can be really helpful. Think about any recent useful information that someone told. How did you get to know this person – are they a close friend or a new contact? There are obviously today a number of ways to keep track of professional networks, including the growing use of LinkedIn profiles for recruitment, particularly to senior positions. There are though a number of practical things you can do to develop your professional networks, including:

  • Attending conferences and events
  • Asking to job shadow
  • Asking if your organisation has mentorship scheme
  • Volunteering in the UK or abroad
  • Making the most of placements

Now, please take this quiz to test your knowledge of the paper by Granovetter (1977)

Equality and diversity

One thing that often isn’t discussed openly when we talk about careers is how some people have an advantage over others because of their social class, ethnicity and family connections. Healthcare organisations and government policy has over the past 20 years attempted to address inequality and promote fairness in career development. A recent report into diversity and equity in the NHS the ‘Snowy White Peaks’ report indicates that there is still quite a long way to go, for example with both women and people from Black and Ethnic Minority Groups still under-represented at senior management and executive board level. NHS England provides guidance on issues on Equality and Diversity and the Human Resource department at NHS organisations should have policies in place to seek to improve the fairness organisations practices, for example in hiring and promotion. Recent national initiatives have not though been shown to be effective in dramatically altering the representation of minority groups at senior levels of NHS organisation.  There is though plenty of research that has shown that it is what goes on ‘on the ground’ is as important as the formal policies and rules of an organisation to the culture organisations and peoples direct experience of fair treatment at work. Therefore we all have a responsibility to contribute to an atmosphere which promotes fairness.

What policies does your own organisation have on these issues?

Do a little searching to see if you can find any official guidance from your own healthcare organisation on issues of equality and diversity.

What are the key points for early career staff?

Do you think they are fit for purpose or are there areas they don’t cover?