Finding Joy in Medicine: 5 Tips for Senior Residents

Dan Culhane

Dan Culhane , MD

Vice President of Operations, Emergency Medicine

Published April 18, 2024

Doctor and elderly patient

When I finished residency, I set out to get the best job ever. I was determined to work at a top hospital, making a competitive salary and handling the most challenging cases. So I really threw myself into landing the perfect position.

Five years and four job changes later, I finally had an epiphany: rather than find the perfect job, I realized I needed to create the best job possible. This meant taking personal responsibility for the environment I practiced in.

When I decided to make an impact at work, everything began looking up. I delivered better experiences and outcomes for my patients. My relationships with colleagues and administrators deepened and became more satisfying.

And most of all, I discovered a new joy in the practice of medicine.

Here are the five of the most important tips I've learned about building a long and satisfying career in medicine.

1. Define your goal

No matter where you are in your career, always have a clear idea about what you're trying to accomplish. Why did you get into medicine? What drives you to come to work every day?

For me, my simple goal has always been to provide great patient care. As a new attending, it was important to connect with patients and offer whatever support I could. As we all know, if you're in the hospital as a patient, it's probably one of the worst days of your life. Later as a medical director, I needed to run the department effectively so that patients could get great care.

2. Be humble

Most physicians leave residency pumped full of the latest medical evidence and advances. And that's awesome. New attendings can invigorate an entire department with fresh ideas and energy. It's just one reason we love to hire them.

But it's also easy to feel a bit full of yourself. This is especially true when you're moving from an academic medical center into a community setting. Suddenly everyone looks out of touch and in need of your help. But before you put on your cape to save the day, take a deep breath.

Start by recognizing that "knowing stuff" is just a small part of your long-term success in medicine. Communication skills, empathy, and ability to run a complex department are just as important.

Next, decide that everyone you work with has something to teach you, from your medical director to the ward clerks. Observe people carefully. Ask questions and invite them to share their wisdom.

Finally, accept that your new colleagues may have different priorities. For example, they may be less interested in working up a rare arrhythmia than making an appropriate referral so they can care for the next patient.

In summary, embrace humility. Learn from mistakes, accept help, and value everyone's contributions.

3. Make medicine a team sport

As an attending physician, your value isn't measured by your clinical skill. It's measured by how well the care team functions when you're leading it.

If you're an exceptional clinician who's passionate about the science of medicine, embrace that strength. Never stop growing and learning. But at the same time, recognize that no matter how much you know, you can't help the patient by yourself.

When it comes to delivering exceptional care, you're completely dependent on the team around you. So to achieve great outcomes, you must learn to manage your team.

It's your job to bring people together, foster accountability, and inspire greatness. Now, this isn't easy, and few of us are natural-born leaders. It's normal to struggle and even fall on your face sometimes. In fact, if that's not happening, you probably need to put yourself out there more.

The good news is that when you finally find your groove, your success will be contagious. Everyone wants to be part of a winning team.

4. Diversify your role

Careers in medicine are uniquely demanding. In a recent survey by the AMA, Mayo Clinic, and Stanford Medicine found that the national average for physician burnout is about 63%.

One way to refresh and recharge is to practice excellent self-care with easy tips to make you feel better now.

Another strategy to stay sharp and energized is to diversify your job duties that don’t involve direct patient care:

  • Serve on a committee for your practice or hospital
  • Help facilitate the peer review process
  • Apply for an administrative role such as education chair, patient experience champion, or assistant medical director
  • Become a clinical instructor
  • Act as physician liaison to the advanced provider, scribe, or EMS teams

Your side role doesn't need to be huge or time-consuming. Trying something new for just a few hours a week is one of the best ways to refresh and renew your passion for patient care.

5. Create your ideal job

As a new attending — and at every career stage — you absolutely have the power to shape your practice environment. And accepting this responsibility is one of the keys to a long and satisfying career.

If you're feeling grumpy, disappointed, or demoralized at work, ask yourself why. What change do you need to rekindle the joy of practicing medicine?

Some familiar answers might include:

  • More meaningful interactions with patients
  • Positive relationships with colleagues
  • Better clinical outcomes
  • Operational efficiency

Once you've identified the problem, think about what you can do to change your circumstances. You can't relieve crowding by adding ten new beds to your ED. But you can:

  • Research ways to improve patient flow.
  • Talk to professors and classmates about what's working at their hospitals.
  • Get colleagues excited about the possibility of change.
  • Work with your medical director to trial and implement new solutions.

It's fine to start small. Creating a great workplace might begin with talking up your teammates — or holding them accountable when you don't agree with something.

Finally, shoot for awesome, not perfect

No ED, OR, or med-surg unit will ever be stress-free. But you can still make it a great place to build a career.

And remember that success is contagious.

Creating a positive practice environment takes time and effort. But it's one of the best investments you can make in your future happiness.

If you’re coming up on your final year of residency, register for our annual signature event Senior Residents’ Weekend. This event is specifically created to help you prepare for your financial future, learn about practice models, and interview with hiring medical directors.


Originally published October 7, 2019, and has been updated for accuracy and composition.

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