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This Doctor Can: Finding the right path

Dr Fizzah Ali is a neurology registrar based in London, rotating through the Royal Free Hospital and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. She is currently a National Medical Director’s Clinical Fellow on a secondment working at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, combined with time at the Fellows Unit at NHS England during the pandemic. She is editor-in-chief of Medical Woman, a magazine produced by the Medical Women’s Federation.

In this piece she talks about finding the right balance of clinical and creative in her career.

In medical school I took the opportunity to do an intercalated degree in psychological medicine. A year delving deeper into something cerebral helped reaffirm an interest in helping people with diseases affecting the nervous system. The intercalated degree also provided an opportunity to study psychopathology in the arts and literature. I have always been quite creative, studying art at GCSE and literature at A level, so the degree also provided an opportunity to combine my clinical interest with my creative streak.

After medical school I followed a predictable and esteemed path; through an academic foundation programme followed by core medical training as part of an academic clinical fellowship in neurology. It was in the middle of core medical training that I started to question whether I had the right balance of work and life, and a little later whether I had the right elements in my career that made it fit for me.

Outside of situations such as the global COVID-19 pandemic we’re all facing, as doctors, we can get incredibly used to following a fixed path, as if we are on a conveyor belt of production. It can be easy to lose your sense of self in that single professional identity.

Fast forward to about a year later, I had taken a year out of my training programme and had returned to work on a flexible basis. This time out was the start of a more self-reflective career path, where I had given some consideration to my strengths and weaknesses. I started to understand myself better as a person and a professional, as well as the different facets that would make my career work for me. 

Often, we see medicine as a race and a rush to the end. Yet, there is much value in taking time to understand individual strengths and preferences for ways of working.

Dr Fizzah Ali

When I started working less-than-full-time, as a core medical trainee in my second year, it seemed to be something of a liability. Over the course of the ensuing years I employed my interest in flexible working to develop my career. Delivering workshops on flexible working at British Medical Association conferences brought me knowledge of some of the issues affecting medical women. As I have progressed, I have reflected on how few female mentors I have had, and also became involved as an editor-in-chief of Medical Woman magazine.   

Often, we see medicine as a race and a rush to the end. Yet, there is much value in taking time to understand individual strengths and preferences for ways of working. Time out from my medical career gave me an opportunity to consider the right sort of balance that I need, and how my creative streak might manifest in my career. So far, I have had the opportunity to write and edit, be a panelist and speaker, as well as to do some media work on both radio and television.

It may seem obvious – and it’s a difficult thing to consider amid the pandemic – but it is important to take time to identify your strengths as this will help tailor a career that suits you. As our conversations around diversity widen, it can help to be aware of the importance of finding and being a role model. From schoolgirl to doctor, I have had people tell me I can’t. Try to listen to the inner voice that says you can. And find your champion, that person who believes in you when your faith wavers. Show compassion. 

Would you like to share your experience of going into medicine? Get in touch on Twitter via @thisdoctorcan.