COVID has reminded us all of what is truly important in our lives. Ideally, we’d all regularly take the time to reflect on this, but many of us need prompting. The pandemic has been a prompt that nobody can ignore. The major shifts in our lives are encouraging us to work on our relationships and contribute to society in new ways, for instance.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sylvie Stacy.
Sylvie Stacy received her MD from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and completed a residency in preventive medicine at Johns Hopkins, obtaining an MPH along the way. She has held nonclinical jobs in medical writing, medical education, utilization management, and clinical documentation improvement.
Her blog and online community, Look for Zebras, aims to equip medical professionals with the information and knowledge needed to take charge of their professional fulfillment and earn income doing work they enjoy. She recently published the book 50 Nonclinical Careers for Physicians.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Becoming a doctor was a childhood dream of mine. I pursued it relentlessly. Once I started medical school, though, I quickly realized that the traditional career of a doctor wasn’t a great fit for me. I didn’t see myself feeling fulfilled by treating patient after patient, day after day, in a clinic or hospital.
So, I set out to cultivate a career that was satisfying and allowed for a good work-life balance, but that still utilized my hard-earned medical education. I ended up finding this satisfaction and balance with a mix of clinical work and nonclinical work.
In the process of finding my balance, I tried out various types of nonclinical options for physicians. This included doing freelance and contracted work outside of my “regular” job. I was struck by the breath of options and the extent to which a lot of nontraditional work for physicians is both relevant to our training and important to ensuring the health of patients.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career as a physician?
My first job out of residency was a Corporate Medical Director position with a healthcare company. I oversaw the care provided at about a dozen facilities. During a site visit to one of those facilities, another doctor asked me how I’d ended up in my position so early on my career. I explained my thoughtful, deliberate approach and the extensive effort I’d put in to preparing myself for the role and then landing the job.
He replied, “So, this job just fell into your lap, then?”
There is a tendency for some people who are unhappy in their careers to believe that it’s out of their control. They are convinced that their job has been unfulfilling because of a boss who is a poor leader, a bad job market, or another external factor.
But, the truth is, we all control our own careers. Being proactive and not settling for a mediocre job will get you far.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I recently published the book 50 Nonclinical Careers for Physicians. The book aims to introduce doctors to all the different ways that they can use their medical training and experience in various industries, sections, and organizational types. My hope is that it will assist many physicians in finding work that is a great fit for them that, in turn, allows them to strike a sustainable work-life balance.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am thankful to have met many physicians throughout medical school and residency that were willing to talk with me about their unconventional medical careers. One in particular — Dr. Glenn Pransky, an occupational medicine physician — was a mentor and supervisor during a summer internship that I had at a research center. He was so enthusiastic about how doctors are able to contribute to the health of populations on a large scale. He opened my eyes to all the possibilities I’d have with a medical degree, and introduced me to others who helped me further explore where I wanted to head with my career.
On top of that, he invited me to join a team of staff from the center who were participating in an adventure race together. Through that race, I met the man who is now my husband. So, I have Dr. Pransky to thank for both my career and my personal life!
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
I don’t have children, so I haven’t personally had the challenge of simultaneously working, running a household, and essentially home-schooling my kids while schools are closed. I know that this is a huge burden for a lot of women — especially those in STEM, whose family income is likely to depend heavily on their jobs.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’m incredibly thankful to not be facing family-related challenges at this time. For fellow physicians who are facing these challenges, though, I hope that my book and my other writing on Look for Zebras about career fulfillment for medical professionals is informative and beneficial to anyone considering a career shift, seeking a side gig, facing financial difficulties, or trying to find balance during the pandemic.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
I’ve been blessed in this area as well. I haven’t been laid off or had my hours or salary cut as a result of the pandemic. I also am not working “on the front lines” caring for COVID patients in my current role. However, so many woman in healthcare are facing major challenges right now. Hospital workers, for example, are stretched thin and having to adjust to new organizational policy changes every day. Outpatient physicians have had to figure out how to keep their practices open, scrambling to put telemedicine in place or establish new safety procedures, for instance.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I make an effort to write about topics such as managing stress, managing finances, and other info that will assist physicians facing work-related challenges. I also serve on my medical society’s board in an effort to support my physician colleagues.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
Planning is key. There are a lot of hours in a day, but we tend to waste a lot of them on activities that are not actually priorities for us. You don’t necessarily need to spend hours in front of the TV each evening for this to happen. Small chunks of time throughout the day really add up. We might spend 10 minutes on social media, 10 more sending text messages, and 10 more reading the news. There’s a half hour that could have been used to accomplish something that it truly important to addressing the needs of ourselves or family members.
I recommend making a to-do list each evening for the following day. Then use that to-do list to create a schedule for yourself. If you end up having to deviate from that schedule, that’s okay. But it’s something to start with and something to strive for.
I’m routinely surprised at how much I can accomplish by having a solid plan and schedule for my day.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
Exercise is a big one. Many physicians and other medical professionals who are used to having jobs that require them to move around a ward or a clinic throughout the day are now spending a lot more time at home, either conducting telemedicine visits or without any work at all. This can mean being more sedentary than usual. It’s so important to move your body. This will be reflected in your mental health.
A second way to stay sane is to plan fun activities at home in the same way that you’d plan an outing or vacation during a “normal” time. Don’t wait until your family is bored, quarrelsome, or restless to do this. Be proactive. For example, plan a picnic or a board game tournament several days in advanced. It will be something for the family to look forward to.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
First, for many women in STEM, this crisis is uprooting their jobs, but it also represents an opportunity for their careers. Losing a job is an opportunity to find a new job that is a better fit. In the same way, experiencing stress and burnout in a clinical setting due to the pandemic may make some clinicians realize that their skills and personalities are better suited to a different type of work. Many women won’t be able to make a career change until the crisis settles down, but they can get a head start by exploring their options.
Another reason to be hopeful is similar to the first one, but from the point of view of employers and the healthcare industry. The pandemic has led to a massive interest in virtual health, which requires changes to the ways that healthcare is traditionally provided to patients, as well as new technologies and regulations. Women in STEM are needed to make efforts in this area successful. This means that are new and exciting ways to use our backgrounds and education.
Third, fear and uncertainty often stem from a lack of knowledge. The pandemic — though it is a huge source of uncertainty and fear — is also an opportunity to educate ourselves about a variety of topics that help to control these negative emotions. For example, health policy, personal finance, epidemiology, virology, and economics.
The crisis is also a source of hope because it is a challenge being faced by everyone — regardless of where they are or who they are. Common challenges make us feel connected. I’ve personally felt a spark of hope when I see people helping and supporting one another in everyday situations during the pandemic.
A final reason to be hopeful during this time is that COVID has reminded us all of what is truly important in our lives. Ideally, we’d all regularly take the time to reflect on this, but many of us need prompting. The pandemic has been a prompt that nobody can ignore. The major shifts in our lives are encouraging us to work on our relationships and contribute to society in new ways, for instance.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Anxiety is often the result of thinking that is out of context. For me, I catastrophize. When my work gets busy, for example, I get anxious that it’s going to get increasingly busy until I can’t handle it anymore. Other people are more apt to get anxious about the details and forget to think broadly.
Anxiety due to thinking out of context can be avoided by, well, remembering to put things in context. Simply just reminding yourself to consider your source of worry or concern in the correct setting and perspective can be hugely helpful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
John F. Kennedy said, “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.” I used this as the epigraph in my new book, because it rings so true when it comes to a career — especially for women in STEM.
It’s so easy to get into a cycle of working, catching up on things at home, sleeping, and repeating. Too many women go to their work every day and do a great job at it, but truly dislike it or live with a large amount of stress associated with it. Not taking any action in this case only allows things to worsen in the long run.
We need to take the reins in our professional lives, and seek out the opportunities, mentors, and experiences that allow us to build up a career that is truly satisfying.
How can our readers follow you online?
Website and blog: Look for Zebras
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!