Working Outside the Box: Alternative Careers for Doctors

Andrew N. Wilner, MD


August 14, 2018

At its most recent annual meeting in Los Angeles, California, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) offered a unique educational program: "Non-clinical Careers for Neurologists."[1] The program raised the visibility of career alternatives for neurologists coping with symptoms of burnout or seeking new professional challenges. Many practicing neurologists remain unaware that a wide diversity of career choices is available to both recently graduated physicians and those already in established clinical or academic positions.

In a well-attended informal session, three neurologists who have "worked outside the box" shared their professional experiences.

Heidi Moawad, MD, a neurologist whose nonclinical career consists of consulting, teaching, and writing, introduced the topic. She observed that nonclinical careers can offer such opportunities as developing leadership skills and developing technological innovation that improves patient care on a population level. Potential rewards include increased income and job flexibility.

Examples of nonclinical careers include hospital leadership, medical affairs, and executive positions in the pharmaceutical industry; regulatory positions in the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA); working at public health agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and positions in medical education companies and media, such as Internet, radio, and television.

To succeed in a nonclinical career, Moawad told the audience that it is important to build a curriculum vitae emphasizing strong points that make you valuable in the nonclinical world. It's also necessary to become "business-minded."

Another presenter, David Jones, MD, left a successful neuroimmunology practice for a nonclinical career, not owing to burnout but because he had become aware of the immense influence of public policy on patient care. While chair of the multiple sclerosis section of the AAN, he learned how such issues as drug pricing and access to services affected individual patients.

Through networking with colleagues at the AAN and the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers, he found an attractive opportunity at the FDA. This nonclinical post appealed to him for a couple of reasons. Not only would he help patients with multiple sclerosis across the country by improving access to new therapies, but he could work a couple of days a week from home and spend more time with his family.

Jones is excited about his new position at the FDA, but considers it "a 2-year sabbatical." He hasn't ruled out returning to clinical practice or pursuing a position in advocacy or the pharmaceutical industry sometime in the future. He commented, "All of us (neurologists) are highly educated and have a lot of things that we can do for a short or long period of time. It can be very helpful to change direction, and not all decisions are final. Life is a journey."

I was the third panelist and shared my experience as a neurologist and medical journalist over the years. For those who enjoy writing, many opportunities exist. These range from publishing traditional research papers to blogs, conference reporting, editorials, and continuing medical education programs. Online sites, such as,,, and many others, require regular submissions of well-written material to cover research presented at medical conferences as well as other medical news. I've also been lucky enough to have authored three full-length books.

I believe plenty of physicians have built-in advantages to become successful writers. Their MD degree is testimony to a high level of commitment, intelligence, and follow-through, indispensable requirements for a self-employed writer. Trained physicians have already mastered organizational skills that can lend themselves to nonfiction and creative writing. In addition, their medical background provides a knowledge base, interview skills, and insight into medical topics that non-MD writers may not possess. For me, writing is a demanding part-time occupation that complements my clinical practice.

On the basis of the audience's enthusiastic response, it is likely that the AAN will offer a follow-up program at the 2019 annual meeting.


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