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Career Advice

10 steps to map out a strategic plan for your career

In a competitive job market, strategic planning is a key component of professional development.


Many newly minted physicians face a tough job market. Other than a recent focus on competency development (CANMEDS), medicals schools do not teach students how to prepare their unique value proposition. Students are developed in herds. However, to be successful, an individual needs to stand out. Too much of career strategic planning is innate. While some people do it naturally with few mistakes, others make poor decisions. This can lead to difficulties becoming residency-matched, or even worse, being stuck in a series of short-term appointments (locums) upwards of 10 years before a permanent position becomes available. Most of my guidance comes from business principles that can be applied to any career. Importantly, a career strategic plan is a “living document” – because situations change. Here are my tips for strategically planning for your career.

1. Vision. At its core, a strategic plan maps out a desired state (the so-call vision) that an organization wants be at approximately three to five years in the future. Five years is necessary because after the desired state is identified and determined to be feasible, the organization needs to plan and implement a series of missions to increase their chances of reaching the vision. It is no different for career planning. For example, if a new medical student thinks they want to become radiologist, they may need time to implement a series of missions to distinguish themselves from the herd.

2. Competitive analysis. Just because a student thinks they want to become a radiologist, doesn’t mean they can attain it. The first stage of strategic planning is competitive analysis, also known as SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. It helps students identify obstacles that undermine chances and assess if they have the gravitas to navigate them. Because obstacles can pop up at any time, competitive analysis should be ongoing. SWOT analysis should actually be called OTSW analysis because an examination of the external landscape should come first.

3. Market. In business, strategic planning begins with a study of the market. It is no different with careers. How big is the market? How many students get recruited? Is the market growing or shrinking? What’s the competition like? What are the channels? Are there macro-economic trends at play? A student cannot set an effective plan unless they truly understand what they are up against.

4. Rivalry. In an especially competitive job market such as medicine, one must consider rivalry. Known in business as Porter’s five forces, intensity of rivalry is influenced by: 1) supply, 2) demand, 3) substitutes, and 4) new entrants. Medical schools have recently increased their enrolment of students. However, economics has challenged growth in medicine. Accordingly, health care systems are looking for ways to cut costs. Today, budding radiologists may need to be concerned with the outsourcing of radiographs to India for interpretation (substitutes). Tomorrow, they may need to worry about artificial intelligence (new entrants).

5. Opportunities and threats. Diversity of choices creates market instability. However, crisis can also bring opportunity. For example, do students have interest or expertise in machine language? Could they interact with computers, which may be a job requirement for radiologists in the future? If so, then they may need time to prepare for those anticipated expectations. If not, they may want to pivot to a specialization that better resonates with their interests and acumen.

6. PESTLE analysis. Market researchers use PESTLE analysis, as new threats or opportunities can pop up in several areas (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, Environmental). Students should constantly be scanning for opportunities and threats, as part of OTSW analysis. Could something like privacy change the outlook for radiology in the future? What about blockchain? While scanning is necessary, it’s also important to seek advice from professionals in the area to understand the nuances. Informational interviewing is an effective strategy to better understand trends, in addition to receiving strategic advice from professionals, who are five to 10 years ahead.

7. Strengths and weaknesses. Alongside landscape, a company will perform an internal analysis to understand strengths and weaknesses in their staff, customer base, market position, financial resources, sales channels, products, profitability, growth, etc. Career-wise, students must undertake a critical self evaluation in order to align their career interests with opportunities and threats outlined above. Does radiology align with one’s interests and personality? If interacting with patients is important to a student, then a back-room career such as radiology may not be right. Not only is it a bad idea to spend a lifetime in a career that does not spark joy, a potential lack of enthusiasm may show during training, which can undermine advancement. It’s important to get this right. There are a number of psychological tests to help students learn their personality, as well as their strengths and interests.

8. Personal value proposition. Another consideration is whether there is anything in a student’s wheelhouse that makes them an especially strong candidate. Known as a personal value proposition, these are the intangibles that set someone apart from the competition. Many competitors will have the required knowledge, skills and attitude for the position. However, they may not have experienced a sports injury that gives a student a particular passion and insight for radiology. Another strategy that people use is to identify a particular pain point an employer has and to show how their unique combination of skills, etc. can help solve their pain.

9. Gap analysis. In business, benchmarking is used to continuously identify, understand and adopt outstanding practices and processes used by the competition. Gap analysis is used to project where a competitor will be in the future and how the gap can be closed by implementing their best practices. It should be no different with career strategic planning. Radiology candidates, for example, should be surveying their competition. While it may be difficult to do this in a national residency match pool, one can certainly survey the local competition to decide if they stack up. If the gap is too great to close, consider pivoting to another specialty. If the gap can be closed, remember that best practices can be identified through informational interviewing.

10. Strategic plan. Once external and internal evaluations are done, a realistic vision can be developed. Based upon their SWOT analysis, benchmarking and informational interviews, a student can set a series of missions that will help them to close any gaps in order to achieve their vision. For radiology, a student may choose is to take a series of artificial intelligence courses, if they think this will make them a better candidate. Another mission could be targeted networking, to help become better known by the national radiology community.

A mission is typically 12-36 months in duration and is broken down into objectives (strategic in nature) and goals (tactical in nature). Remember that goals need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely). It is also a good idea for students to procure mentor(s) who can help them refine and achieve career goals through regular strategic planning meetings. With good goal orientation and progress, a mentor can help a student to reach the finish line.

Derrick Rancourt is a stem cell biologist and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. He is an entrepreneurial scientist and director of Alberta’s Genome Engineering Centre. He teaches biotechnology business and professional development and serves on the Alberta Council of Technologies.

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