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How to Find a First Physician Job That Lasts

Helen Falkner
October 29, 2023

New research from MGMA and Jackson Physician Search found physicians who completed training in the last six years stayed in their first jobs for an average of just two years. When the question was asked of all physicians (regardless of how long ago they completed training), the average first job tenure was six years. When you consider the time it typically takes for new physicians to reach productivity, it’s easy to see why healthcare employers are increasingly concerned by the trend of shrinking tenure. While organizations explore strategies to improve retention among newly trained physicians, what can residents and fellows do to break the cycle?

As the Regional Vice President of Recruiting for the Western Division of Jackson Physician Search, my team and I work with early-career physicians daily. We spend a lot of time asking them about their specific job search priorities and introducing other important factors to consider. We do this to help them more effectively identify opportunities where they will find long-term job satisfaction.

The Importance of First Physician Job Tenure

While expectations about how long to stay with an employer have evolved in every industry, for physicians, the impact of shrinking tenure can be especially harmful–not just to the healthcare organization and its patients but to the physicians themselves. This is because most physician job contracts have a minimum term length of two years. Those big signing bonuses and/or loan repayments you hear about are only paid if the physician fulfills his or her commitment to the organization and stays for the entire contractual term. If physicians leave before they have completed their obligations, they will be asked to pay back the organization all or part of any bonuses they have accepted.

Additionally, the physician job search and changing physician jobs can be stressful! So, financial implications aside, most new physicians would prefer to find the right fit the first time rather than start another job search just two years later. 

Examining First Physician Job Search Priorities

To increase the chances of finding the right fit, residents and fellows must carefully establish their job search priorities. The new research from MGMA and Jackson Physician Search found compensation and location to be the most critical factors driving new physicians’ first job search decisions. This aligns with what my recruitment team sees, and of course, it makes sense. After years of living on a resident’s salary, often while starting families and carrying considerable student debt, it’s understandable that new physicians are looking for the best offer they can find in the location of their choosing. However, they quickly learn that the most competitive compensation is often not found in the most popular cities. This is one reason we counsel candidates to expand their job search radius to include other parts of the state or region. 

Asking the Right Questions

The hyper-focus on compensation and location often causes residents and fellows to neglect other factors that may have an equal, if not greater, impact on their ultimate job satisfaction. In the new research, the most frequently cited reason physicians gave for leaving their first jobs is due to practice ownership and governance models. This suggests many physicians are accepting jobs without fully understanding the implications of the types of organizations they are joining.

My team advises young physicians to ask questions about how the organization makes decisions, structures communication, and how well they retain physicians. Candidates should request sufficient time during the on-site interview to speak with people at all levels of the organization–not just the practice administrator but the physicians and support staff as well.  In a smaller organization, the physician should ask to meet with the CEO and other executives. Ask questions about tenure, autonomy, job satisfaction, career advancement opportunities, and work-life balance.

Evaluate the Big Picture

There is so much more to a job opportunity than compensation, and it’s often untrue to think the rest won’t matter as long as the money is there. The research shows us this is simply not the case. And even for those who insist on prioritizing compensation, when we peel back the layers on that impressive initial offer, we often discover a practice that is offering a lower base has an income potential that is just as good as, if not better than, the one with the higher starting salary or big recruitment bonus. Seeing the big picture is difficult, but my team and I are here to help. We work with candidates to help them make fully informed decisions so they can ultimately choose a first physician job that lasts.

Whether you are searching for your first physician job or your fifth, the recruitment team at Jackson Physician Search has expertise in helping physicians find opportunities where they will fit, succeed, and stay. Reach out today to learn more, or start searching for physician jobs online.

About Helen Falkner

As the daughter of a physician and an Iowa native, Helen has witnessed firsthand the impact a great physician can have on a community. She joined Jackson Physician Search at the company’s headquarters in Alpharetta, GA, as an entry-level Research Consultant in 2012. Through her consistent success as an individual contributor and manager, Falkner progressed quickly to Partner in 2018 and assumed her role as Regional Vice President of Recruiting for Jackson Physician Search’s Western Division in October 2020. In January 2021, she relocated to the firm’s Denver office, where she leads a team of successful physician recruiters while actively continuing to recruit for her clients.

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