MDs Flock to 'Side Gigs' for Money and Pleasure. Should You Do the Same?

Nisha Mehta, MD


January 06, 2021

A few years ago, I started writing. I didn't have any particular plan, but I had some thoughts about the culture of medicine and the changing healthcare landscape that I wanted to process, and I had finally found some downtime between jobs. As I wrote more, I was encouraged to find a small audience who seemed interested in what I had to say. But more important, I rediscovered my love of writing, and eventually, of speaking.

After a few years of practicing full time as an academic physician while raising two small children, and while my surgeon husband was completing fellowship, I found that writing was exactly what I needed.

Not knowing many other physicians who were pursuing interests outside of medicine, I decided to start an online community where I could connect with other physicians whose journeys were similar to mine. Almost 4 years later, that group has grown from fewer than 10 people to more than 73,000 physicians, and has resulted in a linked group of more than 43,000 physicians.

I've witnessed firsthand a growing momentum among physicians toward pursuing passion projects, seeking alternative income streams, and becoming entrepreneurs. Physicians have many reasons to take on side gigs, and it's not just about the money.

So, if you're sold on the idea of a side gig, where do you start? With the vast array of options out there, how do you find the one that's right for you? And once you decide what you'd like to do, how do you make it happen in the midst of work and family?

There are a few questions you must ask yourself from the get-go. Like choosing a specialty, not all side gigs are right for everyone, and there are plusses and minuses of each. For me, the beauty of the side gig is that you can do it on your own terms, knowing that you still have your main gig to fall back on for income.

The questions are straightforward, but hard to answer without some soul searching. They include:

What is your goal for the side gig? Do you want to pursue a passion, keep from burning out, create additional income streams, solve a problem you see in the healthcare landscape or create a product that could help patients, create tax-advantaged income, contribute to a cause, or transition to a main gig? Your "why" is heavily going to influence your approach to the side gig as well as which one you pick.

What inspires you and excites you? Ideally, your side gig should be linked to a passion or interest. You already work hard at your physician job, and the last thing you need is to add something on that is going to be the source of burnout or stress in a landscape where so much of those sentiments are pervasive.

Many people pick side gigs based on what they perceive to be "hot topics" or the fad at the time, but going with that choice over what you love will hurt you in the long term, as you will become less motivated. Others will sense disingenuousness and be less likely to support you or enjoy your work. The people I've seen who are the most successful in their side gigs are genuinely having fun!

How much time do you have to commit to this? Ah, time, the Achilles' heel of physicians. I think that with side gigs, slow and steady wins the race. The Type A in a lot of physicians may want to plan everything out, but in reality our enemy in this space is perfection and analysis paralysis. Just set aside a certain amount of time, either daily or weekly, to think and act.

Most side gigs will take an investment up front, as you need to learn new skills — how to create a website, create a brand, do market research and a needs analysis, etc. You'll need to read relevant books. In some side gigs, such as investing or creating an online course, there is a long learning curve, and then things quickly become more intuitive. In other endeavors, such as franchises, board review companies, or locum tenens, you are probably making an ongoing commitment. Decide what's right for you.

How much revenue do you expect to bring in? Part of the fun in the side gig, for me, is that I already have main revenue sources, so the side income is icing on the cake. It almost feels like bonus/splurge money. Everyone has their own unique financial situation, and that will affect your goals and timetable.

Some of my favorite side gigs I see in my online community are artistic in nature and probably don't generate that much revenue. But they are so refreshing, and that is priceless. That being said, some people are trying to pay off student loans, cut back clinically, or maybe even eventually exit medicine.

It's important to be honest with yourself about what your goals are. If you are counting on the cash flow, then you may want to pursue something with more steady revenue, such as rental properties or a part-time position with a telemedicine company or utilization review company. Many side gigs, such as writing, speaking, consulting, or expert witness work, create money in unpredictable waves.

What kind of connections or specific talents do you have in the space that will give you a competitive edge? Starting a business is hard, as any entrepreneur will attest. In some ways, I've found it more challenging than the pathway to becoming a physician (although much less so in other ways). That's because in medicine you have a roadmap to success that is relatively well laid out, whereas in business you will probably find many twists and turns before you arrive at your destination.

Each challenge you encounter will be unique, and you are going to want support and mentorship to help guide you. Networks are key in business; leveraging them is usually critical to the ultimate success of your side gig. Also, having a niche market or talent will help you separate yourself from the crowd. These days, it can seem like everyone is a CEO of something, and ideally, you've got something that is uniquely "you" to market that will allow you to stand out among a sea of others.

You might also want to take advantage of the business-building and marketing help that is available through books, podcasts, local college courses, business coaches, and other outlets.

What things are dealbreakers? This is an important question. We all have things we love but also things that we absolutely hate. For example, if you absolutely loathe social media, there are several industries that you should probably automatically exclude, such as influencer marketing or others that require a strong brand presence. If you don't like or want more deadlines in your life, pick something flexible. There are several other things I've heard entrepreneurs express disdain for: managing employees, doing anything that relates to their main job, or having to spend more time in front of a computer. The last thing you want to do is resent your side gig.

Once you've found what you want to do, whether it's reviving your former passion for guitar and starting a local band or starting an investment group, there are a few tips that can help contribute to growth.

1. Find your tribe and your team. You need people who will support you during the highs and lows and enable you to grow faster. Network wherever you can — social media, LinkedIn, in-person conferences, among your professional and social circles. You never know which connection is going to be the one that brings you success.

2. Don't blindly follow popular algorithms. I see lots of people trying to follow prescriptions for success taught by business coaches and others who give such advice. While I think there's a ton of value in having coaches and learning from the experiences of other entrepreneurs, remember: There's no one pathway in business or in passion projects. Find your own path and follow it. Ultimately, that will be what determines your success and your ability to brand yourself.

3. Just do it. Expect to learn as you go. Don't fall victim to analysis paralysis or fear of failure. Many of us are used to analyzing each step and wanting everything to be perfect. You're not memorizing the Krebs cycle here. You are going to have unexpected successes and unfortunate failures. It's part of the process. If you wait until every last bit is perfect, you will either never start, somebody else will do it before you, or other things will take precedence and tasks will go unfinished. Let the journey guide you.

However, if you need to invest large sums in your side gig to make it work, be sure that you have considered the risks and rewards and developed a pro forma which outlines a path toward profitability. It's great to pursue your dream, but it's also wise to have a budget in mind.

Take a break when you need it. Remember, this is a side gig! The world will not end if you step back for a certain amount of time to refresh, and often you will come back with renewed energy and excitement.

We all wear many hats throughout our lives. Being a physician is amazing, but we shouldn't forget the other passions and skills that can bring a lot of excitement in our lives and add flexibility and fall-back options.

For many I've met in my journey, a side gig has been a great way to prevent or address burnout in their lives. The goal isn't to get physicians to leave medicine but to enhance career longevity and satisfaction. Whatever your passion, I hope you pursue it.

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