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Exposure to career planning will ensure medical students make the most of their training.

While many blame government cutbacks of medical residency positions for the tragic suicide of Ontario medical student Robert Chu, I believe part of the fault rests with medical programs that don’t expose students to career exploration and planning.

Based on a 2013 report by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, physicians have a higher rate of unemployment (16.1 percent) than the national average (7.1 percent).

Medical residents have little idea how to transition from their training into a career. Medical students aren’t exposed to formal career exploration or counselling in their curriculum. So they mistakenly choose overcrowded specialties and then fail to find suitable residencies and full-time positions. This leads to a series of short-term positions, more training and/or departure from Canada.

Since medical education is resource-intensive for the trainee and government, it’s time this problem was fixed.

Academia recognizes the importance of mentorship in training and competency development. However, academic mentorship is often parochial and narrow, limiting the career vista of protégés. Professors (and trainees by default) are largely responsible for career development, imposing a survival-of-the-fittest mentality.

While competition drives the academic agenda, it also undermines our knowledge capital. This is especially true of students who aren’t told the rules of engagement upon entering medical school.

Admission into medical school is mistakenly viewed as a ticket to a successful career. While medical schools select bright, emotionally-intelligent candidates, our investment in them could be furthered by encouraging students to pursue career exploration while mastering their discipline. When considering their career, they need to be exposed to the concepts of strategic planning, competitive analysis, design thinking and networking.

Strategic planning advises us to have a vision, such as a residency position. Students need to establish short campaigns or missions that achieve the vision. Each mission has specific action plans. The strategic plan should be malleable, based on ongoing competitive analysis and design thinking.

Asking a professional about their career is an excellent way to quickly shape plans. This can be followed by more time-consuming methods, such as shadowing, locums or becoming a protégé.

With everything we do, a network (social or professional) promotes us and our work. That network allows us to define, gather, analyze and distribute information. Students should build strong networks to help shape their strategic plans. They should involve friends in judging their values and competitiveness.

Proactive career exploration and planning will help medical students to develop resilience and control. Then, should they decide to pursue a hyper-competitive specialization, they’ll do so with a strong risk-mitigation strategy.

Empowering medical students around career could lead to a more productive Canadian healthcare system.

Derrick Rancourt is a professor in the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, where he chairs the Graduate Science Education’s Professional Development Taskforce.

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