For Your Health
For Your Health

News from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences

From the Dean: Job versus calling

As I consider my transition later this year out of my administrative roles as Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of the UND SMHS, I’ve been thinking a lot about balance – that is, what is the right mix of various activities, professional and otherwise, to maximize one’s sense of accomplishment and satisfaction? In my younger years, I, like many of my generation, was largely focused on work. Friends and family mattered, but academic medicine was the focus. As a younger physician, I think that my professional and academic activities largely defined my self-perception of who I was . That perception certainly has evolved over the years, and the last two and a half decades with Susan have helped me better balance work and family.

The younger generation, too, has done a better job at conceptualizing that balance, it seems to me. When medical students (for example) are asked about the most important factors that determine their career plans and goals, work-life balance is at or near the top of the list, along with the “fit” of a particular specialty with their personality and the influence of mentors. Notice that expected compensation typically is not one of the top two or three career determinants. Don’t get me wrong — salary is on many students’ lists, but it usually is not the dominant factor in shaping their career choices.

The importance of non-work time was not a focus for me (or many of my classmates/colleagues) years ago. One memorable anecdote perhaps sums up the general view at the time. Return with me to my internal medicine residency experience decades ago at Harvard’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Mass General Brigham): I and my fellow interns (now called post-graduate year (PGY) residents) were on call (in the hospital and usually awake) every other night. Thus, we would work for 36 straight hours and then be off for 12; we’d then repeat that cycle, for weeks at a time. Mindful of that experience, there was an amusing question that more senior physicians would ask us about our every other night call experience: “What’s the main problem with being on call every other night?” And the answer was: “You miss seeing half the good cases!”

Fortunately, that attitude – that physicians should dedicate almost their entire lives to the hospital – has changed, and we now are more sensitive to helping our trainees and colleagues get the right balance of job and home, which is as it should be. But there is a potential downside to this shift in focus and emphasis, as Dr. Lisa Rosenbaum discusses in a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (N Engl J Med 2024; 390:471-475 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMms2308226). The risk is that physicians and other healthcare providers, as well as faculty members, may come to see their professional life and efforts as “only” a job, rather than as a calling. As Dr. Rosenbaum indicates, there probably is no single right answer as to whether medicine and similar professions are or should be jobs or callings. In thinking about this, though, maybe the answer for many of us needs to be “both”: acknowledging the need for balance (job) but also the imperative for passion and commitment to helping others (calling).

Anyway, I’m working on trying to get the proper balance of the important things in my life as I look towards my upcoming transition later this year and eventual retirement at some point in the future. One thing is for sure – I plan to follow the advice of Jack Zaleski, former editorial page editor of the Fargo Forum, when he opined at the time of his own retirement that the one key dictum in retirement is: Don’t retire! That is to say, in whatever we do (whether in work, play, or retirement), we need to engage in meaningful activities that make a difference to us – and hopefully to those around us.

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences