Do You Need to be a Consultant?

I was just checking my web statistics. On my home page I offer several broad career categories for physicians to click to get more information about those fields. I noticed this morning the leading “click” was on Physician Consultants.

If you read some of my web information about being a consultant, you’ll see that such a career path is often a good choice for physicians because of the independence, the compatibility with basic work style, i.e. the Captain of the Ship… and other factors. One factor I don’t discuss on my web is discrimination. Yes, discrimination.

I work with physicians from medical school to well past normal retirement. Physicians are generally a fairly egalitarian group. They look at colleagues from the standpoint of their ability to contribute to any given situation. Competency in contribution being the guiding principal.  

Outside clinical practice, other factors can be of equal or even greater importance. And, that is where older physicians can encounter discrimination, age discrimination. My counsel to physicians is to be aware of the existence and possibility and to shape nonclinical career transitions accordingly. That’s why you may need to consider being a consultant.

How does age discrimination occur or present itself? First, don’t expect anyone to tell you that you’re too old. That won’t happen. Instead, if you’ve made it to an interview level with an organization, don’t be surprised if you are simply not recalled. And, if you’re able to contact anyone for follow up, expect to only be told that someone else was better qualified. Now, being turned down for a job doesn’t mean you’ve experienced age discrimination, but rather it may, stress may, be possible.

But, why are you “too old?” You’re not, you’re healthy, active, vibrant, quick of mind…. But legally, you’re old enough to be in a protected age class.

Thus, you may be seen as a liability particularly if you don’t have a proven track record in the area of work you plan to undertake. The liability is that as an older worker, defined as 40 and beyond by federal laws, terminating you can become a litigious event for the organization. And, the older you are, potentially the more litigious.  

What, then, are your options? “You’ll never fire yourself.” That’s one of my favorite quotes. Being a consultant, either entirely independent or on a contract basis with an organization, puts you in control of your career. And, you may be able to mitigate the age issue, if you believe one may exist, if while interviewing you state, “have you ever considered having this as a contracted 1099 position rather than as an employed W2.” There, you’ve given the company an out. (please consider I am not an attorney, and my comments and observations do not constitute legal advice, but rather my experiences.) That strategy represents one option to potentially counter age discrimination.

However, being a consultant, needing to be or not, means you know something about a particular topic and you can help others in accomplishing their goals relative to that topic. Vague, I know, but necessarily so. I always ask physicians who want to be consultants to tell me their area of consulting expertise. That’s your first task – clearly enumerate your expertise, what problems can you diagnose, what can you treat, what can you teach and improve. That information becomes your product or service, and your message (value proposition) to prospective clients and contractors.

Test that information. Talk with people you might see as clients. Make sure they see the problem the same as you. If during those conversations you’re asked for your opinions and advice, then you’re on the way to consulting. The next, and most important, step is getting paid for those conversations – getting paid for your opinions. Almost anyone can give away their thoughts and opinions, but are they valued enough for you to be paid, and paid what the market would consider a fair price.

Being a consultant can be a perfect next step for many physicians. And for some of us (yes, I’m beyond the age of easy employment) it may be a necessary step to continued productivity and a rewarding career.

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