Balancing Family With Career Goals During an Oncology Fellowship

November 1, 2017
Nathan Hale, DO, MS

Oncology Fellows, June 2017,

Successfully attaining our goals in fellowship is demanding. They are accomplished by establishing work/life balance.

Dike Drummond, MD

The garage door starts to close, and I step out of the car. I can hear the squeals of joy from my 5 kids. The stresses of work vanish, even if for only a moment. I step through the door, and I am swarmed by small children clamoring for my attention. This kind of reception would make Mickey Mouse jealous. Then I come back to reality as my 8-year-old says, “Hey Dad,” without moving from the couch. Kids become too cool so fast. His action—or lack thereof—reminds me that time is swiftly passing.

Just 3 years ago, I delivered the crushing blow to my wife that I wanted to pursue an oncology fellowship. Medical school and residency is typically no walk through the park, and she was ready to move on to the next phase in our life. I questioned whether my career goals aligned with our family goals. Now, I pride myself on being a family guy, putting my family first, so I had to ask myself, “Is a fellowship the best thing for my family?” The answer to that question had to be an unequivocal “yes” before pursuing any oncology fellowship.

Oncology fellows have many aspects to their lives, and corresponding to each aspect, we have goals. In order to accomplish it all, these goals can’t be in conflict. Too often, without realizing it, doctors set goals that make sense on their own, but that compete with each other. We can’t let completing 1 goal render another impossible. When we set our goals, we must make sure that they’re cohesive enough to ensure that all can be obtained.

As fathers, we must prioritize families. Fathers are critically important to the success of a family; they are a vital component. If you don’t believe me, then visit the National Fatherhood Initiative’s website ( There you can find countless statistics outlining the importance of fatherhood. We must ensure that our career goals don’t conflict with the goals we have for our families. A goal is the destination, and a plan is the route. Those who accomplish the most develop a plan, then spend the time to make sure the goal is reached. Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” Why is that? Well, it’s all about time management.

Time management begins with establishing priorities. I recently participated in a conference during which, as an icebreaking exercise, the audience was asked: If you could have 1 superpower, what it would be? The conference was attended by physicians of all specialties, and the majority selected a superpower that would create more time.

Time is our most limited and valuable commodity, and since it is limited, the best goals work synergistically. For example, choosing the right fellowship is important to creating synergistic goals. This decision requires you to be clear on what you want out of your fellowship: experience, mentorship, prestige, etc. The other aspects of life, particularly family life, can’t be paused, nor should we want to try. You can’t say, “I can do anything for a few years,” while neglecting your family. Our families keep us grounded, love and support us, and bring us fulfillment. These things sustain us, hone our abilities, and can make us more efficient. We can accomplish our goals without sacrificing our time with our families, but this requires a well thought out plan. Maybe it means selecting a city where you can afford a comfortable home, have a minimal commute to work, or live near extended family.

Successfully attaining our goals in fellowship is demanding, and understandably so. They are accomplished by establishing work/life balance. The blog HappyMD by Dike Drummond, MD, recommends these 3 steps:

  1. Put you first. I recommend a change to step 1: “Put your family first.” The moment someone becomes a father, his perspectives change and the realization sets in that the needs of his child will always come before his own. For that moment, we are setting goals and developing plans for our children’s needs and to foster their success. We are not “Disneyland dads” making special guest appearances and buying our kids’ happiness. Fatherhood, more than any other defining characteristic, becomes who we are.
  2. Put them on your calendar. As a fellow, you are not going to make it to every soccer game or spelling bee. But some events are a mustattend. We have to identify them and get them on the calendar. Attending these events tells the child or spouse that we love them and that we do prioritize them above our careers.
  3. Say “no” with power and grace. This one can be difficult, as we didn’t get this far in our careers by saying “no” very often. Doing so, however, is better than saying “yes” and not accomplishing the task or, worse, sacrificing your family. One of my favorite quotes comes from David O’McKay, ninth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who said, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” Remember your priorities, and make sure that each new task aligns with your family.

For fellows, the easiest way to address the issue of having and accomplishing it all is to select your mentors carefully. Selecting mentors is an important component to creating synergy between your fellowship and your home life. I selected mentors who had a good work/life balance; individuals to whom success was extremely important, but who equally valued their their families. This allowed me to be more forthright about my responsibilities at home and honest about my ability to accept different projects and research endeavors. A mentor who knows the importance of this balance can create the opportunities suited to your success.

Fathers in fellowship must set career and family goals that aren’t in conflict. Family goals require our time and attention, so we must prioritize the family first, manage our time appropriately, and be willing to say “no” to things that conflict with our desired goals. Fathers are vital to the success of families. Our greatest title will always be Dad.