Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

Choosing your career

Posted in Articles, Careers, My publications by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on March 1, 2002

I had always rather fancied being a famous scientist, but to be honest, it was more the fame than the science that attracted me. Besides, I had also wanted to study law, or perhaps philosophy, or maybe just go travelling.

One day in my school library, however, things became dramatically clear. I saw a medical experiment in a book called Chaos, and it was anecdotal evidence that the body is made up of Chaotic systems. The experiment was an obscure one, but it was part of a growing science that dealt with understanding the weather, ecosystems and politics.
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And so my vision unfolded- an enormous laboratory with medical researchers and computer programmers, working together to tackle these questions. I wanted to be the doctor that understood computer programmers and the computer programmer that could talk to the doctors. So, before entering medical school, I took a gap year and studied at maths and computing at a local polytechnic. Throughout university, I took summer programming jobs to improve my IT skills.
In retrospect, this was a naïve plan but also a rather detailed one. I believe that’s why the medical school still accepted me even though I stated that I did not want to become a clinical doctor. By contrast, many future doctors turn up for their interviews with a vague sense of medicine being a good subject to study at university but don’t know what they want to do with it.
By the time of my elective, I’d chalked up enough programming jobs to end up at the place of my dreams – the Santa Fe Institute (the world centre in Chaos research) in New Mexico. It was all rather interesting and satisfying to have gone so far in achieving my goal but unfortunately, by this stage I realised the last thing I wanted to do was to become a Chaos researcher.
My limited research work showed that I was not cut out for academia. I did not have the attention span. More significantly, I was enjoying medicine, especially solving clinical problems using my IT knowledge. A large part of this realisation came from working at the Clinical and Biomedical Computing Unit (CBCU) at Cambridge University. Full of the latest technical gadgets, it had an excellent team of developers who were constantly using technology in a clinical setting. I was hooked. I decided that it was time to put my original plan to rest and that it was time for a new plan. It came in a strange form- a poster for Diversity Now Ltd.
The company worked at top universities to recruit students from `minority groups’ into City jobs. Although a profitable company, its focus gave it a curious social mission. Female students, and those from ethnic minorities were still underrepresented in the London’s most affluent jobs and the company wanted to redress the balance. I was interviewed, and subsequently employed by its new subsidiary, Medical Diversity.
Medical Diversity targets those in the medical profession who are considering alternative careers. The training and preparation I received there opened up a whole variety of other industries. The most interesting to me were the Management Consultancies, and Investment Banks. I learnt a lot of things from interviewing with them. For example, Management Consultants are quite cerebral, much like physicians while Investment Bankers are surgical in culture, with `can-do’ attitudes and astonishing salaries. Most useful to me was a comment made at one of these interviews. I was told by one company that I would be more likely to form a company than work for them. Initially I resented his gentle rejection but they were right.
Within four months I had co-founded a new company.
Medical Futures was co-founded by three colleagues and myself, just after I graduated as doctor. We wanted to change the delivery of information to doctors in the UK, be it for education, careers or finance and we began this by founding the Medical Futures Innovation Awards. This gives health care workers the opportunity to provide some practical solutions to the problems they encounter every day in the NHS, submit it to our judges and maybe win a prize.
However, I was still without an official career plan. The fear of such a situation has prevented a lot of my colleagues from pursuing their extra-medical interests as they worry that changes would be deemed as being indecisiveness by future employers and frowned upon. But I viewed every one of my experiences as adding to my skills base and the larger my skills base, the more valuable I would be to future employers. All I had to do was to have a consistent story about why I picked such a path. I already knew my future career would be outside clinical medicine, involve IT and my newly acquired entrepreneurial skills.
I shared this plan with my interviewer for my PRHO posts which included a GP rotation, that usually targeted future GP’s. However, I explained to the GP partner that, as this was my final year in clinical practice, I wanted to gain as varied an education as possible and four months training with GPs would be ideal in complementing my hospital posts. My interviewer was kind enough to agree to this, and gave me the job.
I am currently half way through this fulltime PRHO post and it has been the best six months of my life. The staff are supportive team, patients still beam with pride when talking about their `Doctor’ and I am able to continue my IT entrepreneurialism. I use my annual leave to give lectures and perform consultancy work on the use of handheld computers.
What if I change my mind again? I see no problem. There is plenty of time to change careers during a lifetime. The main thing is to enjoy the journey.
Published 9th of March 2002 in the
British Medical Journal careers section

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