From 2013 to 2017, I was in the Air Force, selected to become an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, and would soon embark on my residency journey to get there.
Up until this point, my educational path was linear. I completed undergrad and committed to dental school during my first year as I was accepted into a fast track 3:4 program which meant that I would complete three years of undergrad followed by four years of dental school. At age 18, I had mentally committed to a career trajectory for the rest of my life.
As I entered dental school, I would start to feel twinges of self-doubt. I began to question the career trajectory, and I was reassured that my self-confidence was likely talking. I could not argue with that since my hyper-critical self-talk certainly led to reduced confidence and heightened distress that was pervasive in many areas of my life.
I continued in dental school, and I found myself attracted to oral and maxillofacial surgery (OMFS). I loved the ability to advance my medical training, and I envisioned the life-changing surgeries that I would perform for individuals. I stayed in dentistry thinking that I would be happier when I was in OMFS residency and the Air Force, an illusion commonly referred to as the “arrival fallacy.”
In 2013, I would commission into the Air Force, slated to become an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. I moved to Texas and began what I had envisioned would be my ideal career. As I started a subintern year in the Air Force residency before heading to my own residency, I fell deep into depression. I was beginning to realize the career path I had worked so hard to obtain was likely not the path for me. I met with members of the Air Force OMFS board to discuss my doubts, and we ended up agreeing that maybe my civilian program would be a better fit for me.
The arrival fallacy would continue: I thought maybe it would be better when I am in my own program that I had selected through the Match process and no longer a “subintern.” As I embarked on my amazing program, it would be solidified: It wasn’t the program. It was the career.
I fell into a deeper depression and thought I had two options- I could either continue residency or end my life. I could not think of an alternative option. Between the development of severe depression and the pressures of making a misstep that would end my medical/dental career, I could not see that there were so many other options.
Thankfully, I had an amazing psychologist that could challenge my mindset, keep me safe, and support me through decisions that would both save my life and change the trajectory in a way that has been a much better fit for me. Thankfully, I was surrounded by individuals in my program and medical school that saw me as a person first and were devoted to making sure I felt compassion and not guilt for considering a career pivot. I am extremely grateful for the individuals that gave me permission to pivot when I was committed to trying to force through the grind. I am extremely grateful for the individuals who helped me see options C-Z when I was stuck perseverating on A and B.
Valuable lessons learned: If you are stuck between options A and B, and neither seems ideal, step back, and consider C-Z. And if those aren’t enough, then look into another alphabet. There are always more options than you think. Sometimes, we need to give ourselves permission to pivot.
Also, if you are experiencing symptoms of burnout, please ask for help. Professional therapy and a supportive community were essential components of my burnout recovery journey. I am amazed at how the brain may think when not OK. Please surround yourself with supportive people that can help you see when the world seems dark.
Nothing in your career is more important than your life. Nothing.
Jillian Rigert is an oral medicine specialist and radiation oncology research fellow.
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