Interview with Dr. Karen Barnard

In today's episode, Dr. Karen Barnard explains how to be purposeful with your life and career. She begins by sharing her inspirational journey. It starts with growing up and completing her medical degree in South Africa.

It continues with moving to the United States and completing her residency and fellowship training in internal medicine and endocrinology. She worked as an academic clinician for years. Her most recent transition was becoming a certified professional co-active coach.

She now helps physicians find intention and purpose in their careers, whether they're exploring new clinical paths, transitioning to nonclinical roles, or seeking to enhance their leadership skills.

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This week's episode sponsor is the From Here to There: Leveraging Virtual Medicine Program from Sandrow Consulting.

Are you ready to say goodbye to burnout, take control of your schedule, increase your earnings, and enjoy more quality time with your family? You’re probably wondering how to do that without getting a new certification or learning a whole new set of nonclinical skills.

Here's the answer: The quickest way to achieve more freedom and joy is to leverage virtual medicine.

Dr. Cherisa Sandrow and I discussed this in Podcast Episode 266. Cherisa and her team are now preparing to relaunch their comprehensive program for building and running your own telehealth business.

If you want to learn the tools and skills you need to live life on your own terms – then you should check it out today. After completing the 10-week program, you’ll be ready to take your career to the next level.

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Dr. Karen Barnard's Unique Coaching for Diverse Physicians

Dr. Karen Barnard primarily specializes in career transition coaching for physicians. Her coaching services encompass a range of areas, including:

  1. Career Decision-Making: Helping physicians who are unsure about their career path, whether to stay in their current roles or pursue alternative career options.
  2. Skills Assessment: Assisting clients in identifying their unique skills and talents acquired through their medical careers, enabling them to leverage these skills effectively in their transition.
  3. Personality Assessment: Utilizing the Enneagram Personality Assessment to help physicians gain insights into their personality types, behaviors, and how to break free from self-imposed limitations.
  4. Values Clarification: Guiding clients through a process of clarifying their core values, which is crucial for making decisions aligned with their deepest principles.
  5. Professional Development: Offering support and guidance in enhancing leadership, communication, and other professional skills.

Through these coaching approaches, Dr. Barnard empowers physicians to navigate career transitions and explore new opportunities. Ultimately, she helps them design a fulfilling life and career aligned with their aspirations and values.

Dr. Karen Barnard's Advice on Starting Your Career Transition Journey

…don't do this alone. You're not alone. If you're feeling any shame or guilt, those are completely normal emotions to have when you're kind of just even beginning to think about this. Find your resources, find some physicians who've done it. A therapist, a coach, it doesn't really matter.

Some physicians struggle with uncertainty about their career direction. To address this, she encourages “mini career experiments” to gain hands-on experience and explore possibilities.

Additionally, crafting a targeted resumé and practicing interview questions with trusted individuals can significantly enhance your job application success. Lastly, she highlights the importance of recognizing that leaving clinical practice doesn't mean you're no longer a doctor. You're simply transitioning to “doctoring differently” and taking your medical skills and experiences with you into new roles.


Dr. Karen Barnard provides valuable resources and support to physicians seeking clarity and guidance in their career transitions. Her coaching services and free resources can be found on her website, Subscribe to her newsletter for regular tips and insights tailored to physicians.

Feel free to connect with Dr. Karen Barnard on LinkedIn or email her at for further assistance in your career journey.

NOTE: Look below for a transcript of today's episode. 

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Transcription PNC Podcast Episode 317

How to Be Purposeful with Your Life and Career

- Interview with Dr. Karen Barnard

John: I really like bringing physician coaches on the podcast here because of several reasons. First of all, I think coaching is such a good career for a physician because it meets all the needs I think of most physicians in terms of helping people and using their brain and interacting and so forth. But it doesn't have all the baggage of the risk of a lawsuit and long hours and calls. So, it's very useful for those who are on the receiving end and physicians are one group that need coaching very often. That's why I'm so happy to have today's guest here. Let me welcome Dr. Karen Barnard to the show. Hello.

Dr. Karen Barnard: Hi, John. Thank you so much for inviting me onto your show. I'm really looking forward to this conversation.

John: It's going to be fun, and it's always useful and helpful to my listeners because we always go into some topic that's going to be a benefit to at least some of them. So, that's good. And then I also like it because the coaches that come on are sort of role models for their transition, whether it's part-time, full-time or whatever, just to having addressed maybe similar problems that they had before they became a coach. So there's a lot of good reasons to have coaches like you here, so I'm glad you're here.

Dr. Karen Barnard: Thank you.

John: Well, one of the things we always start with, of course, is the story. The story of how you started out and how did you end up going into coaching, and we'd love to hear that right now.

Dr. Karen Barnard: Yeah. John, I'm originally from South Africa and I moved to the United States about 30 years ago. I did an internal medicine residency in an endocrinology fellowship, and I was in academic medicine my entire clinical career, and I loved it. Teaching, education, administrative roles and some research.

And then after about 25 years, I went through my own career transition, and now I own my own coaching business, and I help physicians going through their transition. And I like to say I help them from soup to nuts. Whether they're in the soup of "Should I stay or should I leave? I don't know what to do" all the way through to the nuts of landing a job, interviewing, prep, and so on.

John: Now, just from the standpoint of me looking at this as like a nonclinical career or job, for some it's not even, some people will do it more as an advocation, but there's usually either the need to get out of medicine was the first part, or the need to just do something different. Because the nice thing about becoming a coach is you can do it part-time, and most coaches really have to anyway, because they need to get those first few clients and really make sure it's something they want to do. So, how did that happen for you? How did you make that transition?

Dr. Karen Barnard: Yes, yes. Such a great question. About two years before I went part-time and then finally quit medicine, I sensed that something wasn't right anymore. I just wasn't enthusiastic. I really loved my job, and suddenly, I now know what the name is, it's quite quitting, but I didn't identify the name at the time. I just wasn't volunteering for things. I was feeling tired all the time. Something just wasn't right.

And I didn't know what it was. I actually beat myself up over it for a while before I decided, "No, I better pay attention. Something is happening inside of me." And what I recognized is that I love to help people, and I really wanted to help people in a different way. And all throughout my entire career, I'd been mentoring and coaching students and residents around their career choices and their skills, and doing evaluations and feedback.

I was really drawn to coaching, but not at first. I didn't identify that at first. I had to do my own little exploration. And then once I decided, "Oh, coaching might be it", I did a little bit of a coaching course, and then I started my business, and all the time I was still working. And then I went part-time. And it was about six months into starting the business that I recognized, "Okay, I want to do this full-time, and I think I can do this full-time. I can swing this." And that's when I resigned from my job full-time and went into full-time coaching.

And honestly, John, I often get the question "Do you regret? Do you ever look back?" And it's been three years this past July that I've fully quit, and I haven't looked back one day. Which I didn't expect. I thought I might have some pangs of missing it, but I so love what I'm doing now that I feel very, very fortunate to be doing what I'm doing.

John: As you were talking about that, it reminds me of how we often will tell people who are sort of unhappy in whatever they're doing now, and they're kind of interested in making a change, but they really don't know what to do that one of the things that we're always told to do, and I don't know was it just was natural for you, but it's sort of like, "Well, look at the things that you're doing now that you like, what part of your job do you like?" And then if you can focus on those things which you described, then maybe that might lead to what will ultimately be your alternative, or at least something that you might want to do part-time. That just is a good example of that. And those are the things that physicians typically like to do to help and mentor and coach and even informally. So that's very interesting. The other thing I want to ask you about in that process then, you had to talk to somebody about going part-time, right?

Dr. Karen Barnard: Yes.

John: And so, that always comes up. I get a lot of physicians just offhand because I don't really do any direct coaching, but it's sort of like, "I'm afraid to mention it. I'm going to get in trouble. They're going to can me, they're going to not understand." And it's like 99% of the time, it seems like if you just have a sincere conversation with somebody, your boss or whatever, that it works out pretty well. So, what was your experience going through that?

Dr. Karen Barnard: Yes, all of the above. And for me, it was incredibly challenging actually. Almost initially it felt like I'm a failure. I can't do full-time at this which is that strange expectation we have on ourselves as physicians. But I think it was really what was pulling me outside of medicine that gave me the courage and of course, support from colleagues. I actually was working with a coach at the time.

And it's so true. It's just having that honest conversation. I can't remember the exact words that I said to my boss at the time, but it was something to the effect of "I feel like there's something different in my future and I want to cut back. I still love what I'm doing here, but I need to do less of it in order to explore that." And I'm just so fortunate that he was open to it.

There are many practical considerations here too, John. It's figuring out how much part-time can you go and still have benefits. For some, it's salary requirements. It's a multifaceted decision. But I would say to any physician listening and thinking about that, don't let fear drive the decision. Let what's drawing you to do it drive your decision to just have that conversation. And what's the worst that can happen? They can say no. Well, then you've got a lot of good information on your hands.

John: I know. And there's that fear, but what can they really say? Most of the time they're going to know that there's something pending. There's something going on. "Okay, this person seems to be unhappy for some reason." That's just the way I look at it. Although there's no guarantees. You might have one that you deal with that's going to be super unreasonable and make your life miserable, but it just usually doesn't happen from what I'm told.

All right. I was going to then ask you, now what exactly type of coaching do you do with physicians? Because really I could narrow it down into 10 different things that physicians sometimes need. Some are more general, life coaching or career coaching, but where do you fall in that spectrum in the kind of clients you tend to attract and work with?

Dr. Karen Barnard: Yeah. I really focus on career transition coaching. I do a little bit of professional development, but the bulk of my practice, and what I absolutely love is helping physicians through the whole arc of the transition. Even if it's just, "Do I stay, do I go? What else can I do? How am I going to do this? How do I do my resume, my LinkedIn, what do I need to network?" All of that I help them with. I show them how, I support them along the journey. And I have tools and resources that I share with them.

I would say that for the most part, when physicians come to me, they're stuck in a few places, but one of the most common places is they are almost a hundred percent sure that they no longer want to do patient care, or they no longer want to do patient care full-time. So, they've got that.

And often they've looked at a list of nonclinical careers or read job descriptions, or even spoken to physicians who've transitioned into roles. And now they're stuck because they're like, "Well, where am I going to fit? What's right for me?" And that's a perfect place to come to coaching, or not a coach, a therapist or somebody to help guide you through that process that you can figure out what are your skills and what do you want to take with you? And then be able to see the options in a new light.

John: Some of the coaches I've talked to will actually use different kinds of psychological testing. That might be not the exact term, but you know what I'm talking about. Do you use some of those methods in your coaching?

Dr. Karen Barnard: Yeah. One of the important aspects of my program, I have a very structured program I take people through, because I like structure and I find most physicians do is sort of the get to know yourself or really get to know yourself, like who you've become.

I do the Enneagram personality assessment. And what I love about the Enneagram is we tend to have put ourselves in a box of a personality type, or we get caught up in certain behaviors. And the Enneagram kind of shows you the box you've ended up in and also how to get out of it, if you wish to. So, I really enjoy that. And I actually had a client the other day who said, "Oh, I felt like there was somebody reading my thoughts as she read her report."

And then for others, it's variable. But when the Enneagram lands, it's a very powerful tool to help you see what are your gifts and really what do you want to take with you and what do you need in a career and a career environment. So that's one of my assessments. I have several.

The other assessment I do is a skills assessment. We really look at breaking down the skills. Because one of the things I thought I remember telling my coach, "Oh, I'm just a one trick pony. All I know is academic endocrinology." And hell no. That's so far from the truth. But at the time, that's how it felt. And so, breaking down the skills we have as a physician is really important. And then sort of piecing together the ones you really love. But that's another assessment I do is skills.

I also have several questionnaires about preferences, lifestyle needs. I also do some values work, which I think is really critical when we're in any transition in our lives, is really redefining our core principles and our guiding principles and deciding which are really important.

And John, I might just add in my own transition, what I failed to recognize until I did my own values inventory was that freedom that had been sort of in the top 10, but kind of near the bottom was suddenly like one of my top two values. I wanted to be free to live where I wanted to live, to take spend time with my family in South Africa, to have freedom and autonomy. And I realized that in my 09:00 to 05:00, I was stepping on that value. And once I could see that it was, "Oh, okay, I'm not a loser. I'm honoring my values." Those kinds of assessments are really important at the beginning to really look inside and define who are you, who have you become, and what kind of a life do you really want to live? And then build from there.

John: You find that it takes some of your clients, is it difficult for them to do this? Basically, I could see myself. Automatically, when you're in a busy practice, let's say, you just ignore those or you suppress those values in a sense. In a way, like you said, freedom is not really consistent with the values that one would need to be a full-time practicing physician who's on call every third. That's just not even going to be part of your consideration. So, those things could be, I would think, difficult to overcome and take some time. Is that what you found?

Dr. Karen Barnard: Oh, absolutely. This is the hardest work and this is what we don't want to do. And I don't think it's because we don't want to do because we don't want to do, I think it's because we have unlearned how to connect with ourselves, and that's okay. To become a competent physician or a master in a specialty, it takes focus and dedication and hard work. You can't navel gaze the entire time, you never get to the other side. It's really returning to 10, 15 years down the line, "Oh, wait a minute."

I have some clients who are like, "Well, I don't know. I don't know what I want." I didn't either. I had no idea. I was completely overwhelmed by that. How can I not know? Well, because the path has been paved for me since pre-med. So it's okay. This is normal. This is how many physicians come to this and we work through it. Start where you are. Even a little dip toe. And as you begin to pay attention to these things, you begin to see.

And sometimes it's just paying attention. One of the things I have clients do is look at your past two weeks, John. When you've been really tired and really didn't feel like doing anything and there's one thing that you did and it gave you back some energy, what was that thing? And it doesn't have to be in your work. And some clients say there's nothing at work. It's all that. Okay, well, then what about after work?

And I have one client who has this amazing hobby, and that's what lights her up. And so, we are trying to figure a way of weaving that into her next career. So it might be just as simple as doing that in the beginning to get back in touch with what you love. And by this, I'm not saying at all, follow your passion and everything will be fine. That's not what this is about. Because I think that's advice that I don't think works for everybody. But it's paying attention to what brings you alive as a starting place.

John: No, that sounds like great advice. Yeah, as you were talking, it's so true. We become stoic and delayed gratification. It's just what we have to do well in a way to go through the system that we're in. I'm not sure the system has to necessarily be that way. Unfortunately, it still is that way and we need to put everything off until we get through that.

Yeah, it's hard to change those. I remember, I don't talk about this very often, but I was in therapy for a while, mostly around my divorce. I was going to call her a coach, but my therapist would ask me to just give me a little thing to do while I was there in terms of thinking and being bringing out "What do you want? What do you need?" I would just sit there flapping my foot going. I couldn't verbalize it. It just took me a long time to where I could, "Okay, yes, I can understand and feel these things and here's what I really need." And that takes some work. So, it doesn't surprise me.

All right. Now that's one big thing that comes up a lot it sounds like. Are there one or two other things that you encounter in working with people? Maybe they've gotten past that part now and they're like, "Okay, I know what I want and maybe what I need." Are there other things that typically come up that maybe if we knew about those, if my listeners could get a little hint here, they could maybe be looking for those things themselves when they're thinking about doing this?

Dr. Karen Barnard: Yes. Several things, but the one that comes to mind is let's say we have a career in mind, but we are not a hundred percent sure. And trying to think ourselves to clarity. This is related to what we said, but I really encourage a little mini career experiments or explorations.

So, get your whole body into what you might be doing as opposed to just thinking or talking or reading a job description for pharma, for instance. Look at into your area and see what trials are going. Contact the PI and say, "Hey, I'd love to volunteer. I can do informed consents. I can do blood pressures. I can do health exams." Whatever. Get yourself into that space and then pay attention to how that feels.

So, cognitively, do you like the content you're working with? Do you like the problems that you're seeing being solved? Do you see yourself here? Do you like the people and the conversations you're having and what's happening in your body? Do you feel open, excited, maybe even a little nervous? Or do you have a sense of dread and contraction? To help you, yeah, I imagined that this would be nice, but actually now that I am experiencing this a little bit, I'm not so sure. So maybe it means another kind of experience in the same just to make sure, or it means okay, maybe the door is closing there for you and it's something else.

Another example is for most of my clients actually who've gone into utilization management have started out by doing some chart reviews. Do you like the process of combing and wading through the chart and writing the report? How does that feel? Do you like the content, the intellectual part of it, using your physician brain? Does that feel good? And then what's your body doing? You dreading sitting down to write those reports. Well, maybe there's something there.

Or another thing that's not easy to do, but very possible is if you're still working as a hospitalist or doing inpatient rounding, joining the QI team. Do you like quality improvement? Do you like clinical documentation improvement? Volunteering, signing up for these experiences, that can give you, bring your whole body into the decision. It's really helpful at that point where maybe you're juggling between, "Oh, should I do medical writing or should I go into education? I'm not sure." That's often helpful.

John: One of the things a guest of mine brought up once, and I was shocked that I hadn't thought about it, but you're kind of alluding to it right now. And I think it was in a particular career, but he or she was saying, you should see if you can do some shadowing. I'm like "Shadowing? What physician ever does shadowing in their mid-40s or 50s?"

But I think that is exactly what you need. Because you don't know what these different careers unless you've been somehow affiliated with some pharma and doing some studies or something, for example. If you've never done this, how are you going to know? And unfortunately, for a lot of careers there is no shadowing. A pharma company usually won't let you shadow per se because they're so close to their technology being stolen or something.

But it makes perfect sense. If you can by all means, try and find someone that you can shadow and just find out what they're doing or what you suggested, which is to actually do those chart reviews as part of a precursor to becoming a UM. Any other examples of that that you can think of?

Dr. Karen Barnard: Yeah, while we're on shadowing, I'll often suggest that for concierge or direct primary care specialty care practices to shadow somebody who is in such a practice or lifestyle medicine. Sort of the non-traditional are often easier to shadow because you can connect with a physician who's doing it and it would be like clinical externship that you're shadowing. I agree with you, you can't shadow in everything, but that lends itself particularly well to shadowing.

The other little example of the experiment is doing, and I usually don't recommend another degree unless it's really in line with where you want to go. But I do recommend free or inexpensive courses. And this is something I did. I took a medical writing course and I recognized, "Oh hell no. I don't want to sit in front of the computer all day long writing." And I really actually thought I would enjoy it, but in that experiential course, it was done deal. And it cost me, I don't know, at the time it was even under a hundred dollars, it's just over a hundred dollars now. But it was so much worth it to get that experience and put that baby to rest as a career direction. Courses can be great if they provide an experience of what we are wanting to go into.

From just my own career experiments, I took a meditation training course because at one time I thought, "Well, maybe I'll do meditation, become a meditation teacher." There was nothing wrong, but it wasn't quite right. And then I did a three day coaching basics. It's called a foundational coaching training with the program I ended up training with. And it was during that that I recognized, "Ah, this is what it is." And it was a very clear yes for me even though I knew I had a lot to learn, I recognized that this would be.

I think taking courses is another great way to get a taster. And then of course, if you can't shadow, really having a good conversation with a physician who's in that role. Now again, it still doesn't tell you that you are going to like the role because you have bringing your own unique things that you want to have in your next career, but it gives you a little bit of a taster of what the career might be like.

John: Yeah, absolutely. That makes sense. Any other "aha" moments? Maybe about tactics or techniques or just things. At this point looking back a while I never realized that until I had been working with 10 or 20 people that this comes up a lot. Or anything you might have observed in the last several years.

Dr. Karen Barnard: I think just a couple of things I do want to mention is sometimes physicians do come to me and they've been applying for jobs and they've got no bites or they've had a couple of interviews and don't progress. I didn't really have to do the resume and interviewing for my transition.

But what I've really come to appreciate is a resume that's targeted to the job you're applying for is worth its weight in gold. And the goal of the resume is to get an interview. And spending some time, whether it's with your dog or your significant other, saying, preparing interview questions. I have resources on my site. There are many references and resources to give you some ideas of interview questions, practicing, getting some feedback with somebody you love and trust before you go into an interview, can really be the difference between moving along in that interview and not.

Because really once you've got an interview, it means your resume has met the bar. So now, can you convince them that even though you don't have most of the experience in the thing you don't have, but you can do this job and you're confident and you want to learn and they want to work with you? Well, that's really what it's all about. It's like, is there chemistry and can you show me that even though you don't have this experience, that you will learn fast to be able to do the job? That's just a little bit of nuts and bolts on resume interview prep.

But I think the other thing, John, that's really, and it can be, it's such an obstacle for us, it was for me as well, is, "Oh my gosh, if I no longer see patients, does that mean I'm not a doctor?" We've spent half our lives building this identity and this role. "Okay, so now you just want me to leave it at the front door?" That is really hard.

And so, what I realized in working with my clients, and in even myself, is that I'm going to take the skills and the experiences and the needs that I need in my career from what I learned in medicine, and I'm going to take it into whatever I do next. And so, I'm going to go from being a doctor to doctoring differently. I'm never not going to be a doctor. And that really is an important thing to remember that you don't have to forego this identity. You're just doing it in a different way.

John: Yeah. I have come to realize that over the years too, that a lot of these jobs, most of them ones you're talking about in particular, one of the prerequisites is they have to be a physician. Even the employer, if you're working for a large corporation, isn't asking you not to be a physician. In fact, the only personnel hired for that job is a physician. So, there's something about being a physician that makes you at least partially qualified for their job. There might be other things.

I've never found anybody that moved into a different job, a nonclinical job or non-traditional that afterwards didn't feel they were still a physician once they actually got into it. Yeah, that's one I think you're right. We question that quite a bit, so I'm glad you brought that one up.

Now you have to tell us about your website because I know there's a lot of resources on your website and or a newsletter or something that will help people just kind of address a lot of the issues you've been talking about today. So, why don't we go into that right now? Where can they find you?

Dr. Karen Barnard: I'm on LinkedIn. I'm happy to have you reach out to me there. I also will respond to every single email I get. I love hearing from physicians, even if it's just one little question. If you're stuck somewhere, sometimes I can help you just over an email exchange. And my email is

And then on my website, which is, I have some free resources. But if you go to the newsletter or just, in your inbox every week, you will get some tips and trick and resources and tools to help you through your transition. It's very focused on physicians, and lots of nuts and bolts there, as well as just a variety of topics, some of what came up today and some more. So, I really welcome you to subscribe to that.

And then I have a couple of other free resources on my website as well that the only thing you need to do is give your email in exchange for those. And then working with me, I have a couple of different options. I have what I call a career clarity call, which is 60 minutes. You just would like some clarity. You're feeling stuck in a certain area and you want to work through it in an hour. I can help you do that. I can often share some resources after that. That's a one-time only. And then I have what I alluded to earlier, my career transition program, which is the structured program where we work together for a few months, and take you through what you need to learn to get you in the best possible shape for that next stage.

John: I always get questions "How do I pick a coach?" And basically what you're saying through the clarity call or even calling or in interacting with you about the other. If you can find out what the program is, that's why I advise you. You need to talk to the coaches before you make a decision who's going to be your coach and you might want to talk to one or two or three. But usually when you really feel like there's that connection, it works out fantastic. I really encourage anyone who feels like they're stuck or they don't know what direction to go to reach out and get that help.

Any last bits of advice before I let you go for those that are, again, early in the process and they're struggling still?

Dr. Karen Barnard: Yeah. I would say don't do this alone. You're not alone. If you're feeling any shame or guilt, those are completely normal emotions to have when you're kind of just even beginning to think about this. Find your resources, find some physicians who've done it. A therapist, a coach, it doesn't really matter. But get the support you need because if you're feeling unhappy in your career, there's a really good reason for that. And explore that. It might not mean changing your career, but it might mean you need to make some sort of a change because life is way too short to be in a job that you don't love.

John: Excellent advice and you're living it now yourself. So, that's good to know that you've applied all these principles after spending some time and learning and so forth. Again, go to if you want to learn more, reach out on LinkedIn. I'll have all those links in the show notes. Thank you so much, Karen, for being here today. This has been really helpful for me and I'm sure for our listeners. So, hopefully we'll get together again another time down the road.

Dr. Karen Barnard: Thank you, John. I thank you for this opportunity and I really enjoyed talking to you about these things.

John: I did too. It's been my pleasure. Bye-bye.

Dr. Karen Barnard: Bye.


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