Downwards-pointing arrow
Pivot Pointe
November 21, 2022

Career Transition With Dr. Hannah Coleman

ICU Senior Registrar, John Hunter Hospital Intensive Care NSW, Australia

Dr. Hannah Coleman was a professional dancer who trained in Australia, the United States, and Canada and is now a CICM trainee registrar at John Hunter Hospital ICU and PICU. Hannah studied BMedSci at Auckland University and then completed her medical degree at the University of Newcastle NSW. She started working in ICU as a resident in 2018, completed her ICU primary examinations in 2020, and currently completing her training and working as a Senior Registrar. Hannah has interests in medical education and quality improvement and enjoys endurance events, including off-road marathons and Ironman.

We asked Hannah to reflect upon her career transition.

Photo courtesy of Hannah Coleman

Q: You danced with the Alberta Ballet in Calgary, Canada. At what point in your career did you realize that it was time for a career change?

Hannah Coleman: Yes, I trained at the Alberta Ballet School and was offered the contract to dance for the Winter Olympics opening ceremony with Alberta Ballet, along with other dancers from around Canada. It seemed like a good point in time to tap out after that. I guess I knew I wanted to do something after ballet, and I didn't want to be starting too late in life. For example, I’m on a training program now, and it took years to get here—I didn’t want to be doing that well in my thirties or forties.

Living in Canada was also cold—missing sunshine and NZ probably helped prompt the transition! The timing of the school year and the opening ceremony was the perfect university timing in Auckland.

Whatever you want to do, you can do it. You already know how to turn up and work hard.

Q: Coming from a family of doctors, was it pretty clear early on that you’d follow in your parents' footsteps after dancing?

Hannah: Absolutely not! My parents seldom talked about work or medicine at home. I didn't know what blood pressure was until I learned about it in school. My siblings (almost) all did other things first—different degrees, travel, etc., then ended up in medicine. Six out of seven of us have careers in medicine, so I guess genetically, we are 50% from each parent, and by default, often what they like or are good at, we might too. It was always one of my options, but it wasn’t clear until I turned up to Med School. Initially, I had applied for fine arts thinking about physio or architecture as potential options.

Q: Can you tell me about the steps you took to enroll in pre-med/medical school?

Hannah: I got a bit lucky here. One of the university course coordinators saw me dancing in the opening ceremony, and the commentators/presenters said my name. She knew there was a “Hannah Coleman,” who had enrolled to do B MedSci at Auckland University but hadn’t completed enrollment or registered for any classes—she reached out to me via my parents and set me up with the classes I needed. She was such a legend!

Because I had completed high school, I had enough marks to get into B MedSci. I’m not sure of the exact details, but I have no doubt there are excellent bridging courses (for academic merit) for those who left school early to pursue their career in dancing. If you’ve finished school, you can use your school marks to apply.

There are different requirements for different countries and their respective universities; they will have the information on their medical school page. It will also depend if you want to do postgraduate or undergraduate studies. Some universities have limited attempts to get in, for example, at Auckland University, you’ve got two attempts per life, which means you have to be strategic about them. I started my undergrad in Auckland, and to maximize my chances of getting into an Australian university, I applied before I had finished my studies.

There is something elegant about being part of a good resuscitation team. Ballet probably gave my body the strength to endure the long hours and my mental discipline to find structure in the chaos.

Q: Is the medical world just as cutthroat as the ballet world? Are there any similarities between the two?

Hannah: Yes! Big-time similarities. There are a bunch of type-A personalities in medicine. They have always been amongst the top 1% in school and often in other areas of life, now competing for university places and jobs. So, you need to be prepared to put in the hard yards. There’s a ton of study to get through post-grad exams on top of working full-time, and I’ve still got to do my fellowship. But ballet helps with that. You get good at turning up, taking constructive criticism, and working hard. You know how to train when you’re tired. You know how to find your weaknesses and improve upon them. I studied for 12 months before my first post-grad exams, doing between 8 to a maximum of 14 hours per day.

There’s good evidence that we should study less and be more efficient with time, but there is just SO much to know, without even going into too much depth on some topics. I needed that time to cover the syllabus and practice my exam technique, so ballet helped with the discipline to study.

Photo courtesy of Hannah Coleman

Q: How did you end up choosing your specialty in medicine?

Hannah: It will depend on where you get allocated for your first two years out of university, but I chose ICU. When you do your residency, you rotate through terms and usually get pulled towards a specialty. I feel very lucky. If someone had told me I could have any job in the world, and all jobs paid the same, I am certain I would still pick ICU. I like the pace, the detail, and the teamwork. It is human physiology and pathology in extreme.

There is something elegant about being part of a good resuscitation team. Ballet probably gave my body the strength to endure the long hours and my mental discipline to find structure in the chaos.

Q: Are there any self-management traits from a dancer that contribute to your success as a doctor?

Hannah: Definitely, the discipline we learn from ballet is second to none. Ballet teaches us to be better in whatever we are doing. Humans are not great at having the ability to improve themselves without feedback. In ballet, we are heavily trained to seek “negative” or constructive feedback. It is drilled into us from 5 years old; our teacher will point out everything we are doing wrong to help us be better. As we grow, we put ourselves front and center of class to get as much feedback. Without that, you can’t improve. I think this ability to take feedback helps hugely with self-management–whether in your clinical practice, well-being, or in other domains.

If I’m honest with myself, I’m a bit brittle post-nights and need to thicken my skin. In my field, you need experts to tell you how to improve because you don’t come out of the womb knowing.

On a negative self-management note, I don’t think we dancers are good at knowing when to give up. We are poor at identifying when we should take breaks or rest, and it is something that is part of my personality and perhaps contributed to ballet.

Q: What is the workload like in terms of being a doctor? What is your typical workday?

Hannah: All my shifts are 12.5 hours long. The day shifts go from 8 am to 8.30 pm, and nights are 8 pm to 8.30 am.

I do blocks of 7 shifts. So either 3 days into 4 nights or 4 days into 3 nights. Then I get time off.

At work, the shift is varied. Sometimes it can feel like the world is melting around you, and you don’t have time to use the bathroom; others, it is much more chilled. It’s pretty dynamic in the ICU. That’s why I like it.

At the moment, I am in my third trimester of pregnancy, so finding nights with significant iron deficiency is a bit more tiring than usual. I’ll stop working the night shifts soon. Fortunately, in Australia, we have protected shift links, which are protected times between shifts.

Q: What was the process like from graduating from medical school to securing your residency?

Hannah: All the terminology for each stage of a medical career is a bit different in each country. In Australia, we do a residency, which is 2 years post-grad. Then depending on what training program you are trying to get into, the next few years are varied. You can get lost in the process because it requires some strategy.

For ICU training, traditionally, you try to secure an SRMO (senior resident medical officer) job doing “critical care." Following this, you apply for a registrar position. If the College of Intensive Care Medicine (CICM) or whatever college you’re applying to has accepted your application, you are then a “trainee registrar”–if you are not on a training program, then you are an unaccredited registrar.

Each stage requires a CV and interviews. Each college or training program has different requirements, and some are more competitive than others. For example, neurosurgery often takes people several years as an unaccredited reg before they get accepted. Most colleges have a limited amount of times you can apply–so if you miss out, you need to change your career plan.

Everyone applying is usually good at their job, smart, and has a similar CV–I don’t envy the recruitment panel! It is tough.

Q: What advice do you have for dancers thinking about career transition or going on the journey?

Hannah: Whatever you want to do, you can do it. You already know how to turn up and work hard.

Top image by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography

Let’s bring your idea to life