Is the Locum Tenens Life for You?

There are a number of reasons you may find yourself considering locum tenens jobs. Perhaps you’re a new physician who’s looking to gain experience in a wide range of practice environments while paying off student debt. Or, maybe you already have a practice, and you want to earn more money. Alternatively, you might be a retiree who is simply looking to do a bit of work here and there. In all of these situations, locum work would be ideal for you.

Girl at the airport window

Locum tenens literally means “place holder.” In short, you’re filling in for another physician, doing short-term work to keep their spot warm while they’re on vacation, maternity leave, sabbatical, or are away for other reasons. It’s a lot like doing freelance gigs, but as a physician. Here are some pros and cons for living the locum lifestyle.

The Pros of Locum Living

There are a lot of positives to taking on locum tenens jobs, or even building a career around it—especially if you’re an adaptable person who thrives on change. You can set your own schedule and decide how much you work. You can also travel a lot and experience different parts of the country and different working environments. If you’re the kind of person who likes to escape winter for warmer climes, locum opportunities might be your ticket to sunny skies and sandy beaches (when you’re off-duty, that is).

Professionally, you will broaden your expertise and skill set as you are placed in widely varying situations. You will learn what works for you and what doesn’t, which is especially invaluable if you’re a young or new physician. Your network will also grow, which will come in handy when you’re ready to settle down in a long-term position.

Salary-wise, locum tenens work can really pay off as well.

“If you don’t mind travel and are a fairly adaptable individual (i.e. can learn new EMR systems, staff idiosyncrasies, and navigate hospital politics without excessive angst), then you can expect to make at least 33% more in salary working as a locum (with professional liability insurance, housing and travel covered included),” writes Val Jones, M.D. in her article A Physician’s Guide to Locum Tenens. “In addition, you have no administrative or teaching responsibilities, coding/billing hassles, or staff management issues. You’re paid an hourly rate for a minimum number of hours, with overtime negotiable. You get to see different parts of the country, and can control where you go and how much you work.”

Not bad at all, right? But there are some drawbacks, and you should keep them in mind. We’ll go into those next.

The Downsides of Locum Work

As with freelance work, the locum life can be feast or famine, depending on your luck. You may find that go through days or weeks where the phone doesn’t ring and your inbox is empty, followed by days or weeks where you are slammed with job opportunities one after another. Learning to pace yourself is key, and it’s important to be able to set boundaries and avoid taking on too much.

Other drawbacks can be a general sense of instability. Some people thrive on constant change, but others can find that it leaves them feeling unsettled and stressed out. Before you decide to make a full-time career of doing part-time work—or if you’re employed full-time and seeking locum work on the side—ask yourself if you will honestly enjoy the schedule.

More downsides: there’s no holiday pay or sick pay, and you may be asked to pay for your own travel expenses, depending on the agencies who place you in the position. The extra money you earn may make up for it, though. Also, because you may be on the road a fair amount, you will constantly be starting over in a new community and may miss your friends and family. For some, this could be a cause of heartache, though others may find it an exhilarating challenge.

How to Find Locum Work

There are a few ways to find locum tenens positions. One way is to work with an agency that will recruit you for openings and help you line them up one after another. Agencies really do vary from organization to organization in terms of the way they treat (and care about) physicians, so do your research and try to talk to physicians who can recommend helpful agencies.

Also, plenty of physician job board sites like PhysEmp.com post locum tenens jobs in specialties throughout the country. They’re actually a great place to start if you’re interested in browsing opportunities and exploring the market. Remember, though, there are a lot of physicians doing locum jobs, and they get picked up pretty quickly. It’s a first come, first serve market, so if you see an intriguing opening, it’s best to act before it disappears.

Best of luck with your locum search! Questions? Feel free to post them below. We’ve been helping physicians and residents connect with locum tenens jobs and full-time positions for more than 20 years, and we’d be happy to answer your questions.