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Managing Career Transitions and Succession

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Kimberly A. Skarupski, PhD, MPH
Associate Dean for Faculty Development, Office of Faculty Development, School of Medicine
Associate Professor, Department of Medicine (Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology)
Associate Professor, Epidemiology, Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University

Overview

There are many career transitions in the life of an academician, including being appointed as a first-time faculty member; earning academic rank promotions; serving as principal investigator on a grant; holding various leadership appointments; and, ultimately, transitioning out of full-time employment. This section summarizes various career transitions in academic medicine and points to resources and references for more in-depth exploration.

Relevance to GFA Membership

As leaders in faculty affairs and faculty development, we have the privilege of supporting our faculty members to be and do their very best in service to their learners, patients, and scientific communities. We need to be mindful of the myriad career transitions that occur throughout the faculty life cycle and of how our faculty members’ developmental and professional needs may change.

First Faculty Appointment

For many new faculty members joining our institutions, this will be their first faculty appointment out of training. Transitioning from graduate school, a post-doctoral fellowship, a clinical internship, residency, or a fellowship may be overwhelming; some are especially challenged by the realization that there is no longer a prescribed learning curriculum with an assigned supervisor. Some new faculty members may have a difficult time embracing the role of faculty member and may struggle with finding a balance between clinical and teaching obligations and research expectations.

It is very important that new faculty members know about our faculty affairs/faculty development (FAD) offices and understand the resources we offer. A critical step in building relationships with our junior faculty members is the new faculty orientation process. Newly appointed faculty members should be oriented to their new institutional, departmental, and divisional cultures. Orientation sessions are also good opportunities to interface with our offices and for new faculty members to meet each other and build community.

The FAD office should actively engage with new faculty members to help them establish good academic habits early in their careers. Healthy academic habits may include (a) assembling a dynamic and diverse mentoring team; (b) developing a research agenda and finding collaborators; (c) building a research lab; (d) actively engaging with professional societies; (e) learning and implementing foundational teaching principles; (f) scheduling and adhering to research and scholarship activities; (g) learning how to balance departmental “citizenship” and saying no; and (h) learning to navigate the departmental and institutional sociopolitical landscape. Faculty members may also need help meeting various personal challenges including work-life integration, dual-career-couple situations, and caregiving for children or older relatives.

What can we do at this transition stage? Offer new faculty orientation; meet with the new faculty member, if possible; and organize a new faculty social or networking activity to build community and encourage group participation in community events. You can also personally invite new faculty members to attend faculty development programs that may be particularly useful to them (e.g., the value of mentoring and good mentee practices; time management; wellness; writing accountability groups (WAGs); grant- and scientific-writing; public communication skills; study design and program evaluation courses). Institutional and departmental leadership buy-in is important to the success of orientation programs.

Promotion

Advancement through various academic ranks, from instructor to professor, can be stressful. Faculty members may be unaware or uncertain about the criteria for promotion in their department or school and thus need clear guidance on your institution’s promotion expectations and criteria. Every faculty member is unique and therein lies the challenge of making the case for their promotion and deftly telling their story in their promotional package.

What can we do at this transition stage? Provide regular promotion sessions designed to explain the nuts and bolts of the entire promotion process. At promotion sessions, faculty members appreciate hearing first-hand from leaders of the school-wide promotion committees to understand the explicit and implicit promotion processes and typical faculty promotion challenges. They also benefit from hearing from recently hired faculty members about their promotion journeys. We can also make the promotion process and data transparent by posting promotion policies, procedures, application materials, and successful promotion packet samples. To further increase transparency, we could regularly report and publish promotion statistics by rank, gender, race/ethnicity, and department.

Along the academic career continuum, our FAD offices have ample opportunities for engaging faculty with the wide array of programs and resources provided internally through our offices. We can also point our faculty to external leadership programs offered by the AAMC and through their professional societies.

Mid- and Late-Career Transition Phases

In FAD, we tend to pay disproportionate attention to junior faculty members and assume that the associate professors and professors need less attention from us. There is a tendency to pay even less attention to associate professors and professors recruited to our institutions as we assume that they understand their clinical practice, teaching, research, and service roles. However, these mid- to late-career transition periods may coincide with significant challenges and stressors, including changing clinical practice patterns; an increasingly competitive research funding climate; departmental or institutional requirements and politics; shifting research priorities; significant life events; and changes in career or personal values and priorities.

What can we do at this transition stage? Engage with mid- and late-career faculty members. Ask them what they want and need through formal or informal programming and resources. Internally, your office may provide “master mentor” programs and various leadership courses. Externally, the AAMC has leadership programs for mid- and late-career faculty members and leaders. Coaching has gained increased attention and many faculty members recognize that executive coaches are no longer reserved for the highest levels of leadership. There is a growing cadre of coaches in the academic health sector and other informal peer-coaching models also exist. Connecting with mid- and late-career faculty members may be as simple as inviting one for a cup of coffee and practicing our active listening skills, seeking to understand and look for opportunities to support and brainstorm. 

Principal Investigator/Grant Awardee

While it may initially seem like a celebratory transition, being awarded a grant may put additional pressure on a faculty member. Although they may have budgeted for a certain amount of effort on a research project, upon being granted the award, they may struggle with protecting research time, hiring staff, or securing promised administrative support or other equipment or resources. The added pressure of actually doing the research and generating scholarly products, coupled with other responsibilities, may be especially stressful.

What can we do at this transition stage? We can make it a practice to celebrate these (and other) faculty awards and successes at both formal and informal events and through various communication channels. We can also provide and facilitate programming and resources to help them acquire various skills (e.g., time/project management, supervision, writing, statistics, negotiation).

Leadership Opportunities

Faculty members join our institutions at various leadership levels (e.g., chair, chief, director) and many will have myriad opportunities to accept new leadership roles. Leadership opportunities are often associated with transition challenges such as changing responsibilities/priorities, new skill sets, poorly understood expectations, and inadequate administrative support and resources.

What can we do at this transition stage? We can point faculty to internal and external leadership programs, coaching, and our office’s programs and resources. Ideally, as we have built relationships with our faculty over time, they will have confidence and trust in our willingness and capacity to navigate these new territories with them.

Late-Career and Senior Faculty Transitions and Retirement

Retirement may be associated with issues related to identity, engagement, and legacy, which can be particularly challenging. Faculty members in the late-career stage may need guidance and peer support to think about their identity, purpose, passion, and plans for life after full-time retirement from academic medicine. Many faculty members want to maintain some level of engagement with their institutions through mentoring, advising, coaching, teaching, or research and scholarship.

What can we do at this transition stage? We can remind our late-career faculty members that “disruptive retirement” suggests that they can define retirement however they wish; retirement does not equate to disengagement and stasis. Many of our institutions have developed retirement academies and late-career/early-retirement programming and resources.

Succession Planning

Faculty members preparing to leave their roles or their institutions may want to think about succession planning, especially if they have a vested interest in the success of a particular project, program, practice, division, department, etc. Departmental-level leaders and deans should ideally have clear succession plans for their own imminent departures. In the previous version of this guidebook, Luanne Thorndyke and Kevin Grigsby emphasized the importance of (a) providing succession support and planning as early as possible; (b) understanding how the particular entity works and why it works (or doesn’t work), which will inform the identification of a successor’s required skills and temperament; (c) cross-training existing staff or faculty as appropriate; and (d) communicating. Leaders in faculty affairs and faculty development can be invaluable during these faculty transitions.

Suggested Resources

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