Three years ago I made the transition from full-time clinical practice to academia. Although I had never worked in education, I was excited to start this new chapter of my career. Returning to teach at my alma mater, Rutgers University, made the transition as comfortable as possible. I had known most of my fellow faculty members for years, and I was familiar with the curriculum.
Nevertheless, the learning curve was steep. I was fortunate to have outstanding mentorship and guidance throughout the transition. I was taught the tangible stuff, things like writing objectives and best practices for Power Point presentations. The intangibles, however, have taken me a bit longer to grasp. Here are five lessons I learned (and am still learning) during my transition into academia.
1. More flexible hours doesn’t mean less work.
Ok, I didn’t really think being a PA educator would be less work than clinical practice. Like many PA educators, however, more flexible work hours played a big role in my decision to apply for a faculty position. My daughter was a few months old at the time and having the ability to work from home or leave work early has been a lifesaver.
Here’s the catch: Regardless of how much time is spent on campus, the work still must be done. This often means putting those finishing touches on a lecture after midnight or investing weekend hours in a research project. In fact, I have worked harder, and longer hours, in academia than I ever did in clinical practice. Early on I found myself scrambling to “finish” my work at the end of each day. One afternoon a colleague told me, “Go home. The work will still be here in the morning.” They were right.
2. Beware the endless opportunities.
I knew (or at least I had hoped) that working in PA education would open some doors for me. I had no idea how many doors existed! My career goals were pretty well established when I entered academia, but I quickly became overwhelmed by the number and breadth of options for professional development.
I wanted to say yes to everything, and I did — research projects, continuing education, committees and councils, a PhD program, and leadership and advocacy positions. One particular research project stalled because I became distracted by other opportunities.
Having recently begun a PhD program, I’ve slowly started to bring my interests into focus and ensure that other pursuits are aligned with those interests. Also, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s ok to say no.
3. Time management and organization skills are really important!
One of the most attractive aspects of being a PA educator is the variability in job responsibilities. From writing exam questions to facilitating simulation exercises, each day brings a different experience. Although this wide range of responsibilities can have a down side.
Initially I sometimes…ahem…always had that overwhelming feeling that “There’s something else I should be doing right now.” Did I forget about a meeting? Or a lecture? Are my exam questions submitted?
Education is a different kind of busy than clinical practice but busy just the same. I had never worked with deadlines before, and I began to wish I had paid more attention to those time management exercises in PA school.
Along the way I picked up some helpful organization tips from colleagues and attended several very helpful PAEA workshops. I still feel scrambled every now and then, but I’ve learned to organize my work and manage my time effectively.
4. Counseling skills are a prerequisite.
The PA educator role is nuanced with the coexisting needs for formal and informal teaching. We lecture and we mentor. We assess and we advise. We see our students during one of the most stressful periods of their lives. Sometimes we as faculty bear the brunt of that stress.
At first I was not prepared for this aspect of the job. I was not prepared to mentor the failing student who blamed everyone but themselves. I did not feel adequate to counsel the student with more “real world” hardships than any person should have to endure.
The student-educator relationship is not dissimilar to the patient-provider relationship. Usually I’m just there to listen. Occasionally (rarely) I’m able to offer sage advice. I had no idea how important these clinical skills would be to my role as an educator.
5. It’s all about the students, sort of.
When people ask me “What do you do for work?” I struggle to answer succinctly. My friends and family think I’m in a classroom all day. As we all know, that’s one small part of the job. Beyond the classroom lay meetings, and prep work, and writing, and grading, and all the other stuff we do.
Then there is the world of academia. There are so many interesting and fulfilling academic opportunities to explore (see #2 above), and these ventures can lead us even further away from the classroom.
I became a PA educator because I love teaching. I also love the scholarly pursuit of academia. I don’t want to forget the shared task at hand, and I’ve learned that a healthy balance of teaching and non-teaching responsibilities is important in this job.
Becoming a PA educator is the best decision I’ve made in my career. I have benefitted from outstanding mentorship and guidance, and I’ve found the PA education community to be incredibly supportive and welcoming. If you are just starting your journey into PA education, hopefully some of the lessons I’ve learned will be helpful to you along the way.