Thou Shalt Not! Top 10 Challenges for New Faculty
Forty-five percent of faculty have considered leaving academia within the past two years, and 60 percent have been at their programs for three years or less. An important question came to mind: How can we avoid contributing to faculty turnover ourselves?
In the past year, we have reflected upon common challenges and pitfalls and have identified what not to do in our early academic careers, as well as positive strategies for digging in, working hard, and staying put in academia beyond the initial few years. Without further ado, when making the leap from clinical practice to academia:
1. Thou shalt not remain in thy comfort zone.
The switch to academia is bound to push your comfort zone, but the key is to embrace the newness and be ready to learn … again and again. You may feel like a freshman — when you had been a senior — but remind yourself that when you leave your comfort zone, you enter the impact zone. Whether it be an online course to infuse your fresh mind with cutting edge applications for teaching remotely, utilizing unfamiliar technology in the classroom, lobbying for pro-PA legislation, or taking a trip abroad to teach students medical mission skills — just try it!
Perhaps you were educated in a strictly lecture-based curriculum and now you find yourself playing a key role in delivering a problem-based learning pedagogy. Familiarize yourself with the teaching philosophy and the opportunities it may provide for your own growth and professional development. The sooner you can get comfortable with the uncomfortable, the better.
2. Thou shalt not rush the process.
A switch to academia is significant. This new endeavor will take some time and effort to understand. Expectations for faculty include contributions in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service (often referred to as the three-legged academic stool) over time. Learn the requirements you will be expected to master and the individual quirks of your institution. Negotiate your roles and responsibilities with your program director to align your strengths with your interests and create projects and an agenda that excite you. You may be full of great ideas as a fresh-faced faculty member, but recognize that your ability to make change is on a different timetable and at a more deliberate pace than in the clinic.
Be careful not to get discouraged if your efforts are not met with immediate results. And immediate gratification? Forget about it. This is not clinical practice, in which you might ease a patient’s discomfort, receive a sincere smile of relief, and even a thank you before the patient walks out the door. Years will pass before you see a student cohort through from admission to graduation. And even more time may pass before your students truly realize the value in your teaching. The feedback timetable is measured in semesters, years, and decades.
3. Thou shalt not reinvent the wheel or accept the status quo.
If you are fortunate enough to be teaching at a program with teaching materials to share, be grateful, but review hand-me-downs with a critical eye — as we all know practice guidelines and standards of care evolve over time. Recognize that you may teach a unit or module for a few years before you have all components exactly the way you want them.
Teaching is much more than simply standing in front of a classroom for an hour lecture. It also incorporates test item writing, developing and grading written assignments and practical exams, and providing appropriate feedback to your students. Give yourself a break if you don’t have the time and/or energy to overhaul an entire course initially. Pick the parts that need the most immediate attention for this year and make realistic plans for improvement over time as you move forward.
4. Thou shalt not avoid the elephant in the room — scholarship.
Avoiding the scholarship component of your contract is unrealistic. Scholarship is likely required to earn advancement in rank and a career contract or tenure at your institution. Research is time-consuming and can take years to complete or just to even obtain the data needed to investigate your research question(s).
Make friends with your university librarians, statisticians, or faculty development center staff. Block out regular time to develop your research agenda and enlist an accountability buddy or two to help push you along in this pursuit. Talk about your scholarly projects with colleagues in your division, with faculty throughout your institution, and also with new contacts while networking at professional events. Let’s even talk about scholarly projects with our students and consider bringing them along to collaborate. Talk, talk, talk.
5. Thou shalt not underestimate thy support.
There is a support network at every PA program that is put in place to assist students in their success, but what about the faculty? Don’t underestimate the value of senior faculty, support staff, and administration. Take advantage of resources provided by the university and ask for help when you need it. PAs are trained to work collaboratively as part of a team — which is just as true in academia as it is in clinical practice. Remember that the staff in your department can be among the best assets you have.
6. Thou shalt not surprise people.
Our program director often says “I don’t like surprises,” and it’s a good motto. This guiding principle encourages us to maintain an ongoing and open dialogue. As it turns out, none of us like to be surprised. (What?! The guest lecturer is a no-show?!) Before you implement your fantastic, novel idea, consider discussing it with your colleagues, as the same idea might have been unsuccessfully piloted in the past. Faculty meetings can be a forum for these types of discussions. Find the value in being as transparent as possible, with both faculty and students, and cultivate your communication skills.
7. Thou shalt not skip self-care.
Maintaining your physical and emotional health is just as challenging to a PA in education as it is to a clinically practicing PA. There are only 168 hours in a week (we counted) and working around the clock is a mistake. Academics — on most days — is a sedentary job compared to seeing a full panel of patients in a day. You should not skip exercise, healthy eating, or adequate sleep. You may find yourself engrossed in work that is never quite finished and be tempted to stay late and miss family dinners. Don’t do that. Also, beware of the constant celebrations, birthdays, and promotions punctuated with snacks, sweets, and the never-ending candy bowl — tread through this territory carefully. Don’t neglect yourself.
8. Thou shalt not be friends with thy students.
This is a tough one. How can you be friendly to, but not friends with, your students? In clinical life, the white coat is a silent separation — a visual professional signal. But, how do you best achieve that feeling in the classroom? Should students call you by your first name or refer to you as professor? Ask around in your department, as there is likely a standard practice related to the expected level of formality when students are addressing faculty. It’s helpful to comply so that you don’t stand out as more lenient or permissive in comparison with your colleagues.
As faculty, it is important to attend social events for your students. However, socializing outside of the workday with students should not be in small groups or one on one. Welcome the concept of yourself as an educator and start defining your own persona early. Although these students will be our colleagues within a few short years, respect this brief educational stage with appropriate boundaries. Fair assessment of each student requires us to remain objective.
9. Thou shalt not obsess over course evaluations.
Course evaluations by students can get personal and are not always constructive if reviewed without context. Feedback is an important part of professional improvement and development, but students don’t always fully appreciate the best teachers immediately. This can be a tough pill to swallow. Self-imposed high-expectations are a source of stress for more than 80 percent of PA faculty who responded to the 2015 PAEA Faculty and Directors Survey.
When you read your course evaluations, our advice would be to do so in a safe space, with a friend beside you, and your beverage of choice in hand. Try to distill overall themes to help you improve and find your own style. Reflect on your days as a student, when the easiest grader or the funniest faculty member was not necessarily the one who provided what you needed to be a good PA. Don’t get discouraged — hold on to the positives and let go of the negatives.
10. Thou shalt not doubt thy stuff.
You know things … lots of things. Whether you spent decades in subspecialty practice or had a few short years in primary care, you’re a PA and a problem-solver. Be creative with ways to bridge the connection between clinical experience and the classroom. The reality is that we have to “unlearn” some of our bad habits from the real world and get back to book knowledge. Don’t minimize the transition to academics, as it is natural to be overwhelmed. We were trained to be PAs — teaching is new. Decide to focus on the fact that your prior experience has value.
While our list of Thou Shalt Nots may seem long and daunting, we feel privileged in our roles as educators for future PAs. We hope you can use these cautionary tales from our initiation into academia to help smooth the process and keep you happy for the long term. Don’t be part of the faculty turnover statistic. Good luck teaching, and welcome to academia!
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Stephanie Bernard, MMSc, PA-C, RD
Stephanie is an assistant professor at Shenandoah University’s PA program and the assistant director of the Scholar Plaza Loudoun campus.