For those of us who earn the prestige of becoming a tenure track faculty member also comes a new set of opportunities and responsibilities, some of which are unexpected.

Almost overnight, new faculty members have courses to teach, demands for one’s time and assistance from both faculty and students alike, unfamiliar university committees and the “just not knowing what to expect” portion of the job. But probably the greatest, most feared difficulty of adjusting to academic life is the research component.

This task is especially difficult for those who have left clinical practice for academia, which happens to be a substantial portion of physician assistant educators. About 72% of new PA faculty came from clinical experience, 12% had experience in PA education and 8% had other educational experience, data from the Physician Assistant Education Association’s (PAEA) 25th Annual Report on Physician Assistant Educational Programs indicate.1  

The growing number of PA programs creates an increased need for PA faculty across the nation. This demand will most certainly be filled by clinicians new to academia. The third leading barrier to hiring new PA faculty is lack of educational experience at 57%, behind lack of candidates at 62% and decrease in salary at 66%.1

Former clinicians are no longer only responsible for staying up-to-date on new medical techniques, but now need to understand how to write research proposals and get them funded, attract and deal with graduate students, and turn out a large number of referred papers while still figuring out how to do research.

This endeavor of understanding research is incredibly time-consuming. Few new faculty members ever actually receive guidance on how to be a tenure-track faculty member, and learning by trial and error can take years.

If the academic department does not provide adequate support for the new faculty member, it greatly reduces the probability of a good return on that investment. In fact, 6% of new PA faculty leave education within five years of entering academia. Stated reasons for leaving include return to clinical practice (33%), geographical relocation (20%), retirement (15%) and family obligations (11%).1

On the other hand, if the department facilitates access to the knowledge and resources required to develop a new faculty member’s career, the payoff is likely to be a valued colleague for years to come.

Most new faculty members review their department’s policy on professional recognition, including research. However, for many, it’s as if this guidance is written in a different language. So where is a new faculty member to begin and who do they ask for help?

The answer lies in finding a mentor for understanding not only for understanding how to properly perform research, but the tenure process as well. A mentor should serve both as a source of information and as an advocate for the new faculty member.

It is vital that the mentor is a “safe” person that the new faculty member can bring questions or problems to without fearing that it will impact a promotion decision. In a small department, it might be appropriate to ask someone in a related department to serve as a mentor.

As an assistant professor in the physician assistant department, I found a tenured faculty member from our college’s occupational therapy department. It is important to chose a mentor that has some understanding of how your department, college and university function. Mentors inside the department can help you with teaching and scholarship issues, and also on how to read the culture by telling you who’s who and explaining the vision of key members.

You should also reach out to colleagues beyond your academic focus. There might be someone in the college or at another institution who can provide a broader view of the discipline and academia. Becoming involved in interdisciplinary research helped me better understand the research process.

Finding a research project already in progress that you can contribute is one way to get needed exposure. In my case, I was able to become involved in two different studies on diabetes and hypertension, performing simple duties such as taking patient height and weight measurements, BP, blood sugar and performing pulmonary function tests. I also was able to get my first year students involved in providing care for study participants and functioned as their supervisor.

I entered the first study midway through the process, which did not help much with my understanding of how to bring a research idea to fruition. But I was introduced to other experienced faculty that could act as mentors, and it did not take long before other departments heard about me acting as clinical investigator outside of my department and invited me to participate on the second study.

The greatest benefit from this experience was the ability to pick the brain of the primary investigator, who explained to me the steps she took to develop a research idea and see it through. By getting my name out there and helping with research from other departments, I now have experienced faculty from different departments offering to help me with any questions I have in my own research endeavors.

Remember you are not the first or the only junior faculty member that feels lost in the world of academia and research, but do not let that stop you from becoming more involved.

David Areaux, MPAS, PA-C, is an assistant professor in the Physician Assistant Department at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.


References

  1. Twenty-Fifty Annual Report on Physician Assistant Educational Programs in the United States, 2008-2009. PAEA 2013; doi:10.1001/jama.2013.13805.