February 25, 2009
4 min read

Is this the right job for me?

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For all of the fellows out there looking for your first academic job, I feel your pain. For most of us, our first academic job might be our first real job. We all know that the first few years of our career will be the building blocks of our academic practice. We may be experts on all the latest updates in the field of hematology or oncology, but when it comes to negotiating a contract, we may not know much at all.

Finding an academic job is like finding a perfect match. So, I recently started doing some homework. I asked my mentors and well-wishers for advice and searched for articles to learn more. At the ASH meeting in December 2008, I listened to a trainee session by Joseph R. Mikhael, MD, and learned several important lessons. I would like to share some of the important points you should consider before signing your first contract.

Ramya Varadarajan, MD
Ramya Varadarajan

It is important to understand that the process of landing your dream job actually begins the moment you enroll in a fellowship program. Building a solid reputation, or in other words having a good CV, is the first step. That means knowing what you want to do during your career. As Mikhael said, “Do you want to be a clinician-scientist (work mainly in the lab); a clinician-teacher (work mainly in patient-related activities); a clinician-educator (be involved in education, research and curriculum design); a clinician-investigator (conduct clinical studies) or a clinician-administrator (be involved in hospital administration)?” In these days of super-specialization, identifying a focus of interest is also important, eg, hormone refractory prostate cancer, high-grade lymphomas, cancer survivorship and so forth.

Things to consider

Once you decide what you want to do — which can be a very difficult decision by itself — the next step is to identify a good mentor. An ideal mentor is a person who has the same interests as you, is well established, steers you toward your goal, is your well-wisher, acknowledges your work, gives honest feedback, finds you the right contacts, gives authorship on your work, and understands your family obligations. Since it is not practical for everyone to have a mentor with all the above qualities, Mikhael mentioned the concept of “mosaic mentor.” That is, you can have a mentor whose interests are the same as yours, but at the same time you can have another mentor who will be your guide and well-wisher and another mentor who is well established and can find you the right contacts.

The next step is to have projects of your own. You should own your projects; having a few completed projects is better than having several unfinished ones. Make sure any abstracts you have written get converted to journal articles as soon as possible. The rule of thumb is that your article should be close to submission at the time of your abstract presentation. Mikhael warned that it is important to talk to your mentor about your role and authorship at the beginning of the project.

When it is time for your job search, make a short list of the places where you want to apply. This depends on several questions such as, “Where would you like to live? Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? Does the academic center meet your interests?” Each institution is different with different search criteria, but in the end your future employers are all looking for the same thing: a good match. For example, they want someone who will work well with their faculty, be a resource of new ideas that will improve the institution’s reputation, and be a role model for the residents and fellows.

Landing a position

Next is the interview process. You will need to do a lot of homework, not only about the institution where you are interviewing but also on the people who are interviewing you. In the initial interview, find out about the amount of clinical service that is expected of you, the amount of protected time for research and the amount of initial research funding available for new faculty. If you come across an institution that meets your needs, then this next step is the most important one: the art of negotiation.

“Negotiate confidently,” said Mikhael, as you have more power than you think. The initial contract is the most essential. Make sure all the relevant items are mentioned in your contract, such as protected time, clinical service, benefits, travel and other costs. Am I missing something important? — Income! It is true that money is important and not mentioned in the forefront of academic practice. Monetary negotiations can be done in the later part of negotiations when you realize that the academic center is really interested in hiring you. Some centers may have better benefits or educational funds or travel allowances that should also be considered.

Another option is to stay in the same program where you had your training, but that has its own ups and downs. Although you know the system well and you are spared of the whole process of moving, you may be considered a fellow for much too long and not taken seriously enough. If you are torn between taking your dream job and staying in the area due to family reasons, Mikhael said, “In the end, remember the big picture.” Family is much more important than an academic career. There may be several people out there for each academic position, but no one else can fill your position in your family.

If you are still not sure about your perfect academic job, just take a chance. Research shows that more than 50% of academicians change careers in their first few years. If you find out that you are a square peg in a round hole, you may need to find the courage to move on.

Ramya Varadarajan, MD, is a Medical Oncology Fellow at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, N.Y.