Strategies for Succeeding in a New Faculty Position

Sharon Hull headshot.jpg

Today, I have the honor of handing the post reins over to Dr. Sharon K. Hull, M.D., MPH, ACC. Dr. Hull is a professional executive coach and CEO of Metta Solutions, an executive coaching firm. She is also a family physician and professor who has spent nearly three decades in academic leadership, including her current role as founding director of the Duke University School of Medicine Executive Coaching Program.

This is the first of two guest posts specifically focusing on physician leadership, with an emphasis on women physicians and women in academic medicine. 

After the exhaustive work of completing graduate school or a professional degree program, young professional women must be very well prepared for life in academia. Right?

Wrong.

Any young adult transitioning into the workforce faces a variety of challenges navigating complicated feelings about adulthood, identity and the promise of their new career.  But young professionals in academic fields face a particularly compelling set of challenges, and for women, some of these challenges can be even more acute.  

I’ve been there, along with many colleagues and friends, and now my coaching clients bring these issues up on a regular basis.  Starting an academic position after years in training can feel like landing on a different planet in an entirely new universe.  It can be exhilarating (you made it, right??) and terrifying (what exactly am I supposed to do to succeed?).  

I see four reasons why this transition is especially tough for both men and women, and in some cases for women in particular.  Fortunately, I have also seen effective strategies for managing and ultimately surmounting each of them.

Challenge 1: From Trainee to Teacher 

Academic training is hands-on.  Whether you study biology, literature or economics, you must do the skills-building work as a student.  This is a wonderful process for gaining expertise -- you graduate with top-notch skills in your field.  But when you leave the nest and comfort zone of your primary mentor to take your first faculty job, you gain a new level of responsibility.  The buck stops with you.  This can be overwhelming.  

Taking your first faculty role in the place where you trained carries a special set of challenges. Not only are you launching a new phase of your career, but you’re doing it under the watchful eyes of your teachers and mentors.  

These relationships have likely been defined at least in part by the power differential between teacher and trainee.  That power disparity shifts when you become a peer.  Whether or not there was codependence, conflict or even garden-variety awkwardness in the original teacher-learner relationship, the changes that come with this role shift can be uncomfortable for all involved.  A new power structure is needed, but understanding how to develop it takes time.

Strategy: Own your new role

Moving into full-fledged ownership of your professional role is a developmental step, and it is a process. Awareness is the first step.  Recognizing that the expectations are different from those in student life is key to surviving and thriving. 

As you navigate your new role, learn the concept of power mapping.   The idea here is to study and learn from those around you.  In your new role, you’ll need to understand and use different types of power.  Who around you leverages political power?  Authority-based power?  Influence?  Why do they have it, how do they use it, and in what ways does it help them?  And could these types of power help you, too? 

While going through this process, you’ll likely observe all kinds of interesting characteristics among your new colleagues.  Perhaps some qualities like charisma or transparency you’ll want to emulate. Maybe you will see some bad behavior you’d like to stay far away from.  As you study those around you, consider seeking a mentor from among those whose skills and effectiveness you admire.  

Challenge 2: Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome was first described in 1978 as a phenomenon that affects women.  According to one study from the United Kingdom, two-thirds of women have experienced this phenomenon at work in the past 12 months alone.  We now know anyone can be affected, but it seems to be more prevalent in women, whose experience of historical power structures and their own self-worth can contribute.  

For academics in particular, early years in faculty roles stand out because peers who started work in other fields right after college have been there, done that.  They are established as professionals, and many have overcome some of the complicated feelings that accompany first jobs.  Socially, you may feel behind, and that’s normal. You’ll catch up.  

Imposter syndrome also shows up when you are asked to take on a new leadership role.  I typically talk with clients about imposter syndrome as a signal from the environment that you are taking on a challenge that is outside your comfort zone, and that you may need to learn new skills.  This is particularly important when you are asked to take on a leadership role that you don’t feel ready for, even though those around you think that you are.  

Strategy: Turn to your tribe 

A support system can often be your best antidote to feelings that you don’t measure up. Because imposter syndrome is so common, most people around you understand. Surround yourself with longtime friends who are personal cheerleaders – they know how hard you have worked and how you have earned everything that you have today.    

You also need professionals you can call on when the gnome on your shoulder, as I call it, raises its head.  Look for a senior colleague in your field or a related field who has been there. Talking to peers, mentors and trusted colleagues will enable you to normalize your experience and feelings and stop gaslighting yourself.  The part you do not need to normalize?  Any tendency to put yourself down or doubt your value.  The gnome feeds on those tendencies, and you diminish yourself in the eyes of others when you do this publicly.

Learning is also often a key antidote to imposter syndrome.  If you understand that these feelings can be a signal that you are stretching your skills, this imposter signal becomes an opportunity, and once you further develop your skills, the imposter syndrome recedes.  You are left feeling more prepared to step into roles that may be real leadership opportunities for you.

Challenge 3: Going it Alone

Wherever your first big job, you may feel simultaneously in the spotlight and totally alone.  It truly takes a village to build a career, and for young academics who have spent years immersed in technical training, your existing support system may be limited to those with similar experiences.    

This is something we address in my field of medicine at the very start of training.  First-year medical students are urged to consider: Who will they call the first time a patient dies? Who will they call the first time they deliver a baby? These are moments no one should experience alone (though patient privacy must be protected).

Strategy: Build your career board of directors

Ultimately, whether we are delivering babies, curating art or developing policy, we can all benefit from a support system, for moments when the going gets tough, as well as when something truly wonderful happens.  I like to talk with colleagues and clients about building a career board of directors.

After graduate school, you may already have an extensive network of people who are true subject matter experts or peers in your field. But to build a thriving career you need more. Mentors who can help you determine what it means to be a faculty member.  Professionals who understand the organizational politics.  People who know you and your career well enough to call you out when you are off track.  Champions who will help you spot and seize opportunity. 

Over the life of your career, you might ultimately need 10 to 15 people on your career board.  Some may be temporary members (like a current workplace peer) and some might be permanent (a spouse or longtime friend). You’ll never get them all together in the same room, but they are at your figurative round table.  When you are at the top of a mountain or on the ropes, these are the people you call.

Challenge 4: Avoiding Land Mines

In any new job, there’s a lot to learn simply to do the job itself.  Equally important is learning the landscape of your new professional home. Do people address problems and challenges openly or behind closed doors? Are people direct, or do you need to read between the lines?  What are the unspoken rules of engagement, and how closely must you follow them?  Do your colleagues socialize together, or is there a strict line between professional and personal?

It would be nice if transparency and openness were the rule everywhere, but that simply isn’t the case, so you need help to ensure you don’t inadvertently step into a land mine. If you do, this misstep could unfortunately define you and your career for years to come.  

Strategy: Pinpoint a guide

As you begin a new job, it is sometimes helpful to do what I call “key informant interviews,” asking key questions of leaders, peers and support staff.  One of those questions might be, “how do you best like to communicate, and how would you like me to communicate with you?” Answers to those questions can offer very revealing insights into the organizational culture, and they may help you avoid those land mines.

You can’t travel this new landscape alone.  You need a mentor to help you learn the institutional landscape.  Look for someone you can ask: What do I not know that I need to know?  What am I missing here?  How can I thrive in this institution?

Look to a mentor who has at least five years more experience in your institution than you have.  You’re looking for someone with whom you share a comfortable, natural connection.  Someone trustworthy who may be a couple rungs up on the ladder but would still have time and willingness to work with you.  

Rely On Relationships

There is a temptation for new faculty members to think what matters most is subject matter expertise, but it’s not.  You got where you are because you have this expertise.  What academic training lacks is preparation for the relational components of your career and the emotional intelligence to find your way through them. Fortunately, academic training prepares us for a lifetime of learning, and with the right support systems, these skills, too, will come. 

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I am thankful to Dr. Sharon Hull for sharing her expertise. If you'd like to find out more about her work in academic medicine leadership, check her out at Metta Solutions. This post was originally published in Psychology Today on February 18, 2019. Copyright 2019 Dr. Sharon Hull on the ThoughtHive Blog, Mira Brancu / Brancu & Associates.

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