This is an exciting and also a challenging time to embark on a career as an independent investigator. As new faculty members come quickly to realize, success in academia requires numerous skills, in addition to conducting excellent science, many of which are not commonly encountered during postgraduate training. Moving to a new institution to establish a research lab requires that you figure out how to navigate a new bureaucracy, grow a research team from scratch, and combat social isolation. On top of this, taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by your new institution requires that you make the effort to identify useful local resources (such as core facilities and grant-writing support) that can facilitate your current research and to meet researchers outside one’s departmental silo with whom you can initiate new interdisciplinary and innovative collaborations.
Many institutions offer career development workshops that introduce faculty members to management and leadership skills. At the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, we’ve chosen to combine such training into the SPRINGBOARD program, a yearlong monthly series for new faculty investigators designed to introduce them to grant, personnel, and career management skills, to provide information about resources available at Pitt, and perhaps most importantly, to meet their new faculty member colleagues and help embed them within our large (3,000 faculty member) community. The program is administratively supported by staff in our Office of Academic Career Development, and sessions are presented by senior faculty members with leadership roles at the institution. Most of the relevant material also can be readily tackled by any faculty member with institutional memory and emotional intelligence.
The content and format of SPRINGBOARD has continued to evolve since its inception in 2015 in response to participant suggestions and, more drastically, to the pandemic. SPRINGBOARD combines senior and peer mentoring, with cohorts of 8-10 mentees paired with more senior faculty advisors selected for their proven ability as successful mentors. New faculty members receive a welcome email and enrollment information from the Senior Vice Chancellor of the Health Sciences, and participation is “mandatory” for tenure-stream faculty members. Most sessions have now migrated to virtual settings, while the opening dinner, peer cohort groups, and closing reception provide opportunities for networking in person.
“Meeting other new faculty was one of the major strengths of this program,” a SPRINGBOARD participant said in an anonymous survey. “After the initial welcome dinner, two other new faculty and I established a once a month meeting that was a great supplement to SPRINGBOARD where we would all share our experiences, questions, etc., about getting our labs up and going. This was a great way to get more info, too, both practical and scientific.”
“The welcome dinner was, in the end, a very valuable time in terms of making connections with other new faculty,” another SPRINGBOARD participant said. “One of those connections has led to a joint grant application, and may well be ongoing.”
Articles related to each topic and descriptions of institutional resources that new faculty members should become aware of are provided on a webpage that is updated monthly, and a dedicated listserv for each annual cohort enables faculty members to communicate directly. Below is a brief description of the current SPRINGBOARD program.
New faculty members rarely have experience navigating human resources departments and hiring technical staff and postdoctoral fellows. This session is designed to answer such questions as: How do you select staff for your research team? How do you write a compelling job description? What is behavioral interviewing, and how is it useful? What questions are you not allowed to ask an applicant? What is the difference in job expectations between postdoctoral and research staff? In a subsequent meeting, individual cohorts discuss best practices in establishing and organizing their research projects and managing diverse research teams.
Institutional structure and navigating promotion and tenure
Every institution has a distinct organizational structure and a unique process for promotions and tenure. This session reviews the administrative structure and describes key roles for leadership (what does a provost do?), describes the submission and review steps for promotions and tenure portfolios, and explains the critical factors in faculty accomplishments that are evaluated for conferral of tenure. In a subsequent peer cohort meeting, faculty advisors and participants review CVs designed to contain gaps or weaknesses to understand how a member of a promotions committee would assess a submitted portfolio. The goal of this session is to help faculty members recognize potential weaknesses in their own CVs early in their career and strategize about how to fill these gaps.
One SPRINGBOARD participant remarked, “It’s unbelievable to me that the promotion and tenure review processes have been so opaque to me. I cannot say that I now fully understand it, but this session very much helped me understand and prepare for the expectations of a tenure review committee.”
How to manage teams
Many newly appointed faculty members lack training in management and leadership skills, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) provides a rapid, objective, and sometimes amusing framework with which to appreciate that individuals have distinct preferences in how they receive and process information and make decisions. In this session, we include discussions of how to provide opportunities for all team members to contribute in meetings, how to effectively convey complex information in emails, and how to establish timelines and benchmarks to facilitate productive collaborations.
Difficult conversations and effective mentoring
This session describes best practices in mentoring across diverse groups, and also provides guidance on how to resolve conflicts between supervisors and trainees. To highlight the necessity of preparing for difficult conversations, the session includes role-play discussions between participants who have been provided nuanced case scenarios that reflect their distinct perspectives as mentor or mentee.
Effective negotiating for startup funds, space, and other resources is an important element of faculty career success. This session includes role-play videos of a common scenario with negative and positive outcomes to highlight key strategies for successful negotiations and show how discussions can go off the rails. A subsequent meeting of the individual cohorts is focused on an exercise on gauging their value to the institution.
Navigating the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
This session reviews the administrative structure of the NIH and the Center for Scientific Review, the roles of various personnel involved in grant reviews, how funding decisions are made, and the various types of NIH grants and programs.
Department chair interviews
All SPRINGBOARD participants are tasked with interviewing their department chair prior to the closing session. The goal of these meetings is for new faculty members to understand the responsibilities involved in being a chair, their chair’s vision for the department, and the challenges and pressures they face. Many participants find this to be a surprisingly valuable experience, and we encourage them to interview other administrative leaders to get a broader perspective on their new institution.
“The opportunity to schedule one hour with my chair as a ‘requirement’ was very useful for me, and I think will end up being important for my career advancement. We don’t get a chance like that often,” a SPRINGBOARD participant said.
The effort and cost of recruiting faculty members to an institution is considerable. Pitfalls encountered in establishing robust teams and gaining research momentum are highly stressful for junior faculty and also demoralizing to department colleagues and trainees. While the expense of faculty development programs such as SPRINGBOARD is significant, they provide a strong return on investment. Especially during this particularly stressful time when many of our new investigators are facing exceptional challenges, ensuring that all our faculty feel welcome and supported is essential to creating and sustaining the more diverse academic community we seek.
Ora Weisz is grateful to her fellow ELAM (Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine) alumni colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh for their generous efforts to promote junior faculty success via SPRINGBOARD.
About the Author:
Ora Weisz is a Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Cell Biology, and Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Pittsburgh. She is also the Vice Chair of Faculty Development in the Department of Medicine, the Associate Dean for Faculty Development in Pitt’s School of Medicine, and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Faculty Excellence, Health Sciences.