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What Every Junior Faculty Needs to Know: A Quiz

October 2005

Most newly minted junior faculty members are unaware of the true entrepreneurial nature of academics, with its dependence on alliances and collaborations. How many times have I interviewed fellow applicants who want to go into academics to be clinician-educators, who do not understand the economics involved with their salaries on patient-generated income?

Many Career Talk columns have focused on understanding academia as it relates to medical school faculty. Last month, we discussed the importance of tenure and its potential role in the promotions process. Practically speaking, of the three criteria needed to gain tenure (teaching, research and service), excellence in research is the most important. How is this measured? Simple, with publications and grant support. Why is research activity so highly valued? Simple economics. Since the end of World War II, the federal government has granted billions of dollars for basic and applied research to public and private research universities. The FY 2006 program level for the NIH is $28,845 million (www.nih.gov/news/budget/FY2006presbudget.pdf). These grant dollars supplement general revenues and pay for laboratories, graduate student stipends and faculty salaries.

Still, the teaching must be done and committees must be filled. Although most of this work is not directly reimbursed, it seems a fact of academic life that these responsibilities are often given to junior faculty struggling to establish their careers and salary sources. Junior faculty commonly assume that they are joining a team of equals and as team-players cheerfully accept whatever division and department chiefs ask them to do. It can be traumatic and demoralizing to get a pat on the back for being a good citizen, but then to be told that your salary and academic promotion are in jeopardy. Hence, it is absolutely imperative that you understand how your job description matches (or doesn't match) your salary sources and, equally important, your criteria for promotion.

The following quiz was adapted from an email sent to UCSD faculty in April 2005 by the University of California, San Diego, Health Sciences Faculty Rights and Welfare Committee.

A Quiz

1. What is your academic series? In other words, do you know what the criteria for promotion are for your series? For instance, in the University of California system, there are five professorial tracks. Each track has their own restrictions and criteria regarding salary stability, ability to compete for grants and other future funding sources, space assignment, ability to have graduate students, and retirement benefits. Interpretation of the series differs from campus to campus (1).

2. What is your salary and what is your source of salary support? There are a vast number of salary sources available to academic physicians. You need to know where your salary comes from and how vulnerable it is. FTE (full-time equivalent)? Research grants? Departmental funds? Clinical collections? Clinical trials? VA funds? Hospital funds? Faculty start-up packages often include a salary guarantee. Do you have a salary guarantee, if so, for how many years? What will happen if you have a salary shortfall after your guarantee ends? Who assumes responsibility for your time? Everyone who pays you may expect a piece of you! Faculty who have joint appointments, e.g., between the VA and university, face the additional burden of being caught between two bureaucratic cogs that can affect their ability to accrue vacation, sick leave and retirement benefits (see question 4).

3. Do you have formally assigned space, or will you be working in space assigned to another faculty member? Where is it located and how many square feet is it? Is the space paid for by grants or by the department? In other words, who owns the space? If you are working in someone else’s space, what is your relationship with that person? How vulnerable are you?

4. What is your APU (Academic Program Unit) and how does this affect your future retirement benefits? Since medical school faculty are often paid on a different scale than their university counterparts, institutions have devised various ways to account for these differences in terms of accruing retirement benefits. Do you know what the requirements of your institution(s) are in terms of being able to participate in their retirement programs? For instance, If you have VA funding, what is your university percentage and how does this affect your future university/VA retirement benefits?

5. What are your teaching responsibilities? Do you belong to a specific graduate program? Do you need to recruit graduate students from other programs?

6. Are you a member of organized research units? Organized research units can provide infrastructure and critical access to key core equipment, computer facilities and expertise in clinical trial design/analysis. What rights and duties are required for membership in these units? How easy is it to join? Things may look fabulous on paper, but prove difficult to actually access unless you are a member of the unit.

7. What are your university service and committee requirements? This can be a good thing!Seek advice from senior faculty and/or your mentor to help you sort out requests and identify good committees for networking or facilitating your career development. Serving on committees also provides vital opportunities for educating non-medical school faculty on the actual demands involved with patient care and hospital administration.

8. Have you identified a senior faculty member who can act as your mentor and advisor? For fellows and junior faculty, this is perhaps the most important decision you will make. As discussed, in addition to a research advisor, it may also be useful to have a senior advise you on career development. Are there any formal mentoring programs on your campus?

1. Howell, LP and Bertakis, KD. Clinical faculty Tracks and Academic Success at the University of California Medical Schools. Acad Med 2004; 79:250.