Skip to main content

AAMC 2014: Keep the Fire Burning: Motivating Faculty at Mid-Career


Announcer: Broadcasting from the Algorithms for Innovation booth at the AAMC in Chicago, The Healthcare Insider is on the Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.

Interviewer: How do you manage a career of a tenured faculty member as science and their interests change or evolve over the course of their career, especially maybe in the mid-level of their career?

We're here with Dr. Harriet Hopf. She's the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. You just led a two-year effort to revise the promotion and tenure criteria at University of Utah, so how do you manage a situation like that? This is a question that a lot of industries including healthcare face.

Hopf: To start. you want to hire the right people. You're going to invest a lot in a new faculty member and hiring the right person makes a huge difference. Then you have to continue to invest and maybe there's actually an idea of re-recruitment around the mid career level, to go back to the faculty member and figure out what is it that makes them passionate, what is it that they want to do to make sure that they stay engaged in the work they're doing.

When you give someone tenure your counting on their sustainability. You're counting on their ability to continue to contribute. And it's really a vote of confidence that you think they're going to do it. When we give tenure to people we think they're going to be successful, but they aren't always, so why is that?

Science evolves over time so you need people who can evolve in response to the changing needs of investigation. People also evolve over time and they may be following a line of investigation that they love, but it gets to a point where now to continue that line of investigation requires different skills than the ones that they like. So then they have to find a different line of investigation or a different line of work altogether.

I think departments and institutions need to not just develop junior faculty members but take mid-career faculty members and help them engage in what they're doing and keep it fresh so that these people who we hire because they're phenomenal people with initiative and flexibility and curiosity and creativity can stay that way because they're doing work that really inspires them.

Interviewer: And what might that look like? How could you execute something like that?

Hopf: I think part of this is making sure you have a rich collaborative environment where they can find new directions for their research. Part of it is for people who maybe just lose their passion for the research, they feel like they've answered the question they needed to answer and there aren't questions that are coming up that are what they want to answer, but maybe they want to go into medical education or maybe they want to do something else.

Leadership of the department, maybe of the School of Medicine needs to sit down with a faculty member, recognizing how much they're valued and say, "What do you want to do? How can we align that with what we need as an institution, and how can we make sure it can be funded?"

I think it takes mindfulness and working together, and frankly having a discussion. I think sometimes people change what they're doing, but they do it kind of trying not to have anyone notice, and I think that's going to be much less successful. Sometimes it might be successful but I think to sit down and say, "Hey, I really want to change tracks, and here's what I'd like to do." Then you can have an explicit discussion of what are the metrics for that success. What is it that the institution needs that you could do that would align with what you're interested in? How are we going to fund it? How are we going to make sure that you continue to be productive and that you really bring value to the department?

Interviewer: So you have an example of a faculty member the transferred from a research focus to education that was facing some of the same issues. Tell me that story.

Hopf: We had a faculty member in one of our basic science departments who was highly successful, very, very valued in the department, was tenured, had research funding, but found that she really wanted to do medical education. She went to a chair and said, "I want to do medical education," and initially he was hesitant. He really felt that the use of the tenured track position was ideally to do research. But she convinced him and because he hired her for the person and not the project, he felt confident that she would bring the same kind of work to medical education that she had to her science. So she transitioned to doing a lot of teaching roles, eventually became an Associate Dean in the core curriculum in the School of Medicine, helped with the curriculum revision, demonstrating excellence as an educator and bringing science to her role as an educator.

But interestingly enough, she actually fundamentally changed how the department viewed its role in education in the School of Medicine, and really pulled them into playing a larger role in education in the department and doing education in a more scientifically educationally sound way. Interestingly enough, as the School of Medicine developed mission-based funding and began returning to department state funds based on contributions to medical education, the department actually was a winner of more state funding because they had become so involved in the medical school curriculum largely as a result of this unconventional faculty member who transitioned from basic science research to primarily medical education focused as a tenured faculty member in the School of Medicine.

Interviewer: Did the department chair think that this individual is going to be able to find themselves on this new path, or was it really a leap of faith, like you said, when you give somebody tenure it's kind of a vote of confidence, if you will.

Hopf: I think that the chair was anxious. It was nervous about whether she'd be able to fund herself, but felt confidence that she was a successful person and would continue to be successful and particularly that she'd be focused on something she was passionate about. So it was a leap of faith for him, I think, but one that was informed by confidence because he knew it would work. I think it was far more successful than he imagined. I think he imagined she'd be able to fund herself. I don't think he imagined that she would transform the department's role in education in the School of Medicine.

Interviewer: He'd have been happy with funding herself.

Hopf: That is correct.

Interviewer: Ecstatic with what happened. So what are the important takeaways from this story?

Hopf: The idea that you hire the person and not the project, that you really need to hire people who whatever happens in academic medicine will be able to evolve and adapt to it. People who will see the things that need to be done and do them, obviously also who are great scientists so that their primary purposes they're being hired to do is science research and you want them to be successful at that. But I think fundamentally the lesson is we need to think about who we hire and make sure we hire people who are going to get things done, going to find new things to do, going to evolve and really advance them missions of the School of Medicine in a variety of ways.

Announcer: Sparking conversations to transform academic medicine. For more, stop by our booth at the AAMC or go to 

By: Scot Singpiel

Scot Singpiel is senior producer for - University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.