Choosing an Academic Team and Being a Team Player: Part I

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This column presents some considerations and best practices for finding time to produce scholarship in the form of a manuscript or presentation.

One of the biggest challenges for potential doctoral students, post-doctoral fellows, and junior faculty members is finding a productive team that will support them in their scholarly endeavors and help them grow professionally. For doctoral students and other trainees, choosing the right program and mentor can be overwhelming, and the ramifications of choosing incorrectly can be significant and long lasting. For junior faculty, the stakes are equally high, but the challenges can often be different. As such, we’ll be taking on the topic of finding an academic team from both the perspective of a trainee and a junior faculty member. In part one, we’ll address the trainee conundrum, with a focus on junior faculty in part two.

For a potential trainee seeking a doctoral degree or advanced post-doctoral training, the list of considerations is almost endless. Issues of geography, climate, cost of living, quality of life, and many others are relevant, but they’re not unique to trainees. I would argue that many of those listed in the last sentence shouldn’t hold too much sway under typical circumstances since doctoral and post-doctoral training should be a five-year pit stop at most. You can be cold/hot/poor away from home for that long if it’s going to set up the rest of your life. However, there are issues that aren’t especially self-evident that should be strongly considered when making a decision. Here is a set of strategies that will provide useful information with which to decide, specifically some questions that I’d suggest every potential doctoral student and post-doctoral fellow consider when choosing an academic team to join:

  • Where are they located and will I be miserable there? Ok, so I said to ignore this, but it should be used in the case of a tiebreaker. I hate being cold and love many aspects of southern culture (eg, biscuits), so I don’t think I would be very happy at a northern or Midwestern school. That said, if you hate heat and dislike brisket, you might want to avoid the University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater).
  • What is the financial/benefits package? This is more important than you probably think it is, as it’s not just about your finances; it’s also an indicator of the level of commitment a university has to its students and trainees. Any university that isn’t paying you a living wage either doesn’t have the money (bad) or doesn’t care about your wellbeing (worse). The same goes for the quality of health insurance they offer. If the doctoral program you’re considering doesn’t offer you a stipend, tuition, and insurance, DON’T GO. If no one offers you a package, sit a year out, make yourself more competitive, and apply again. As a potential post-doctoral fellow, you should at least be offered the NIH level stipend. Be very wary of offers that are less than that amount.
  • How congruent is the curriculum to your career goals? Ideally, the curriculum should provide you with the skills you need to succeed. As a potential doctoral student, you should scrutinize the suggested course of study to make sure that your expectations are consistent with what the program offers. Don’t focus too much on any electives that may or may not be regularly offered; focus on the core classes. As a potential post-doctoral fellow, inquire about the career development, seminars, and other formal training opportunities. If none are offered, the university might not have much experience meeting the needs of post-doctoral trainees.
  • How productive is the team you’d be joining? This is arguably the most overlooked aspect of the decision process. As a trainee, you’ll be ultimately judged on your productivity (which should demonstrate your skills). If the team you’re joining isn’t publishing regularly in respected journals and producing other meaningful products (eg, presentations, white papers), the odds are that you won’t either if you join them. More importantly, the research team should have a sufficient amount of external funding to keep the lights on and support the faculty and trainees on the team. Those stipends aren’t cheap, and if the money runs out, you could be forced to find a new team in the middle of your coursework, or worse, in the middle of your dissertation preparations or fellowship.
  • What will your role be in the team? Joining a productive team is great, but only if you get to play an active role in the products of the team. Asking questions of your potential mentor is always informative, but I would strongly suggest that you look at the publication history of the current and former trainees in the lab. If they are actively leading publications, grant applications, and presentations (less important), this should be reflected in their vitae. If they are not, I would be very careful and try to ascertain if it’s a matter of lack of opportunity, lack of success (ie, too many rejections), or lack of follow-through. There’s very little the team can do about the latter, but if it’s the former two, it could be a red flag suggestive that you should look elsewhere.

In summary, there are several good questions to ask that will give you some valuable insight when choosing an academic team, regardless of your discipline or career goals. In my next post, I’ll spend some time talking about the best way to choose your academic team as a junior faculty member, and the best way to make sure you’re the most valuable member of the team that you can be.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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