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

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 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 (such as postdoctoral fellows), 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 addressed the trainee conundrum, with this second entry focused on junior faculty.

For recent graduates seeking their first faculty positions, the list of considerations is almost endless. Issues of salary, benefits, job expectations, geography, climate, cost of living, quality of life, and many others are relevant, as they are for anyone seeking gainful employment. However, these are not the only issues that should be strongly considered when making a decision. Living in a great place that is close to family and friends with a good salary and benefits is only going to work if the professional fit is good since a bad fit might mean a forced relocation or a miserable, unfulfilling career. Below I present some questions that I’d suggest every potential faculty member consider when choosing a faculty position and an academic team to join:

  • Can you join an existing “team”? All other things being equal, a new faculty position should be selected based upon opportunities to collaborate with others who are engaged in meaningful public health endeavors (research, service, or practice). However, just as making friends as an adult can be difficult, joining an intact team can be a challenge. At many universities, existing labs, centers, and institutes are continually looking for new investigators to join them, so be sure to identify these opportunities prior to any interview and request to talk to the folks in leadership there. Once you identify a group you might enjoy working with, look at its productivity. Are members producing quality outputs and securing funding for their work? If not, it may not be the group you’re looking for. If they are productive, remember that a high-functioning team is usually productive because all the “cogs” are in place. As such, your skill set may be redundant. A good strategy might be to meet with them to discuss new lines of inquiry that you’re both interested in that you could lead with support of other team members, assuming they have the bandwidth to start a new endeavor.
  • Do you have to build a team from the ground up? Sometimes the best job opportunities don’t come at institutions with many collaborative opportunities. In this case, you’ll need to spend a considerable amount of time building your own team of collaborators. At the right university, you can build a strong group of collaborators through recruitment of students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The upside to this approach is that you can amass a group of colleagues relatively quickly, but the downside is that their skills will be limited. You’ll essentially be exchanging mentorship for volunteer hours, which will limit productivity of the group but can also be incredibly rewarding. Concurrently, you should reach out to other junior colleagues to explore common areas of interest. Junior faculty also have deficiencies, but a few good colleagues can complement one another from a skill perspective.
  • What are your expectations of the team? I’ve often joked that you’ll find folks who are productive, and you’ll find folks you like, and you should really just hope that some of them are the same people. My experience has shown me that you’ll have a lot of cups of coffee with potential collaborators that never evolve into anything else. Early in a faculty career, it can feel like online dating, where the goal is to find a colleague. And similar to dating, it will take a lot of meetings to find someone you can mesh with professionally. My expectations of colleagues are relatively simple: 1) show up to meetings, 2) bring ideas to the table, 3) complete your assignments on time, 4) take turns taking the lead, and 5) respond to my emails within two business days. Yours may be different, but I encourage you to adopt #5. Anyone who can’t respond with an “I’m on it” within 48 hours isn’t going to do #1-4 very well.
  • What should their expectations be of you? Be the colleague that you’d like others to be. Besides the five things that you should expect of them, it’s also a good idea to 1) under promise and over perform, 2) know your limitations, 3) ask for help when you need it, and 4) admit when you’re in over your head. One of the bigger mistakes you can make early on is to promise big results and fail to deliver. If you’ve never done something before, plan on every step of the task taking twice as long as you’re thinking it will. This takes a level of introspection that most people lack, but you should really give some thought to what you do well and what you don’t do well. When given a task that exceeds your resources (time or skills), don’t be afraid to ask others for help rather than showing up to the deadline empty-handed or with a horrible product.

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. I encourage anyone looking to establish a productive working relationship with others to make a strategy that includes making a list of the challenges and opportunities you face. With a bit of diligence, I feel confident that everyone can find a productive team that will enhance their career in a rewarding fashion.

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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