A career in academia can be an exciting and rewarding pursuit for oncology fellows. The variety of the work—patient care, teaching, and research—keeps things interesting. Steady compensation and low financial risk sweeten the deal.

There are many steps fellows can take to land that great academic position out of fellowship, and it is never too early to get started on an academic career. “Start preparing from day 1 of fellowship, developing mentor–mentee relationships and starting to think about projects that will end up in publications,” said Jill Gilbert, MD, director of the Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Program, associate professor of medicine, and section chief in solid tumor oncology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “Networking also is critically important and should start as early as possible.”

Networking includes meeting with potential mentors from within the fellow’s institution, introducing oneself to visiting faculty, and participating in professional association conferences and committees, Dr. Gilbert said. This can serve as a way to find a supportive institution, one where junior faculty have the time, resources, and mentors they need to successfully research, write, and publish.1

Fellows should begin looking into positions at least 1 year before graduation. Jobs are advertised in Clinical Oncology News, the Journal of Clinical Oncology, and at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s online and meeting job fairs. Under the guidance of their local mentor and program director, fellows also should send introduction letters and curriculum vitae (CV) directly to division chiefs at institutions with programs consistent with their research interests, Dr. Gilbert said.

The strongest CVs for an academic position will highlight relevant publications. “The biggest things are grants, peer-reviewed publications, and abstracts at national meetings,” Dr. Gilbert said. Fellows should keep in mind that faculty to whom they are applying often call friends at the fellow’s institution to get the “inside scoop” about their academic potential, she added, so it is important to develop a good reputation during fellowship with every colleague.

At the interview, fellows should become very familiar with all the scheduled interviewers. “Look up their publications, understand what it is that the interviewers do and how they—a potential new faculty member—may synergize with them,” Dr. Gilbert said.

Often, fellows will be asked to present their work. They should wear a suit, use PowerPoint, know the research inside and out, and be prepared for hard questions, Dr. Gilbert said. “People are going to try and figure out what you know and what you don’t know. So, you need to make sure you know what you’re talking about.” Dr. Gilbert suggested fellows rehearse their presentations in a Grand Rounds format or with several faculty members and fellows at their institution.

A crucial component in choosing the right position is to identify strong and committed mentors who have the time to help a mentee maintain focus, obtain grants, and publish papers.1 Fellows should speak directly with potential mentors during the interview process to ask if they can take on another mentee, Dr. Gilbert suggested.

Additionally, fellows should try to meet with at least one junior faculty member during interviews, someone who has been there for 2 years or so, said Marc Stewart, MD, medical director of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and professor of medical oncology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. “There’s nothing like somebody who’s living through it to give you a firsthand view because if their mentor isn’t particularly good, they’re probably going to look around and see other mentors who are better or what they perceive to be better. Likewise, if they think their mentors are particularly good, they’ll comment accordingly.”

If all goes well after applying and interviewing, fellows will have several offers to consider, and they should ask trusted faculty members at their current institution to help them review contracts, Dr. Gilbert said.

A red flag in any contract would be insufficient protected time, an amount that varies depending on the academic goals of a junior faculty member. “If you are a laboratory-directed researcher, your clinical time should be minimal for a number of years. Most laboratory research positions require no more than 15% to 20% clinical activity,” Dr. Stewart said. For clinical investigators, 4 half days of clinic per week might be reasonable but there are no firm guidelines, Dr. Gilbert said.

Other contract issues to consider carefully include resources, space, administrative assistance, and startup funds the institution provides. Take note of any noncompete clauses, Dr. Stewart said. “As an example, if you leave the practice, you can’t practice within a 50-mile radius for 2 years. If you’re wedded to the area and not very mobile, that might be something that would give you pause.”

Median compensation for first-year junior faculty falls between $138,000 and $184,000.2 Most academic programs have a salary range that is fairly rigid, Dr. Stewart said, but fellows should learn about any incentive plans, in which faculty receive bonuses for extra clinical work or even securing grant funding.

Once a fellow gets that coveted academic position, it may take 5 to 10 years to build a career as an oncologist with an influential portfolio of research and publications.1 In the end, choosing a supportive institution with successful mentors and ensuring protected research time will make for a strong start.

References

  1. Desch CE, Blayney DW. Making the choice between academic oncology and community practice: the big picture and details about each career. J Oncol Pract. 2006;2(3):132-136.

  2. Report on Medical School Faculty Salaries 2009-2010. Washington, DC: Association of American Medical Colleges; 2011.

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