Unlock the Pathway to a Successful Academic Career

STS News, Summer 2017 -- Aspiring academic surgeons, take note: Start building your pile of “stuff.”

As part of the Society’s continuing efforts to expand resources and provide mentorship to members who are early in their careers, four surgeon leaders participated in a video roundtable and discussed how young cardiothoracic surgeons can take steps to grow their academic capital. The surgeons included STS President Richard L. Prager, MD, G. Alexander Patterson, MD, FRCS(C), Douglas J. Mathisen, MD, and Leah M. Backhus, MD.

“To be successful in academia, you need to have your own pile of stuff,” said Dr. Patterson, the Joseph C. Bancroft Professor of Surgery at Washington University in St. Louis and Editor of The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, referring to clinical papers, education portfolios, and other barometers of academic activity. “You need to add things up and figure out how much academic capital you have in the bank.”

To build that academic capital, the surgeon leaders outlined four main steps.

Four STS surgeon leaders discussed the steps young cardiothoracic surgeons can take to have successful academic careers.

Step 1: Find a Good Mentor

All of the participants agreed that the influence of a mentor is essential. “You start with an interest in being an academic surgeon, and then you have to look for a role model,” said Dr. Mathisen, who is Historian and Past President of STS and the Hermes C. Grillo Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.

A mentor can provide insight and lessons learned about his or her own career path, as well as help steer you toward an academic focus that best suits your skills. 

“Mentors may be able to observe more about you than you can observe about yourself,” said Dr. Backhus, an Associate Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Stanford University.

Step 2: Determine Your Area of Interest

Building an academic career requires exploring the potential avenues, honing in on the path that you want to take, and establishing yourself within your given area. “Oftentimes, young surgeons start out with rather diffuse aspirations, which I don’t discourage, because you don’t want to narrow yourself too soon,” Dr. Mathisen said. “But as you identify what you want, you have to build a body of work around that activity. Publicize it, publish it, and talk about it so that you become known as somebody who’s an expert in something.”

Even if you don’t think you want to pursue academics, it’s important not to dismiss the idea immediately while in training.

“Whether you think you want to be an academic surgeon or not, time spent in the laboratory is time well spent,” Dr. Mathisen said. “You’ll find out if you’d like to perform research, and even if you end up not pursuing that path, it’s a time when you’ll read enormously about your profession, so it’s not time that’s lost.”

The roundtable participants also noted the myriad pathways now available for academic surgeons outside of the traditional laboratory work.

“You can become an academician in a lot of different ways,” Dr. Mathisen said. “You can have a lab interest, you can work on outcomes research, and you can perform clinical reviews; educating others is also a pathway to academic recognition.”

Dr. Patterson agreed, “The terrific thing is that now there are so many ways to be successful in an academic career.”

The challenge lies in creating protected time to pursue these non-clinical interests, Dr. Backhus added.

Step 3: Gather Support

To help ensure that you’ll have the necessary time to explore your interests, take a close look at the people with whom you’ll work, they advised.

“They have to see what you’re doing as equally important as somebody who’s out doing a procedure or a case,” said Dr. Mathisen.

Step 4: Become a Leader

Dr. Prager, the Richard and Norma Sarns Professor of Cardiac Surgery at the University of Michigan, noted that one of his goals as a mentor is training his staff to become leaders—whether they’re working in the lab, pursuing outcomes research, or doing something else.

Dr. Patterson agreed: “When you think about an academic surgeon, he or she is in the OR, the ICU, the office, the clinic, the lab—every one of those environments is an opportunity for leadership. It’s critical.”

The roundtable participants’ final message was not to be afraid of failure—sometimes, they said, it can be a good thing. Grit, passion, and perseverance are key.

To view the entire roundtable video, visit www.sts.org/academic-career-roundtable. To find other career resources, visit www.sts.org/career-development.