The Wide World of Medical Education

Senior clinical fellow in medicine, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

You have to do what you love. In medicine, we are fortunate to have many career opportunities in addition to patient care – research, industry, consulting, and education, just to name a few.

I decided to pursue medical education because of my experiences with mentors. I worked with two spectacular mentors at the University of Pennsylvania: master sub-specialty clinician-educators Lisa Bellini, MD, and Todd Barton, MD. Observing them sparked a strong interest in a career like theirs.

I recognized my passion for teaching during my residency, when I took a short course in medical education and learning theory. Later, I was fortunate to serve as a chief medical resident, which was essentially a year-long fellowship in medical education, leadership, and administration skills. I knew then that I wanted to pursue a career in medical education and I haven’t looked back since.

What Does a Medical Educator Do?

To be clear, all physicians are educators: We teach our patients, our trainees, and each other on a daily basis. An academic medical educator, however, devotes more time to teaching trainees, developing innovative medical educational programs, or conducting research projects relevant to medical education.

Medical educators have numerous opportunities to practice in both undergraduate and graduate medical education. A few of the more common positions include director or assistant director of a medical school clerkship, program director or assistant program director of a residency or fellowship program, or course master of a preclinical lecture course.

For those who have a drive for scholarship, research is also an option. Researchers in medical education assess novel teaching methods, analyze trainee burnout, and examine new duty-hour rules, among other pursuits.

It also bears mentioning that in the internal medicine education world, there is high demand for sub-specialist leaders – especially in hematology/oncology, which are rapidly evolving fields. Leaders in internal medicine residency programs who understand the new science well enough to teach it are a necessity. As an incentive, most institutions consider leadership roles in medical education to be a significant commitment and reduce your clinical responsibilities accordingly.

The tricky part of securing one of these positions is being in the right place at the right time. The number of positions is typically fixed and a position is often occupied for many years.

Finding Your Med Ed Path

There is rarely a defined “pathway” for all medical educators, mainly because of the variety within our field. For instance, the career path and skills of the clinician-educator who leads the hematology/oncology second-year medical student lecture course may be different from those of the internal medicine program director. So, people often must find their own way, under the guidance of good mentors.

This should start in residency and fellowship, if possible. First, identify yourself as an educator at your institution. Set up formal meetings with medical education leaders, such as the internal medicine program director, to discuss opportunities.

Second, say “yes” to all teaching opportunities that come your way! Every opportunity is valuable – even if it isn’t what you initially had in mind. They can provide excellent experience, you can add them to your CV, and you can earn “street cred” at your institution as a point person for teaching in hematology and oncology. Remember that trainees in medicine are all highly qualified, bright, eager-to-learn individuals. Getting the chance to teach them and to play a role in their professional development is a privilege, but that privilege is usually reserved for those who have a track record of being good at it.

Finally, look into whether your institution has a “fellowship” in medical education that can be completed at the same time as a sub-specialty fellowship (e.g., during the research-focused years of a hematology/oncology fellowship). Many require funding, which you may be able to secure from your training program or institution. Some institutions have a medical educator track for faculty; however, most seem to focus specifically on research in medical education.

You Can Have It All!

The reasons for pursuing medical education are as varied as the career paths open to us as trainees. Every trainee spends years educating medical students, interns, and residents; some of us absolutely love it and never want it to end. Others have ideas for improving their training, and the thought of having the ability to make disruptive (but positive) change is exciting.

We all bring our unique talents and experiences to the position, but, as a senior hematology/oncology fellow pursuing this career, I can tell you that if you want to be a medical educator, you must have an aptitude for teaching and feel comfortable in a leadership role.

Lastly, remember that it is possible to be a leader in medical education and clinical medicine and do collaborative research either in hematology or in education. That’s been my blueprint.

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