Editor’s Corner: Joe’s Career Hacks

Joseph R. Mikhael, MD, MEd
Professor, Applied Cancer Research and Drug Discovery, Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), City of Hope Cancer Center and Chief Medical Officer, International Myeloma Foundation

I am by no means an expert in life coaching, but I have devoted a significant part of my career to mentoring junior faculty. Fueled by great programs like the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Clinical Research Training Institute, I believe mentorship is a critical part of medicine and has been seminal to the success of innumerable careers. I have reached a stage in my career where I love to see my mentees thrive, preferring to see their names on papers over mine and happy to defer prestigious opportunities to support their careers.

As we progress in our careers, it is incumbent on each of us to learn how to pass the baton to a new generation. Part of this process involves guiding younger faculty through the complex web of our profession. Here, in my “listicle” tradition, I’m sharing a dozen lessons I have learned and shared with my mentees over the last 20 years, each represented by a famous movie quote.

  1. “One day your life will flash before your eyes – make sure it’s worth watching.” (The Bucket List)
    It’s hard to do early in one’s career, but I suggest that you envision your retirement party. Ask yourself three questions: Where is it, who is there, and what would you want them to say? Having a view of the finish line may guide critical decisions early on.
  2. “I feel the need, the need for speed.” (Top Gun)
    We live in an age of non-stop deadlines, commitments, and meetings. One may be tempted to run from event to event, prioritizing whatever the next activity is, but I recommend making a clear distinction between what is important versus what is urgent. I keep a to-do list on my desk divided accordingly and try to ensure that I devote time and effort to what is important.
  3. “Focus, Daniel-san.” (The Karate Kid)
    No one can be at the top of their game all day long. Find the two- to three-hour timeframe when you are at your peak and protect that time to use for the tasks that require the most brainpower. I use this time to write papers, prepare grants, and be creative. This is not to minimize our clinical efforts, but we have been trained to provide great clinical care at all times of day and night.
  4. “Some people can’t believe in themselves until someone else believes in them first.” (Good Will Hunting)
    Our careers are often outlined for us in the form of job descriptions, so I encourage my mentees to balance filling a niche with creating a niche. Outline your dream job, find others who have it, and learn from them.
  5. “But what I do have are a very particular set of skills.” (Taken)
    The CV is the currency of careers, so keep it updated, balanced, and accurate. Common errors include overstating honors, omitting mentorship experiences, and having too high of an abstract-to-publication ratio.
  6. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
    We are all guilty of overworking and not taking real time to slow down, unplug, decompress, and smell the roses. The tragedy of burnout is ubiquitous, and we have to do everything in our power to prevent and overcome it.
  7. “We’re a team. One person struggles, we all struggle. One person triumphs, we all triumph.” (Coach Carter)
    Medicine is a team sport and we desperately need each other. Be the kind of colleague that encourages others, lifts them up, and celebrates them. Some healthy competition is beneficial, but I think we have too often cultivated greed and arrogance to the detriment of our work, our colleagues, and even our patients.
  8. “Show me the money!” (Jerry Maguire)
    In medicine, negotiating skills are underrated and poorly taught. Trainees and junior faculty rarely appreciate their own value and often don’t know how to best establish the terms of their first job. Mentors have the opportunity to help set up our junior colleagues for success.
  9. “How about ‘no’!” (Austin Powers: Goldmember)
    The opportunities in our line of work are nearly endless. Without a deliberate strategy, good counsel, and a focused career development plan we will never learn the art of knowing when to say “no.”
  10. “You can’t handle the truth!” (A Few Good Men)
    Find one or two colleagues who can speak the utter truth to you about your performance. I have a pact with one of mine: After every talk, we give honest feedback to each other. Although we always like positive comments and a pat on the back (albeit virtual now), a trusted soul can tell you the brutal truth.
  11. “You cannot live your life to please others. The choice must be yours.” (Alice in Wonderland)
    We have to “play the game” in our careers to meet the expected metrics of success, often via promotion and advancement. However, I encourage my mentees to define their own success consistent with their values and desires. Being home to have dinner with my family is one of my definitions of success, for example, so I protect it fiercely.
  12. “I just don’t think I could take that kind of rejection.” (Back to the Future)
    Some sort of “failure” is inevitable in our work – a grant declined, a paper rejected, a job interview gone wrong. We have to accept that this will happen to each of us, then learn from it. These setbacks do not mean that we are failures. We are the not the sum of our papers, H-indices, grant records, or salaries. Our full lives, inside and outside of work, define us. We need to be reminded of the blessings we all enjoy every day.

Joseph Mikhael, MD, MEd
Associate Editor