Faculty leaders regularly address issues important to junior faculty members, but the former generally pay little attention to their senior members.1 Interested in researching this overlooked area, we decided to develop a questionnaire to gather information from senior physicians about their particular concerns and interests. We hypothesized that senior faculty would be concerned about such issues as keeping current with medical information and new technologies, and they they would find particularly satisfying their roles as mentors and their problem-solving abilities. To elaborate the aims of our study and to help us design a valid and useful questionnaire, we decided to conduct focus groups.
To begin, each of us independently developed questions designed to elicit the concerns and experiences of older faculty members; each list was circulated to all authors for comment. After several iterations we found that the questions could roughly be categorized into the four classic domains of a medical school: research, teaching, practice, and administration. For each domain, three to four open-ended “trigger questions” evolved. For example, one trigger question in the teaching domain was “How have your teaching skills evolved as you have matured?”
Next, we recruited a sample of senior academic physicians 50 or older to participate in one of two focus groups. The first group consisted of four physicians whose career emphasis was clinical practice and teaching; the second group was composed of three physicians with research-oriented careers. One of the authors (PJM) and a research assistant met with each group for two hours. Using the list of trigger questions, we encouraged the participants to share ideas and concerns about achieving senior status and to talk about their own experiences and their suggestions for others reaching senior status. We audiotaped and transcribed each session for content-analysis purposes.
All groups members' concerns fit the four academic domains, although their individual emphases varied. We learned that some of our hypotheses were on the mark and others were not. For example, contrary to our initial assumptions, all of the senior faculty felt comfortable with their clinical practice skills, and found that new technology in the clinical or research domains presented no threat, since technicians and junior colleagues with technical expertise were readily available. As we suspected, they perceived their clinical judgement and problem-solving skills to be at their peak.
We used the focus-group data to develop a questionnaire based on the four career domains. We then sent the questionnaire to a convenience sample of ten senior academic physicians to assess its readability and comprehensibility; this led to some further modifications. The final version of the questionnaire was three pages long, with seven parts of ten questions each.
We predict that the information we acquire from a faculty-wide survey of senior academic physicians can be used to address the real concerns of senior faculty, to guide administrators, and to formulate practical advice for faculty approaching senior status. Our results suggest that focus groups can be helpful in facilitating the development of useful and valid research questionnaires.
1. Mathis CB. Academic Careers and Adult Development: A Nexus for Research—Current Issues in Higher Education. No. 2. Faculty Career Development. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education, 1979:21–4.