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Identity Formation of Occasional Faculty Developers in Medical Education: A Qualitative Study

O’Sullivan, Patricia S. MS, EdD; Irby, David M. MDiv, PhD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000374
Research Reports

Purpose Faculty developers play a crucial role in preparing faculty members for their instructional responsibilities. In some programs, faculty developers are clinicians and scientists who only occasionally conduct workshops. The authors examine the identity formation of such part-time faculty developers.

Method From April 2012 through March 2012, structured interviews were conducted with full-time faculty members who, from 2007 to 2012, periodically volunteered to teach workshops in the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine’s faculty development program. This qualitative study used a modified grounded theory approach.

Results The authors interviewed 29 occasional faculty developers who had 1 to 22 years of experience conducting faculty development programs. All faculty had an educator identity along with their professional identity. The additional faculty developer identity generally evolved over time and aligned with their identity in one of four ways: compartmentalized, hierarchical, parallel, or merged. Their roles as faculty developers enhanced their status in their work community and influenced the way they worked with others and advanced their careers. Faculty development influences the institutional culture, and the institutional culture supports faculty development.

Conclusions Most occasional faculty developers possessed a merged identity that developed over time and was moderated by the topic that they taught. Although experience contributed to this development, both junior and senior faculty developers could have a merged identity. Those who lead faculty development programs can use these findings to recruit and retain faculty developers.

Supplemental Digital Content is available in the text.

Dr. O’Sullivan is professor, Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, San Francisco, California.

Dr. Irby is professor, Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, San Francisco, California.

Funding/Support: None reported.

Other disclosures: None reported.

Ethical approval: Received from the University of California, San Francisco committee for the protection of human subjects.

Previous presentation: The authors presented this work at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, April 30, 2013, San Francisco, California.

Supplemental digital content for this article is available at

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. O’Sullivan, 521 Parnassus Ave., Box 0410, San Francisco, CA 94143-0410; telephone: (415) 514-2281; e-mail:

Faculty development is a strategy for preparing and updating faculty members for their academic roles in higher education1 and medical education2 and is used in this study to refer to a strategy for improving teaching and learning. Faculty deve lopment is usually delivered through episodic workshops and longitudinal programs.3,4 Whereas educational experts offer many faculty development programs, others are provided by basic scientists and/or clinical teachers. Faculty development programs that depend on such occasional faculty developers could benefit from understanding how they view this role and therefore how to better attract and retain them.

There is little research on the identity formation of faculty developers. In contrast to faculty development research that focuses on a single topic,2 activities to improve teaching and learning,5,6 and processes,7 only a few studies focused on the faculty developers themselves. The researchers found that, with increased experience, full-time faculty developers shift from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered model,8 take two to four years to solidify the faculty developer identity,9 and transition over time from becoming a faculty developer to developing an identity embedded in the context of everyday teaching activities within a community of teaching practice.10

Medical school faculty members often incorporate and negotiate multiple identities associated with their roles as clinicians, researchers, educators, and administrators.11,12 Monrouxe11 describes four identity alignment models, and we have suggested how these might apply to medical educators12: (1) compartmentalized identities, where at times one is a physician/scientist and at other times one is an educator; (2) hierarchical identities, which place being a physician/scientist over being an educator or vice versa; (3) parallel identities that exist simultaneously but without a conscious overlap; or (4) merged identities that are integrated and coexist simultaneously.

In a 2011 article,13 we proposed a model for conducting research on faculty development that included the faculty developer, program, participants, and context. We recognized that faculty development creates a teaching commons where faculty members come together to talk about and learn how to improve teaching and learning.14 However, we also asserted that successful faculty development extends beyond work shop(s) to include the participants’ everyday life in their workplace or community of practice in classrooms and clinics. Following the model for studying faculty development proposed in 2011, persons facilitating workshops might evolve their identity as a faculty developer within their community of practice.

In this study, we examined medical school faculty members who periodically conduct faculty development workshops, but for whom faculty development is not their primary responsibility and area of training. The literature has described the identity formation trajectory of full-time faculty developers, but to our knowledge, this is the first study that addresses the formation of those who only occasionally lead faculty development workshops. Framed by the four identity alignment models, our research questions are as follows: (1) How do these faculty developers describe their identity and its formation? (2) How does being a faculty developer affect one’s everyday work? and (3) What impact does the faculty development role have on the faculty developer, the teaching commons, and the larger community of teaching practice?

We hope that the results of this study will help identify ways to attract individuals to participate as faculty developers, and to design programs to support their professional growth and development.

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We conducted a qualitative study using structured interviews guided by the identity formation and faculty development literatures.

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Setting and participants

Since 2007, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine’s faculty development program has offered approximately 30 two- to four-hour workshops per year. Attendees are primarily faculty members in the UCSF School of Medicine but also include faculty from dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, and physical therapy. Subsets of these workshops are offered to volunteer clinical faculty at partner clinical facilities. All workshops are conducted in person. Individuals recruited to teach in the faculty development program are recognized as good teachers and/or have expressed a strong interest in a specific topic. The leaders of faculty development know many of these teachers of the faculty development offerings because they have participated in the local longitudinal faculty development program (see, thus ensuring that they have a broad background in educational pedagogy and curriculum development. Many are already or subsequently become members of UCSF’s Academy of Medical Educators, where teaching excellence is a requirement for membership.15

Participants in this study were all faculty members who taught in the faculty development program from 2007 to 2012. They, generally, team-taught one workshop topic annually. We purposively excluded individuals from UCSF School of Medicine’s Office of Medical Education who held doctorates in education or were prepared as educational specialists. The UCSF institutional review board approved the study.

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Interview guide

Both of us (P.S.O’S., D.M.I.) developed the interview guide based on identity formation and faculty development literatures (see Supplemental Digital Appendix 1, The guide had two questions on demographics and eight questions on identity, including ones about early formation as an educator, motivation to do faculty development, impact of faculty development on themselves and others, professional roles, career trajectories, and impact on their work environments. Each question had one to six probes; none were specific to the models of Monrouxe11 or O’Sullivan and Irby.13 We piloted the guide with educators not included in the study. For this study, we focused on six questions (see Appendix 1).

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Qualitative approach

This qualitative study used a modified grounded theory approach sensitized by the literature on identity and faculty development.11,13 Both authors are doctorally prepared educators with training and experience in conducting qua litative research. We knew all of the individuals interviewed, though to varying degrees. Despite the familia rity, we assumed that because the interview did not ask about the faculty development program one of us (P.S.O’S.) runs or about the value of the program, the participants would be able to respond to our questions without feeling influenced. As interviewers, we took a naïve stance toward the questions and adhered to the interview guide.

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Thirty participants were solicited via e-mail to participate in 30- to 60-minute interviews, and no incentives were offered. We conducted interviews in person or over the telephone from March 2012 through April 2012. We took extensive field notes during the interviews. The interviews were also audiotaped and transcribed. We debriefed the initial interviews and refined questions. Subsequently, we maintained an analytic memo documenting our joint reflections and revisions to the interview guide.

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After reviewing the first six transcribed interviews in May 2012, we jointly developed codes in accordance with identify formation and faculty development frameworks. We augmented our codes on the basis of detailed notes taken during each interview, which we also discussed jointly. In our final codebook from September 2012, we generated 139 detailed codes and then clustered them into 55 broader codes. Those codes were applied to the transcripts and managed using NVivo qualitative data analysis software, version 10.0 (QSR International, Melbourne, Australia). We then formed themes from the codes informed by theory and in response to our research questions. We conducted a member check by having participants review an initial draft of our manuscript. All of those who responded endorsed our interpretations and findings as an accurate reflection of their perceptions.

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All 30 invited faculty members agreed to participate, and we successfully interviewed 29 (97%). This included 25 (86%) physician educators and 4 (14%) basic science educators; 5 (17%) assistant professors, 12 (41%) associate professors, and 12 (41%) professors; and 8 (28%) males and 21 (72%) females. Participants reported having conducted faculty development workshops for between 1 and 22 years. Assistant and associate professors had 3 to 3.5 years of faculty development experience, whereas full professors averaged 11.6 years. List 1 provides the workshop topics that these faculty developers offered.

List 1 Faculty Development Topics Taught by 29 Faculty Developers at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine From 2007 to 2012

List 1 Faculty Development Topics Taught by 29 Faculty Developers at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine From 2007 to 2012

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Research question 1: How do these faculty developers describe their identity and its formation?

To identify the evolving faculty developer identity, we first describe the faculty members’ primary identities, then their identity as faculty developers, followed by their varying identity alignments.

Primary identity. Participants described their primary identities in one of four ways:

  • 1. Clinician educators, where their clinician identity predominates.

My professional identity very much involves being a clinician and taking care of patients, number one, and part of the reason I did [specialty] is to take care of the most complex patients so that is part of my identity, a big part. (MD-6)

  • 2. Clinician educators or scientist educators (for basic scientists), where their educator identity is primary.

The one word, I think, would be to say that [I am] a medical science educator focused on [my discipline] instruction, curriculum management, and implementation. (PhD-1)

  • 3. Educator, where this is the sole identity.

I think of myself as an educator … my professional identity is as an educator who teaches and helps others to teach. (PhD-2)

  • 4. Leaders and administrators (e.g., course or clerkship or residency program directors, curriculum dean, department chair), where multiple roles of mentor, advisor, scholar, and faculty developer characterize their identities.

I identify myself as clinician, educator, administrator, and the order of those three depends on the day of the week. (MD-1)

I’m a medical educator, only now I guess I’m a medical school administrator. (PhD-3)

Identity as a faculty developer. Whereas none of our respondents saw themselves primarily as a faculty developer, several described themselves as “a teacher of teachers” (MD-1).

Many participants’ identities evolved to eventually include faculty developer. That realization came from three different perspectives. Some incorporated faculty developer as part of their personal identity:

[For me, the] role of being a faculty developer … is completely cross-cutting and integrated. (MD-3)

Others considered faculty development as necessary to achieve the quality of teaching expected of their colleagues:

If you want to be able to recruit high-quality preceptors and ensure that your medical students have good educational experiences, you have to be able to train those folks. (MD-4)

In the third perspective, some recognized that faculty development is pervasive regardless of what they do:

I think I’m becoming less of an educator and more of an administrator but it’s interesting to think about how that doesn’t mean faculty development stops. (MD-5)

In summary, we found that participants come from a primary identity and do share a faculty developer identity. The strength of that identity varied considerably and was often associated with the need to improve teaching in their programs.

Identity alignment. Participants described their current identity in one of the four identity alignment models reported in the literature; sometimes this identity was connected specifically to their faculty development identity, but more often the identity was associated with their broader identity as an educator, which included faculty developer.

Compartmentalized identity. A few junior faculty members who rarely conducted faculty development workshops mentioned the compartmentalized identity model, in which they saw their faculty development work completely separate from their clinical and/or teaching work (Figure 1A).

Figure 1

Figure 1

I used to think of faculty development as separate from my direct teaching and course administration, but I really do see more and more how they are directly connected. (MD-9)

Hierarchical identity. Some faculty members viewed their identities hierarchically, with one taking precedence over another (Figure 1B).

I do feel like I’m a primary care doctor, because I feel that if I didn’t have that piece, I wouldn’t be able to do so many of the other pieces that I do, so that’s certainly central. (MD-10)

Parallel identity. For some participants, their multiple roles formed identities that were parallel, with minimal overlap (Figure 1C).

So I’m a clinician, clinical administrator, I am a program director and I’m also an educator. And the way I would envision those four roles is there’s a tiny space where all of them come together. (MD-2)

Interestingly, over the course of the interview, many transitioned from describing themselves as a parallel to a merged identity.

Merged identity. The merged identity was described as all roles becoming highly integrated and influencing the others. Some participants identified this merged identity through the lens of faculty developer (Figures 1D and 1E).

Faculty development really interdigitates with all of my roles. They all go part and parcel together. (MD-4)

I think faculty development is one of the most important things I do … it permeates everything else that I do. (MD-11)

Teacher identity formation. Reflecting on their own identity formation as educators, all but one participant saw themselves as teachers early on. They described discovering their passion for teaching from elementary school to high school to professional preparation through to being a faculty member.

I knew I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a little kid. (PhD-2)

As soon as I emerged out of internship, I had a teacher identity. (MD-14)

It took several years into being a faculty member to get into that role [of an educator] and realize that this can be a niche for me. (MD-10)

Several participants recognized that their identity evolved over the course of their careers, often moving in quite different directions than they had anticipated and sometimes changing from year to year. As they became more senior, the relationship between mentoring and faculty development became more apparent.

As I become more senior, I think a lot more about mentoring others.… I think of faculty development in the sense of helping people find things within their career. (MD-15)

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Research question 2: How does being a faculty developer affect one’s career and everyday work?

Impact on career. According to the majority of respondents, conducting faculty development advanced their careers. They often presented their local workshop at national meetings and other institutions. This visibility and dissemination increased their stature locally and helped with their advancements and promotions. New opportunities arose as a result of their work as a faculty developer, including appointments to local and national education committees, and to educational leadership positions (e.g., committee chairs, clerkship directors, residency program directors, and department chairs).

My department views the work that I do in faculty development regionally and nationally as dissemination of my work. It’s seen as scholarly activity. I think it has contributed to my department’s seeing me as someone respected in the world of education. (PhD-2)

Giving a presentation allowed me to meet people, which then allowed me to be on this [national education] committee, and now I’m working on other different projects with them that will obviously advance my career. (MD-10)

Impact on everyday work. Participants described the positive impact of leading workshops on the organizations for which they were responsible: courses, clerkships, residencies, fellowships, and clinical practices. Additionally, they conveyed how their faculty development role extended into their everyday work, which occurred especially when their faculty development workshops covered general skills (e.g., feedback, communication, clinical reasoning, clinical teaching). Faculty developers consistently drew on this content in their teaching and often even when working with patients. These developers described reciprocity or an exchange process in which the content (e.g., effective communication) informed their teaching (e.g., communication with learners and patients) and their teaching informed their faculty development.

It benefits my own teaching … but then the teaching … really makes the faculty development more effective. (MD-13)

Participants spoke about the importance of learning a new, educational language to be able to communicate to others their workshop content (e.g., clinical reasoning) as well as teaching strategies (e.g., active engagement of learners). If, however, the faculty development content they delivered was very narrow, such as creating a teacher portfolio, they rarely used it in practice.

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Research question 3: What impact does the faculty development role have on the faculty developer, the teaching commons, and the community of practice?

Impact on the faculty developer. As a result of leading faculty development workshops, participants reported that others viewed them as having credibility and expertise, and accorded them respect. This not only elevated their status but also changed how they viewed themselves. Many were invited to engage more in education and expanded their professional networks, creating new collaborations in teaching and research. The workshops offered opportunities for faculty developers to have deep conversations about educational scholarship with attendees, which further supported faculty vitality. The themes we identified related to the impact on the developers themselves and on their network, and the role their institution played in the development of their identities.

Relating to the impact of faculty development on their self image, participants said,

To do workshops … it elevates you … in terms of not only respect but being noted for being someone who has a skill set and that translates into … a regional leadership [role]. (MD-19)

Citing how being a faculty developer broadened their network, participants mentioned:

It did contribute in a major way to my developing a new network. (MD-14)

So all the educational things I’ve done have really opened up whole new communities for me. (MD-3)

Linking the role of the institution in developing their faculty developer identity, one participant said:

I think UCSF does value education. So I think being viewed as a teacher of teachers at an institution/workplace where that’s respected, I think you are viewed positively and respected for that role. (MD-1)

Impact on the institution. Participants reported that the faculty development program has become part of the institutional culture. By teaching in the faculty development program, they became part of a community of like-minded teachers who created and shared a common language about teaching and learning, and who discussed educational issues in-depth, fostering deeper interpersonal relationships with other teaching faculty. The faculty development program also encouraged a scholarly approach to teaching and supported the formation of teachers. Additionally, they recognized that what they did as developers translated directly into their communities of professional practice in teaching and patient care.

I think we’ve definitely done things that make things better for patients. (MD-15)

They [faculty members] feel that they have changed because of some of the faculty development teaching that I’ve been asked and privileged to do, and they feel that they have made personal and professional changes. (MD-16)

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We found that faculty developer identity evolved with time and was closely related to the faculty members’ other roles as clinicians, scientists, and educators. Most came to this work with a strong interest in teaching. Providing faculty development clearly elevated their status and supported career advancement and professional opportunities. For many developers, the topic that they offered in faculty development workshops (e.g., feedback) had a direct impact on their interactions with patients and learners. Additionally, as faculty developers they expanded their teaching community and strengthened the educational culture of the institution.

These findings extend our previously published model for research on faculty development13 by describing both the developers’ identities and their impact on the broader community of teaching practice. As we anticipated in our model, faculty developers often extended their roles in the “teaching commons” of work shops to include mentoring and educational consultation in the work place. Their influence spreads through the way they shape teaching and learn ing activities, build networks and relation ships, and make an impact on organizational structures.

Our study evolves the framing of professional identity formation by describing how an individual incorporates an additional identity into existing identities and how identities evolve over a career. Participants’ identities evolve along the lines of one of the four alignment models11 as they incorporated a faculty developer identity into their existing identity, aligning educator and professional (MD or PhD). This is not surprising because individuals recruited as faculty developers were already excellent teachers. Thus, the faculty developer identity was manifest within an existing educator identity.

We generated four models of faculty developer identity that correspond to the four alignment models (see Figures 1A–1E). Initially, each developer comes to the role with some combination of professional (MD/PhD) and educator identities; they then add the faculty developer identity. Participants des cribed their faculty development identity as compartmentalized (Figure 1A), hierarchical (Figure 1B), parallel (Figure 1C), and merged (1D and 1E). In the first two models—compartmentalized and hierarchical—the faculty developer identity was primarily related to their identity as an educator. The parallel identity is perhaps the most difficult to describe. The key distinctive features of this alignment are the participants’ descriptions of their various identities that were not completely separate but were also not merged—they existed in parallel without a strong connection to each other. For the merged identity, we generated two different models. In Figure 1D the roles of MD/PhD, educator, and faculty developer fully merge. However, in Figure 1E the faculty developer identity merged primarily within the educator identity but not in a way that any one of the three was hierarchical to the others.

The ability to incorporate the faculty developer identity appeared to be a function of the workshop topic that they presented, the stage of their career development, and the frequency with which they provided faculty development. Participants described fluidity in their identities that shifted as their roles and responsibilities changed over time. Although most experienced faculty developers labeled their identities as merged, especially as their educator roles evolved and expanded, there were a few experienced faculty developers whose identities remained compartmentalized. Conversely, a few junior faculty members had merged identities. We hypothesize that for most individuals with time and experience as faculty developers, synergy exists among their multiple roles and identities. This is congruent with the findings of those who have studied full-time faculty developers.9 Additionally, it is consistent with literature indicating that at many institutions, faculty developers move into leadership roles.1

We found that even being an occasional faculty developer changed individuals’ identities, practices, collegial networks, advancements, and future professional opportunities. Individuals could link the work they did in faculty development to specific effects on their careers and their identities. Participants frequently mentioned the sense of being a credible source and an expert, and they were able to parlay this expertise into opportunities that advanced their careers.

Participants also described the impact that the institution had on them, as well as the impact the faculty development program had on the institution. One of our participants used the analogy of the “chicken or the egg,” suggesting that a strong faculty development program enhances the value of education in the institution, which in turn values what the developers offer. We acknowledge that not all medical schools have a culture of faculty development and support for educators, symbolized at UCSF by an Academy of Medical Educators.15

It is our hope that this study can help guide a faculty development program in the recruitment, retention, and development of faculty developers. Faculty development was designed to fill the gap in teacher preparation that persists today as expectations for teachers shift with the changes in technology, curriculum, and practice.16 Faculty development programs also are expanding their content to support faculty members in their roles beyond teaching.17 Therefore, we not only need to recruit and retain individuals but also need career development and mentoring programs for faculty developers to prepare for these expansions.

Our findings offer encouragement to those considering becoming faculty developers, because participation bestowed significant benefits and mitigated the isolation and lack of support identified by many as reasons for leaving academic careers in medicine.18 In addition to the identified prestige derived from teaching peers, teaching faculty development expanded developers’ networks and roles in departments, schools, and national professional associations. Our participants found the community of other faculty developers important to their sense of satisfaction and well-being as educators. These developers worked in teams, watched and learned from each other, and received considerable feedback about their performance from learners, coinstructors, and leaders in faculty development. This rich support is needed according to theories in identity development.19

Our study has a few limitations. It was conducted in a single institution that is noted for a strong culture of education, and it uses a distinctive faculty development model. Unlike most train-the-trainer models,20–22 UCSF’s model depends on the development and support of a large group of excellent teachers who provide workshops periodically. No one model will fit all institutions.17 Another limitation is that we looked at identity from one framing and acknowledge that other framings are possible.

In summary, faculty development is growing as an area of legitimate study,17 and our work contributes to an enlarged view of the field in four ways: (1) expands our understanding of identity for mation and development; (2) identifies meaningful outcomes of faculty development for those engaged in this important work; (3) illustrates how being a faculty developer can contribute to a strong teaching commons that in turn can affect everyday work in the classroom and clinic; and (4) demonstrates how being a faculty developer, even part-time, can help faculty alleviate feelings of isolation.

Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank their University of California, San Francisco Educational Scholarship Conference colleagues for editorial comments.

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Appendix 1

Appendix 1

Supplemental Digital Content

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