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The Mock Academic Faculty Position Competition

A Pilot Professional and Career Development Opportunity for Postdoctoral Fellows

Henderson, Rita Isabel PhD, MA; Syed, Naweed PhD, MSc, FRCP(Edin)

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000001111
Innovation Reports
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Problem Medical educators face a dilemma in countries like Canada, where policy makers and strategic planners have prioritized highly qualified personnel and expanded recruitment of advanced trainees at a time when early-career specialists face prolonged job insecurity as they transition to professional employment. The University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine hatched the Mock Academic Faculty Position competition to test the school’s existing capacity to address the pressing career development needs of highly trained graduates.

Approach The competition was piloted in May–June 2014. Approximately 180 postdoctoral fellows were invited to compete; 34 submitted portfolios. The Postdoctoral Program Office established a longlist of 12 applicants. Through reviews, a selection committee identified 3 finalists to participate in a daylong event consisting of a research presentation and committee interview. The event was followed by approximately 70 audience members at any given time who were invited to complete anonymous evaluation forms and/or exit interviews.

Outcomes The selection committee deduced a vast majority of applicants did not sell their skills effectively or demonstrate research programs independent from supervisors. Exit interviews conducted with 40 audience members indicated 36 (90%) picked the same finalist as the selection committee, 34 (85%) found the process “nerve racking,” and 28 (70%) had no previous idea of what goes on inside an academic committee interview.

Next Steps A key recommendation for future iterations is early attention to systematizing feedback to ensure more direct impact for nonfinalists. Alternative initiatives for those gearing up for industry or public-sector work are being prepared.

R.I. Henderson is an anthropologist and postdoctoral research fellow, Department of Community Health Sciences and Department of Family Medicine, University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

N. Syed is scientific director, Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute for Child and Maternal Health, director, Postdoctoral Program, Office of the Vice-President (Research), and professor, Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy, University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Funding/Support: Costs for the Mock Academic Faculty Position competition, including the candidate luncheon and award, were provided by the University of Calgary’s Office of the Vice-President (Research), while manuscript preparation was facilitated by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (R.I. Henderson).

Other disclosures: The authors report findings here from vested positions within the Mock Academic Faculty Position competition, R.I. Henderson as a finalist and N. Syed as the mock selection committee chair.

Ethical approval: This undertaking was reviewed by the University of Calgary’s conjoint health research ethics board and deemed consistent with a quality assurance activity.

Correspondence should be addressed to Rita Isabel Henderson, Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine, TRW Building, 3rd Floor, 3280 Hospital Dr. NW, Calgary, AB T2N 1Z6, Canada; telephone: (403) 805-1561; e-mail: rihender@ucalgary.ca.

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Problem

Medical educators face an ethical dilemma in countries like Canada, where policy makers and strategic planners have prioritized highly qualified personnel1,2 and expanded recruitment of advanced trainees3 at a time when early-career specialists face prolonged job insecurity as they transition to professional employment.4,5 To help address this, the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), Calgary, Alberta, Canada, set out to identify what more could readily be done to support advanced trainees in launching their careers in this employment environment. We asked whether our research and education systems are nimble enough to set our skilled trainees up for success. In this spirit, the Mock Academic Faculty Position competition was hatched as a point-in-time drill to test existing capacity across our medical school to collaboratively address the pressing career development needs of highly trained graduates.

Spearheaded by the CSM and the university’s Postdoctoral Program through the Office of the Vice-President (Research) and the Senior Associate Dean (Research), the Mock Academic Faculty Position competition began with two objectives. The first was to pilot practical training opportunities for postdoctoral fellows—the intention being to eventually scale such initiatives up for similar fellows in other faculties and clinical specialists facing job shortages in fields across Canada (e.g., oncology, cardiac surgery, nephrology, neurosurgery). The second was to assess our trainees’ current employability and our current preparedness to ensure that advanced trainees are competitive in a changing job market, where recruitment requires both technical expertise and practical leadership skills. The competition expands on medical education’s conventional rationale for simulation-based learning6—namely, to protect patient safety by enabling clinical trainees to practice with a high degree of realism, by employing simulation models emerging from business that treat employability as a skill set that requires acumen to not only land a job7 but also negotiate a job’s terms and navigate competing professional pressures.8

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Approach

In May–June 2014, the Mock Academic Faculty Position competition was piloted. It was launched with an e-mail circulated via the CSM’s listservs inviting approximately 180 eligible postdoctoral fellows to compete for an award of $10,000. Applicants were given three weeks to prepare their portfolio consisting of a cover letter, curriculum vitae, and teaching philosophy statement. The announcement indicated that three finalists could anticipate a daylong simulated job competition (or job talk event). This would occur three weeks after the deadline to submit portfolios to the Postdoctoral Program Office. A selection committee then carried out two reviews of the applicant pool to identify three finalists to give a research presentation and be interviewed by the selection committee. Faculty members on the selection committee were exempt from reviewing their own mentees (e.g., graduate students or coauthors) as a means of mitigating conflicts of interest. Finalists were notified of their selection a week prior to the job talk event and invited to provide a title for their research presentation within two days. All finalists and selection committee members consented in advance to appear on film in live-stream recorded interviews.

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Recruitment process

The e-mailed call for applications (see Box 1) detailed eligibility criteria, expectations for excellence, and a description of the home city and institution carrying out the recruitment. This was used later to frame interview questions, as finalists were invited to demonstrate how they would fit their research programs within relevant research institutes. A disclaimer on the call clarified that this was solely for professional and career development purposes and not a real faculty position.

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Box 1Call for Applications, Mock Academic Faculty Position Competition, University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine, May–June 2014

A Mock Academic Faculty Position in the Health Sciences

A professional and career development initiative under the auspices of the Postdoctoral Program in the Office of the Vice-President (Research) and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary

The Cumming School of Medicine and Postdoctoral Program in the Office of the Vice-President (Research) at the University of Calgary invite applications for a mock tenure-track position at the level of an assistant professor. Qualifications include an MD, PhD, or MD/PhD and postdoctoral experience in the area of health sciences research.

The preferred applicant will have demonstrated research excellence and a strong track record of publication in peer-reviewed journals. In addition, the selected individual will be expected to contribute to the education mission of the Cumming School of Medicine at both undergraduate and graduate levels. All candidates are expected to negotiate salary, start-up package, and laboratory space.

With over 400 full-time faculty members, the Cumming School of Medicine is a leader in health sciences research with an international reputation for excellence and innovation. The bench-to-bed provision is a recognized strength of the school—coupled with outstanding infrastructure and core facilities. The state-of-the-art Health Sciences Centre, adjacent to Foothills Medical Centre and Alberta Children’s Hospital, provides researchers in the area of fundamental sciences access to leaders in clinical research, patient care, and service to society. We expect that this enriched interdisciplinary environment will provide the candidate with an outstanding opportunity to develop a cutting edge, independent research program.

Calgary is a vibrant, multicultural city of 1.2 million inhabitants with close proximity to the Rocky Mountains, Banff National Park, and Lake Louise. The Cumming School of Medicine together with the Postdoctoral Program has joined forces to create a world-class research, education, and innovation center; the selected candidate will contribute to this vision.

Please submit via e-mail in a single PDF document a copy of your cover letter and CV along with a one-page statement of your teaching philosophy to:

Postdoctoral Coordinator, Foothills Campus,

Phone: (403) 220-####, E-mail: name@school.ca

Disclaimer: This is a mock faculty position and the call for applications is only for the purpose of the professional and career development initiative. This is not a real faculty position. This opportunity is restricted to Cumming School of Medicine and Faculty of Veterinary Medicine postdoctoral scholars.

Thirty-four applications were received, representing each of the school’s seven interdisciplinary research institutes. Some applicants had completed their PhDs only a few months earlier, while others had completed their PhDs as many as five years prior. Some had few publications, while others had nearly two dozen first- and second-authored articles. The Postdoctoral Program Office established an initial longlist of 12 applicants, rewarding those who exhibited superior career development progress relative to their time since PhD completion. These applicants’ portfolios were then forwarded to 11 selection committee volunteers representing departments and research institutes across the CSM. Both applicants and committee volunteers overwhelmingly came from the bench sciences, though one finalist worked in public health and presented on social determinants of health. The selection committee members systematically reviewed the applications, providing feedback that was eventually aggregated for return to enquiring applicants.

The interdisciplinary selection committee was composed primarily of research- and clinician-based faculty members, involving scholars at varying career stages from graduate studies to junior faculty and senior administration. Their skills reflected high-performing early-career productivity, specific career tracks in distinct areas of the school, and advanced leadership among senior faculty. The committee included one graduate student, one postdoctoral researcher, four pretenure junior faculty members, three department heads, and the CSM’s senior associate dean (research) and associate dean (faculty development). The committee found the variability among applicants in terms of the number of publications and norms around author order on publications a significant challenge to applying consistent metrics for assessing professional progress. The committee also struggled with comparing professional development among candidates from diverse fields, particularly with applicants from community-based research, whose modes of knowledge dissemination tend to be more varied (i.e., books, chapters) than those in the bench sciences (i.e., journal articles). This challenge required a committee meeting with representation from diverse fields and consensus-forming discussion around standard procedures for and constraints to productivity across disciplines. Once the committee made their selections, the three finalists and a runner-up were identified and the finalists were invited to participate in the job talk event.

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Performance feedback

In providing titles for their research presentation and agreeing to participate in the job talk event, the finalists consented to have their research presentation and committee interview performances reviewed by an audience of fellow trainees and faculty members, who could complete anonymous evaluation forms and/or exit interviews (see below). The forms and additional written feedback related to portfolio submissions were made available to finalists at the end of the competition. Approximately 70 audience members, primarily advanced trainees (i.e., medical residents, doctoral students, and postdoctoral fellows), followed the event at any given time.

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Research presentations

The order of research presentations was determined randomly and announced two days before the job talk event, which took place on June 18, 2014. Each finalist was introduced by the selection committee chair, who highlighted noteworthy aspects of their career portfolio (i.e., number and prominence of publications, teaching experience, and service work). A five-minute question-and-answer period followed each presentation.

Audience members were invited to fill out an anonymous evaluation form (see Chart 1) for each finalist, assessing presentation content, presentation delivery, the effectiveness of slides, and the question-and-answer period (average of n = 38 per finalist). A final qualitative question (not shown in Chart 1) asked whether audience members would recommend hiring the finalist for distinct academic roles. Although the audience members’ responses did not influence the selection committee’s award decision, the assessments were collected to evaluate the extent to which the committee’s final decision corresponded to that of the wider audience. Taken together with the ability to attract the commitment of varied stakeholders and applicants who were key to the event’s smooth operation, we felt that a relative match between committee and audience assessments would indicate the school’s preparedness to offer relevant career development opportunities for trainees seeking to enhance their competitive edge in the job market.

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Live-stream recorded interviews

An hourlong selection committee and finalist luncheon followed the research presentations, with a 15-minute closed-door committee debrief prior to the committee interviews. The interviews occurred in a boardroom set up to transmit a live audio-video feed to an adjacent lecture hall where audience members could watch. Two cameras were projected on the feed; one showed the finalist, and the other panned the committee members. This enabled audience members to observe finalists’ posture and gestures throughout the interview. Each finalist was interviewed for 40 minutes in the same order as was used for the research presentations. During the 5-minute turnovers between finalists, a department head facilitated an informal group discussion with audience members about the interview process.

The selection committee used standardized questions for the interviews, modifying questions between finalists only to the extent that their disciplinary backgrounds required. Each committee member posed one question, which ranged from what resources within the school the finalist anticipated drawing on to support their success to the colleagues with whom they envisioned collaborating. Some questions focused on the management of start-up funding and what infrastructure was needed to transition into a faculty role. Others focused on teaching, drawing at times on current events surrounding changing funding landscapes in times of austerity. Finalists were invited to close with questions or clarifications to the committee.

The selection committee then privately deliberated for 30 minutes. With the live-stream feed cut, the same department head facilitated a broader informal group discussion with audience members about the features of an excellent faculty candidate. At this time, audience members were also invited to do exit interviews, which were conducted in small groups by Postdoctoral Program volunteers after the winner was announced. The three finalists were then brought into the interview room together, and the live-stream feed to the audience resumed. The selection committee chair briefly discussed key benefits and challenges observed by committee members, then announced the finalist selected to receive the award and congratulated all three on their performances.

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Outcomes

Resources

The successful rollout of this competition required support at multiple institutional levels. The university’s Eyes High strategic research plan enabled top-level administration to commit resources to the competition in the form of the $10,000 award, a finalist lunch, and an administrative assistant to spend a week aggregating feedback to applicants, as well as the necessary space and technology. It also enabled the recognition of the selection committee volunteers for committing at least two days each to engaging in the collaborative mentorship of trainees (i.e., providing feedback on applicant portfolios). In the future, letters of acknowledgment for each faculty member’s volunteer efforts will be extended to their department chairs, as a means of supporting his/her own tenure review process and career development.

With repeated iterations, the time commitment needed for applicants to develop a portfolio is expected to diminish, as there would be an incentive for advanced trainees to keep such documents ready for emerging opportunities. The finalists indicated not having spent more than a day each preparing their portfolios; this may indicate a readiness for the job market that supported their selection.

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Employability

A surprising outcome of the competition was what it indicated in terms of postdoctoral fellows’ employability—there were some areas in which advanced trainees consistently underperformed compared with employer expectations. For example, the selection committee deduced that a vast majority of applicants did not sell their skills effectively or demonstrate research programs independent from supervisors. In addition, given that only 34 (19%) of 180 potential applicants joined the competition, fellows seemed to be unsure of their expertise or to lack a willingness to promote themselves competitively. Although not all postdoctoral fellows desire faculty positions, evidence indicates that far more than 19% do.4 As such, career development opportunities must address strategic self-promotion and portfolio building.

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Exit interviews

Exit interviews conducted with 40 audience members indicated that 36 (90%) picked the same finalist as the selection committee. This consensus echoed committee assessments in the preinterview stages, where the graduate student, the postdoctoral researcher, and junior faculty committee members predominantly agreed with senior committee members in terms of the optimal applicants to invite for interviews. This overlap suggests mutual perceptions of excellence, not only in terms of research skills but also in terms of marketable skills. Exit interviews indicated that 34 (85%) of the audience members found the process “nerve racking,” and 28 (70%) had no previous idea of what goes on inside an academic committee interview. Despite the intimidating nature of the process, 33 (82%) felt that the interview questions were appropriate, respectful, and fair.

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Next Steps

One unintended outcome of the Mock Academic Faculty Position competition was that it proved as effective at fostering a dynamic and vibrant culture across the health sciences as at testing the school’s capacity to address the career development needs of advanced trainees and our trainees’ current employability. As one junior faculty member on the selection committee later observed, “I learned a lot by just watching how the other [committee] members evaluate the files and observing the tone, style and content of their interview questions.”9 That the event attracted and captivated an audience of approximately 70 for its duration highlights the valuable learning opportunity it offered not just to the finalists but to a diverse set of early-career scientists evaluating whether an academic career is indeed a path they would like to follow and what steps to take to realize it. Ultimately, the competition generated impacts well beyond the scope of conventional career development workshops through, for instance, simulated question-and-answer periods from scientific audience members unfamiliar with the finalist’s area of expertise and feedback on an applicant’s career portfolio from an interdisciplinary committee. In addition, in the same communication, the junior faculty committee member noted, “Experiences like this cannot be garnered from any textbook nor from any amount of time scouring PubMed … [this was] an irreplaceable opportunity.”9 Such observations indicate that implementing career development simulations may help to increase trainees’ employability not only for academic faculty positions but also more generally, as finalists can practice and others (e.g., volunteers and audience members) can be made aware of a wide range of employable skills that escape conventional graduate science training.

However, one challenge emerged in the form of sorting through varied sources of feedback to return to applicants who were not shortlisted. A key recommendation for future iterations is early attention to systematizing feedback to ensure more direct impact for nonfinalists. With more efficient management of written feedback on the portfolios and the support of an administrative assistant, all applicants meeting basic application criteria may benefit from direct feedback through clear evaluation forms and the aggregation of constructive reviewer comments. Although one-on-one meetings for all applicants would be time consuming, subsequent career development workshops could be built around generating peer-to-peer feedback based on standards of excellence established during the competition process.

Given that not all postdoctoral fellows anticipate pursuing a career in academia, this event was not adapted to the needs of those gearing up for industry or public-sector work. As such, we are preparing alternative initiatives that engage appropriate nonacademic stakeholders. For instance, a “Dragons’ Den” simulation will model the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television show of the same name, “where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their business concepts and products to a panel of Canadian business moguls who have the cash and the know-how to make it happen.”10 Such initiatives would require very different coordination of leadership and applicants but would be viable career development innovations within the existing capacity of many schools.

Acknowledgments: The authors wish to thank the numerous staff and faculty who enabled the Mock Academic Faculty Position competition to be a success, in particular mock selection committee members and technical staff who enabled the smooth live-stream transmission of committee interviews, as well as all the applicants who bravely stepped forward.

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References

1. Science, Technology and Innovation Council: Advisory Council to the Government of Canada. State of the nation 2012—Canada’s science, technology and innovation system: Aspiring to global leadership. 2013. http://www.stic-csti.ca/eic/site/stic-csti.nsf/vwapj/StateOfTheNation2012-may16-eng.pdf/$file/StateOfTheNation2012-may16-eng.pdf. Accessed December 1, 2015.
2. Canadian Foundation for Innovation. Key findings from the 2010–2011 project progress reports. http://www.innovation.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/Key%20findings%20from%20the%202010-11%20project%20progress%20reports.pdf. Accessed December 1, 2015.
3. Industry Canada. Seizing Canada’s moment: Moving forward in science, technology and innovation [consultation paper]. https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/icgc.nsf/vwapj/Seizing_Canadas_Moment_Consultation_Paper-eng.pdf/$FILE/Seizing_Canadas_Moment_Consultation_Paper-eng.pdf. Accessed December 1, 2015.
4. Powell K. The postdoc experience: High expectations, grounded in reality. Sci Careers. August 24, 2012. http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2012_08_24/science.opms.r1200121. Accessed December 1, 2015.
5. Lametti D. Is a science PhD a waste of time? Natl Post. September 5, 2012. http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/09/05/daniel-lamett-is-a-science-phd-a-waste-of-time/. Accessed December 1, 2015.
6. Khan K, Pattison T, Sherwood M. Simulation in medical education. Med Teach. 2011;33:1–3.
7. Hogan K, Patrick T. Get ahead: An employment advancement simulation game. Simul Gaming. 1996;27:409–413.
8. Avramenko A. Enhancing students’ employability through business simulation. Educ Train. 2012;54:355–367.
9. Bharwani A. Clinical assistant professor, University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine. E-mail communication with G. Zamponi, senior associate dean (research), University of Calgary, June 19, 2014.
10. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio-Canada. Dragon’s Den: About the Show. http://www.cbc.ca/dragonsden/about/. Accessed December 1, 2015.
© 2016 by the Association of American Medical Colleges