Any survivor of higher education knows that once you leave high school, you no longer call those giving you instruction “teachers.” Colleges and universities have a complex, often baffling, series of job names that may be all but invisible in day-to-day activities. Nowhere is this complexity of ranks more prominent than academic medicine.
A study in the August issue of Academic Medicine reviews Faculty Career Tracks at U.S. Medical Schools (doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182222699). From 2008-2009 Michelle Coleman and George Richard collected data from 98 (76%) of medical colleges in the United States. They identified 353 career tracks, 210 of which were non-tenured.
Lucky for those of us who must review curriculum vitae and biosketches, five tracks were almost universally present:
• The investigator track- The traditional tenure-track for someone planning a research career with teaching, administration, and patient care (if applicable) as secondary pursuits. On this track, the only modifying terms for a professor are assistant, associate, and the name of the donor for your chair (The Rich Dude Professor of Whatever).
• The research track- If you just want to do research, this generally non-tenured position may be appropriate. While this track may not have the security of the investigator track, expectations for extramural funding are generally lower. Positions on this track generally include the modifier “research” (Research Professor of Whatever).
• The clinician-educator track- These faculty members spend most of their time in patient care, often while teaching medical students or residents. Their remaining time may involve other pedagogy and scholarly activities. Tenure availability varies, but is generally not offered. These positions may get modified with the word clinical (Clinical Professor of Whatever).
• The clinical track- These physicians spend their time seeing patients as paid employees of the medical center. While they may interact with and impart knowledge to students and residents, their major value to the institution is generation of clinical income. These positions are also generally modified with the term clinical.
• The educator track- These members of the medical center focus on education and its administration. In addition to running courses, educator faculty members often perform education research and produce materials for coursework. These tracks may be tenure-eligible. Titles are generally unmodified.
If you consider a career at an academic medical center, it is important to know what they expect you to do. The track helps define how you become successful. On the clinical track? Seeing lots of patients is your goal. Someone on the investigator route needs to crank out peer-reviewed papers and grants.
What if you are uncertain of your career goals? Clinicians come out of training with variable research experience, a lot of patient experience, and minimal educational background. Choosing the right track can be stressful. In general, moving from investigator to the other tracks is easier than starting on a less demanding track and trying to move up. If you have any thoughts of doing research and being a principal investigator, you should aim for the investigator track.
The ranks of the faculty present less confusion. The top dog is the professor, sometimes called the full professor. You get to be a professor by working up the ranks.
Entry to the Ivory Tower can be as an instructor. This position generally does not commit someone to a particular track, and at most institutions time as an instructor does not count toward the infamous tenure clock. Please notice that I said “at most institutions.” Some places do start that tick-tock-timer on day one, regardless of rank. Find the faculty handbook and know the particulars of your place of work.
Assistant professors are committed to a career track with specific goals. At this point the countdown to tenure eligibility has begun, and you need to know what you have to accomplish by when. Document every single thing that you may need to highlight in your promotion packet. No one cares as much about this as you do!
After several years, assistant professors may become associate professors. If available at the institution, tenure may accompany the rise to associate professor. Some places do separate rank and tenure now, and many universities are considering eliminating tenure completely.
Every institution does things its own way, but they all share the similarities discussed here. The important thing, as a faculty member, is to know what goals will get you where you want to be.