When we choose a career in medicine, we commit to lifelong learning and growth—an ongoing quest that alternates between a straight line and an ever-winding road. Regardless of your ultimate path of choice, I propose the following six simple actions (that can be enacted in both academic and non-academic environments) to make your quest purposeful, attainable, and successful while, I hope, remaining enjoyable:
Define Success and What It Means to You
Throughout our pre-professional lives, particularly during school and training, success is very clearly and externally defined for us: achieve good grades; receive acceptance to college and graduate school; match in your dream residency and/or fellowship program; pass your boards; obtain your first professional job. However, all that comfort fades soon into your first job when faced with innumerable choices: Academics or private practice? Research? Teaching? Clinician, Administrator or Leadership track? These decisions are further complicated by competing priorities, such as family and leisure time.1 If I do prioritize family, does that mean I am less successful in my career? It’s likely there are no easy or single answers. In the end, solutions to these matters are personal and ever evolving. Moreover, your colleague’s definition of success is unlikely to match yours, and the goals you set at age 25 may not seem meaningful at 35. Outlining your mission and vision will facilitate revealing your definition of success, which must be aligned with your values.
Set Your Professional Goals
Goals are indeed required to establish and assess performance. When developing your own professional goals, keep in mind who you are, your strengths and weaknesses, and your passions.2 Be realistic, stay on target, and set deadlines. When possible, make your goals specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic. Have a timeline attached. Above all, write your goals down as it leads to accountability. As an example: if your professional goal involves becoming an inspirational educator, perform an individual skill inventory: think about what the skills are you already dominate (i.e., bedside teaching of physical exam); and what the skills are that need more development (i.e., providing meaningful feedback to the struggling learner). Identify available resources, institutional, regional, or national, for addressing your gap, such as online or in-person courses, peer-coaches, etc., as well as time commitment and leadership support needed. Discuss with and seek support from your supervisor and then set a timeline for the acquisition and testing of your newly developed skill. These later steps are part of creating and executing your plan that will be discussed in step number five.
Linda Pololi3 proposed nine steps for developing professional goals, including clarification and prioritization of personal values, identification of individual strengths, abilities and talents; a 10-year visualization of what you would want your professional status to be, rather than worrying about how to get there. Subsequently she recommends setting one-, three- and five-year goals. After these goals are set, she encourages the reader to identify skills and tasks needed to reach the one-year goal. Before you commence your quest, involve your supervisor and receive assurance that your plan is achievable, has institutional alignment, and that you procure necessary resources.
Procure Mentoring Relationships
A meaningful mentoring relationship provides a mentee with skills, knowledge, experience, advice, guidance, and support—it is a key component of professional development and success.4 Unfortunately, effective mentoring is usually identified as a gap for faculty development. Some authors report the prevalence of mentoring in academic medicine to range between 19% and 84%.4 For some medical disciplines, a relative paucity in senior faculty can lead to mentorship gaps, resulting in mentor fatigue and perception of suboptimal mentorship training. Another point to consider is the unlikelihood that one mentor will be able to meet all the mentee’s needs, hence a mentoring team becomes essential.
Mentees play a significant and central role in identifying, creating, and maintaining effective mentoring relationships. A successful mentee will identify individual mentorship needs and potential mentor or mentors to satisfy individual areas of development. Intentionality during all mentorship interactions, including preparation, accountability, and mutual feedback are key for success.
In academic institutions, these relationships can be facilitated by proactively creating and delivering mentorship training, focusing not only on how to be an effective mentor but also a successful mentee. Coaching and facilitated peer mentorship represent additional, innovative models to better meet needs of junior faculty. The creation and distribution of databases highlighting faculty areas of interest can facilitate matching of mentors and mentees. In addition, tracking mentorship dyads may help identify overburden of some faculty and existing gaps.
Develop and Nurture Your Professional Network
Building relationships with peers and like-minded professionals, aka networking, open a door to new career opportunities through introductions, collaborations, recommendations, and referrals.5 Start building your network early, and develop networking strategies with contacts to grow trusted, enduring professional relationships (e.g., set times to meet in national meetings, share research using social media, convene at leadership conferences). While nurturing a professional network can take time and energy, it’s well worth the investment. Successful networkers recognize the value of these relationships—they manage and market their personal brand; give back and volunteer; aim for quality over quantity; actively participate in professional associations; and schedule time for networking. Networking enriches your professional and academic experiences.
Create and Execute Your Plan: Be Creative, Strategic, and Proactive
Being innovative, deliberate, and strategic will deliver success. Tailor your professional goals to your definition of success. Remember to clarify and prioritize your values; identify your strengths and be aware of your weaknesses, remember that self-awareness is key not only for setting goal but also for creating and executing a successful plan. Consider where you want to be in 10 years; once you know where you want to be in 10 years, define where you need to be in 1, 3, and 5 years to accomplish your 10-year goal. Determine what skills you need to better develop to achieve your immediate goal. Write it down and stay accountable. Involve a supervisor and revisit your goals and adjust as needed. Other tools that will assist in your development and goals include networking, mentorship, resources, and creativity.
Concretely, and with the help of your mentor, identify the skills you need to develop and act on them. If extra training is what you need, then identify and pursue training that best fits your needs and is most attainable to you. Know your resources and use them liberally. Share your interests and goal with possible sponsors. Create and frequently maintain your CV, and practice your “elevator pitch” (your three-sentence summary of who you are, what drives you, what resources you need, and how your project will make a difference). If you work in an academic institution and one of your goals is academic promotion, becoming familiar with your institution’s rules and periodically work on your promotion matrix to timely identify and address matrix gaps.
Give yourself permission to say “no” to projects that do not align with your roadmap. Nonetheless, be cognizant that detours are sometimes necessary to meet potential collaborators and future sponsors. Ultimately, every “yes” should take you closer to your goals. Your professional path will be as unique as you; it will rarely resemble a straight line and, oftentimes, it will be winding and rocky.
Humans are complex, and complexity brings change. Expect and embrace change and you’ll thrive. Because change is natural, it is also expected that your definition of success and your ultimate goals may change. Revisiting these steps often will assure your path still aligns with your desired destination.
In summary, the critical first step in effective professional development is to define what success means to you and to develop individual goals to achieve it. After you have your destination (success) and your roadmap (professional goals), make sure you become familiar with your vehicle (promotion criteria, career path), consider a hybrid vehicle (non-traditional scholarship, non-clinical careers), prepare enough food, gas, water (resources), identify and obtain a great co-pilot (meaningful mentorship), assist “hitchhikers” along the way (be collaborative and generous), be prepared and ask for help when needed, expect and learn from detours or rocks along the way. And above all enjoy the quest!