Achieving Career Success in Academic Oncology: What to Know When Deciding On a Career in Academia

Mohammed Almubarak, MD; and Jame Abraham, MD, FACP
Published: Monday, Mar 07, 2011
The field of oncology has undergone a significant transformation in the last few years. In this era of individualized medicine, we are learning new ways to tailor treatment based on the molecular pathways of the tumor. There has never been a more exciting time to be in the field of oncology, especially in academic oncology. In addition to the ability to develop a disease-focused clinical career, an academic oncologist can also build a research, educational, or administrative career (as, for example, a cancer center medical director or a department section chief). Academic oncologists have a critical role as opinion leaders and shape the future of cancer care by research and training future oncologists, residents, and medical students.

Applying for an academic job

If you are planning to pursue an academic career, make sure you have a mentor who can guide you through the application, interview, and selection processes. Generally speaking, there are usually many academic oncology practices in universities and cancer centers that actively search for young talent to build their department or join their established staff. A fellow should start looking for an academic job opportunity before the end of the second year of fellowship or during the early part of third year. A good place to start is with advertisements in major oncology journals or postings at national meetings such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology or the American Society of Hematology Symposium.

Preparing an adequate curriculum vitae (CV) is probably the most important step in the job application process. The CV should include the following information in a clear and organized manner: contact information, academic background and training history, research experience, grants and publication, awards, and voluntary work experience. Emphasizing teaching or mentoring experience and research skills (while avoiding falsifying information) will make a candidate more desirable for an academic job. A candidate should also identify mentors who know him or her well, and who are willing to write letters of recommendation or serve as references if needed.

The job interview process

Institutions that have great interest in a candidate will send an invitation for a job interview. This is an opportunity for the candidate to make a lasting impression and also take a closer look at the work environment. To prepare for the interview, the candidate should inquire about interviewees—including other cancer specialists such as radiation oncologists and surgical oncologists—and their clinical interests. This information can be used to emphasize potential areas of collaboration in the future. In general, the candidate is expected to give a presentation related to his or her work and research interest. It’s vital to tailor the depth of the presentation based on the audience’s clinical interest and background. For example, if your audience is predominantly clinicians, try to focus on the translational or clinical aspects of your research as opposed to basic science. The interview is also an opportunity to highlight individual strengths such as involvement with investigator-initiated clinical trials and prior publication.

Tenure versus non-tenure tracks

It is important to understand the different aspects of a tenure vs non-tenure academic oncology track, including the academic ranks and specific requirements for each. A proper understanding of the responsibilities associated with a specific academic position, as well as the culture and expectations of the cancer center and department, is crucial for the candidate’s success in that environment.

Usually, a candidate who has recently completed fellowship is accepted as an assistant professor or, in some cases, as a tutor or clinical instructor. In general, the candidate is offered a position in either tenure track or non-tenure track. In the past, tenure track meant guaranteed, permanent job appointment and benefits. The definition, however, varies from one institution to another. It is very important to find out if you are interviewing for a position in the tenure or non-tenure track and what the specific requirements are for each track. The type of appointment and the requirements needed to achieve tenure status should be made clear in the offer letter.

A key factor to advancing the academic ladder is identifying a mentor who shares common clinical and research interests. On average, an assistant professor is usually eligible to be promoted to an associate professor rank after five to seven years. Each institution will have its own criteria for promotion, and new faculty should familiarize themselves with them. The promotion process involves a thorough review of performance in various aspects of the particular track the you are in. It is important to maintain a high level of academic, research, and clinical productivity.

Types of academic appointments

In general, there are three types of academic appointments in oncology: clinical track, scientist track, and clinician scientist track.

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