Creating your own academic timeline

09 Jan 2014

by Christina Cellini, MD, FACS, FASCRS

This topic came to me during a grand rounds given by a well-known surgeon in his mid-career – henceforth will be referred to as “WKS”. I had just returned from my second three-month maternity leave in two years and was looking forward to hearing about what advice he had to give.

That morning WKS gave a talk about how he advanced academically starting from residency to his early attending years that eventually led to his promotion to associate professor. His talk was very informative, and he made a really big deal about being present for your family while trying to achieve your goals. All in all it was a thoughtful presentation. However a few things caught my attention and highlighted how everyone’s situation is unique.

One piece of advice given was that one should constantly “be writing papers” and even to “get up at 4 am before work” to write in order to fulfill that goal.

4am??? I thought back to what I was doing at four A.M. that morning. Oh right… I was nursing an infant. I’m certain that’s not something that ever stood in his way of writing papers. Oh well, no time for paper writing this morning. Maybe tomorrow.

His next piece of advice was to take advantage of all the wonderful scholarships and traveling opportunities that are catered towards young attendings under the age of 45 . He showed lovely pictures of him and his family frolicking around a foreign country that was many time zones away.

I thought- wow! I didn’t know about these awards. I should think of putting something together. Then I thought of the logistics- I don’t think I’ll be able to leave my tiny children away for that amount of time. And since these days I need to plan about an hour in advance to take both kids out to a trip to Target…. maybe in about 5-7 more years. But then I’ll be too old for these scholarships!

Finally he mentioned being involved in society meetings and to bring family along so that you can take advantages of the opportunities there while your spouse and kids go and do fun things in the area. See- you can work and spend time with your family as well! I thought- that might be doable. I did have to skip the last 2 of my society meetings because I was either too pregnant to fly safely or did not have the resources to travel with an infant. Let me ask my husband how he’d feel about watching the girls in a strange place for a week while I do my surgery thing. I texted him- I got back “absolutely not”. Apparently dealing with two cranky, nap-less, off schedule children by himself while I do my own thing most of the day was not my husband’s idea of “family fun”. He encouraged me to go alone. Now don’t get me wrong- my husband is awesome and takes care of the lion’s share of child rearing and is supportive of my career- but I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to sign up for that.

WKS had a number of great ideas that worked for him to achieve academic success so quickly in his career. I am certain there are many young surgeons – both men and women- who can achieve that as well. However, WKS had a personal situation that allowed him to flourish early on. He was able to follow the typical academic timeline that usually consists of publishing 2-3 papers/year, obtaining some sort of early career development grant or funding in the first 5 years as a means for future funding, active involvement in the ACS and specialty societies – all in addition to growing one’s clinical practice at the expected pace. With this timeline one can usually expect promotion to associate professor within five years or so. I know that I will not be able to keep up with that timeline. My path to promotion will likely take a few (or more) years longer than others. Occasionally I get antsy about it when I perceive that my peers are advancing faster than me or that I am in some way “behind”. However, I have been lucky to have colleagues and mentors that understand my need to slow down for my family and are supportive of an “extended” academic timeline to academic advancement.

Now, if you can breastfeed and write scientific papers at the same time go for it! If not, I suggest the following:

1) Take some time to really think about what your future academic goals are. Make them very discrete, not ambiguous. Also, take the time to write them down.

2) Prioritize the goals and create a timeline to go with them. Give some real thought as to how you might go about achieving these goals. Again, the more specific you are, the more likely you are to realize them.

3) Share your academic timeline with a more senior colleague or mentor. Doing so may help you identify potential opportunities or pitfalls in your strategy that you may not have considered. As always AWS members are available to help- and have likely been in your shoes at one time or another!

4) Periodically look back on what you have written and adjust as necessary. Do not feel bad or guilty if it takes longer than you thought. Try not to fall into the “keeping up with the Jones’s” trap that can be prevalent in surgery (I know I have on more than one occasion). Take the time to write down and reflect on everything that you have accomplished up to that point. Remember no accomplishment is too small! As long as you remember what’s important to you and keep your eye on the prize you will no doubt be able to balance your personal and professional life and accomplish what you have set out to do.

Readers, how have you adjusted your own professional timeline to achieve both personal and professional goals in a reasonable manner? Share your thoughts below.


Dr. Christina Cellini is an Assistant Professor of Surgery and Oncology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in the Division of Colorectal Surgery. After obtaining her undergraduate and medical school degrees at Cornell University she trained in general surgery at the NewYork Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center. Following residency, she completed a fellowship in Colorectal Surgery at Washington University in St. Louis. She recently completed a Masters in Medical Management at the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester. She lives in Webster, NY with her husband and 2 children and enjoys running and snowshoeing in her free time. Dr. Cellini serves on the AWS communication committee.

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