Getting There from Here

02 Jan 2019

By Elizabeth Shaughnessy

Much is said and written about beginning one’s surgical career; however less so about advancement.   I am always curious about others who advance. How did they get there? What advice do they have? Paths are not identical; each one has a different story.  Engage them in conversation!

Pursuit of basic science is more defined than other career paths.  The beginning investigator should identify and engage a suitable mentor, best located at their home institution with a track record of mentoring success.  One can acquire additional informal mentors for advice. Initial pilot grants allow generation of preliminary data based on one’s hypothesis. Preliminary data may enable the investigator to apply for a K grant through the NIH, a career development grant through the VA or another agency.  Outside funding boosts your credibility as a researcher. Mentors for a K grant must participate in mentor training, and will likely develop an agreement of interaction meant to keep the young investigator on track. It is key to obtain independent funding within 3-5 years after training.

But what of those who choose to pursue clinical or translational research?  Some institutions provide training, and there are also courses offered through the American College of Surgeons, and through some multi-institutional trial groups.  Training is a great place to start, but it is vital to prepare your hypothesis and concepts for development as well. Here a mentor is crucial to provide another pair of eyes to critique your protocols and to make suggestions.

Successful investigators of either type tend to assemble as research groups to train new investigators and to develop the more seasoned researchers.  It provides an internal network of analysis and evaluation for development. But external networking is important, too. Externally, you may meet people in your field critical in the review of your submitted papers.  It is helpful to bounce ideas off those you trust. They may identify holes in your process before you spend critical time on its development. They may also inform you of opening positions that may serve to help you grow as a researcher but also as a leader.

Mentors can be younger or older.  We all can function as a mentor within the home institution or outside of it.  If you want to advance, help that person immediately above you move up, or move out, to that dream job they identified, creating space for you to grow.  Later that gift may be reciprocated.

For those who have aspirations of leadership, be it departmental, institutional-based, hospital-based or organizational, talk to those in the position of interest to find out what skills are needed to function in that capacity.  There is no strict formula. A department chair in one institution may need to have had experience in basic or translational science, whereas in another institution he/she may not. But if you do not build your skill set over time, you may find yourself behind the competition.  Volunteer for this committee, or that project. There is something to be learned with the effort. Step outside your comfort zone—finances, budgeting, ethics consults! Your skill set may determine your entre beyond just your career as a surgeon. It constitutes your armamentarium.

Finally, as one progresses, it may be necessary to seek out further education, perhaps through university offerings in person or online, AAMC courses, ELAM, or independent leadership training such as Lantern.  Given your goals or responsibilities, the costs may be borne by your department of institution: ask and you may be surprised!

Life is change, and we must be resilient.  Be reliable and make your word count for something; follow through on what you have obliged yourself to do.  Your reputation is built one person at a time, and its mismanagement can come back to bite you. Advancement is a journey, as is life.  Find what you enjoy doing, and go for it! Change your mind or direction, just as we do in life.


Beth Shaughnessy was born and raised in the Chicago area, with her undergraduate years spent at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  She returned to Chicago for medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Following general surgery residency at the University of Illinois’ program, she pursued a fellowship in surgical oncology at the City of Hope National Cancer Center outside of Los Angeles.  She is currently a professor of surgery at the University of Cincinnati. She lives with her husband and son. She enjoys cooking, yoga, the arts, choral singing, and gardening. Twitter handle:     @DrBethS1     

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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