In this article an associate professor of epidemiology specializing in infectious diseases discusses her journey into the position.
Authored By: Vanessa Stevens, Ph.D.
Last updated: 19 August 2020
As I reflect back on the path that led me to my current position as an Associate Professor of Epidemiology specializing in infectious diseases, I am struck by the many small chance occurrences and opportunities that significantly changed my trajectory along the way. Perhaps ironically, it was the emergence of SARS in 2003 that initially convinced me to pursue a career in infectious diseases epidemiology. I was taking a class in virology at the time, and the professor started each lecture with the most recent developments in the SARS situation as they unfolded. Not unlike COVID-19, the early research and reports were a combination of viral biology, pathology, and immunology and epidemiology. Although always interested in infectious diseases and at the time pursuing an undergraduate degree in microbiology, to my surprise I was more fascinated by the epidemiological and public health aspects of SARS emergence than information about the viral genome or surface proteins.
Despite antibiotic and vaccine-fueled optimism for a pestilence-free world in the mid-20th century, infectious diseases continue to surprise us and fundamentally reshape the world today. Unlike the etiologies of chronic diseases, microorganisms resist our attempts to control them. Any career in infectious diseases is therefore likely to mutate over time in response to the emerging challenges of the day. My own journey has only vaguely resembled what I expected as a newly-minted Assistant Professor. Here are some of the ways in which my reality diverged from my expectations (your mileage may vary, of course):
1. I did not expect networking to matter as much as it does
Like many scientists, I am an introvert. As a graduate student, I shuddered in horror at the thought of networking at conferences. The meaningless small talk. The awkward pauses while two or more people grasp fruitlessly for something non-trivial to say. It wasn’t until my postdoctoral fellowship under an extremely gregarious advisor that I realized two things about networking in infectious diseases:
1) It is unavoidable and necessary because pretty much everyone in infectious diseases knows pretty much everyone else in infectious diseases, particularly those who regularly attend national conferences. Networking can be an efficient way of finding out about jobs or developing collaborations at other institutions. Embrace it.
2) After a while, it feels less like networking and more like spending time with friends. When you meet someone new at a party thrown by non-medical friends, the chances are that they will share your passion for Clostridioides infections, for example, is vanishingly small. Not so at infectious diseases conferences. I had many more interests (and personality traits) in common with other conference attendees than I expected. Over the years I have developed a number of lasting friendships, several publications, and a few grant proposals out of meetings that could technically qualify as “networking”. Some of my professional advancement can be attributed to the extensive networks I have developed nationally and internationally.
2. I thought I would focus on one thing and become a nationally-recognized expert
My expectation was that my scholarly activity would follow a roughly linear trajectory of papers, followed by grants, followed by still more papers on a particular topic until eventually I’d be an author on clinical practice guidelines and then, magically, I’d be an expert on that topic. In reality, opportunities constantly arose for me to work on projects outside of my research focus. Sometimes my decisions to take these projects on were motivated by interest in the topic, sometimes because I wanted to work with the collaborators regardless of the topic, and sometimes because I needed salary support. As a result, I’ve published papers on a range of infectious and chronic conditions. Importantly, I’ve learned that variety in topics and collaborators is important to my development as a researcher. With each new disease state and group of researchers I learn something new, for which I am grateful. At this point in my career, I am uncomfortable with the idea of being considered an expert in anything. There is always more to learn.
3. I thought I would have it all figured out (whatever “it” is)
As a fledgling Assistant Professor, I struggled to balance my career and my family, to keep my inbox clear, and to manage my workload so that I wouldn’t be staying up all night to get work done before a deadline. I had the bad habit of saying yes to more obligations than I could reasonably expect to meet in a 40-50-hour work week. After meetings with more seasoned colleagues I always had several topics I needed to research because I knew nothing about them. I naively assumed that by the time I achieved the rank of Associate Professor, I would be settled into comfortable routines, effortlessly managing my schedule, inbox, and obligations and rarely feeling completely ignorant on a particular topic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each year brings new opportunities and obligations. My inbox has taken on a life of its own. And I still need to run to PubMed after practically every meeting to fill some gap in my knowledge. Fundamentally, a career in academia is a commitment to lifelong learning – about clinical domains, research methods, managing projects or teams, and about managing yourself and your own time. I’m still practicing and learning now, and I suspect I will still be doing so even after promotion to Full Professor.
4. I thought I’d feel like I succeeded
Compared to a career in industry, there are relatively few promotion milestones for academics not wishing to pursue administration (e.g., division chief, department chair, etc). Depending where you start out there may be only 2 or 3 official promotions in an entire academic career. I thought therefore that I would feel a real sense of success when I got promoted to Associate Professor. Perhaps because my inbox is still overflowing and I’m still scrambling from one fire to the next each day, in my experience being an Associate Professor is a lot like being an Assistant Professor.
5. I expected everyone would follow the same formula to get promoted
When I first started as an Assistant Professor I assumed everyone would follow similar paths to promotion – grants, papers, clinical service (if applicable), and teaching. I soon learned, however, that there are nearly as many paths to promotion as there are Assistant Professors. Even in a non-clinical division of Epidemiology, there is incredible diversity in job responsibilities. Although I am on the research track, I spend less than 50% of my time on my own research. Over time through trying new things and taking advantage of emerging opportunities, I’ve realized that I enjoy mentoring, research administration, and healthcare operations as much as I do research. It’s important to realize that academic careers can be incredibly flexible, and that there is more than one path to success. It’s up to you and your Division Chief or Department Chair to set the expectations and make sure you are on track.
An academic career in infectious diseases can be unpredictable and challenging. Being promoted to Associate Professor is an important goal, but only a small part of an incredibly rewarding career.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vanessa Stevens, Ph.D. is a Research Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine. She is also a health services researcher and co-director of the research methods core at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System IDEAS Center of Innovation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Microbiology and a PhD in Epidemiology from the University of Rochester. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in infectious diseases health outcomes research at SUNY Buffalo School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2012. Her work primarily focuses on mitigating the spread and impact of antimicrobial-resistant infections through the application of epidemiological, economic, and health services research methods.
Check out her work on PubMed here.
Find her on Twitter: @Vanessa_S91
Disclosures – Dr. Stevens reports nothing to disclose.
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