Do you have what it takes for a career in academic medicine?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 23, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Academic medicine is a field devoted to research and education, serving as the backbone of innovation, advancements in patient care, and population health.

  • Good mentors play a significant role in a learner’s decision to become an academic physician.

  • A career in academic medicine may be right for you if you appreciate diverse responsibilities and the opportunity to innovate healthcare on a global scale, but lower pay and autonomy may be deterrents.

Medical fellows interested in a career in academic medicine are a special breed—driven by a passion for advancing medical knowledge, improving patient care, and shaping the future of medicine. With a thirst for learning, they conduct research, engage in scholarly activities, teach, and mentor the next generation of healthcare practitioners.

Transitioning into a career in academic medicine is a decision that will set the tone for your entire professional life. As such, it’s important to carefully weigh whether a career in academic medicine is right for you.

Who’s drawn to academic medicine?

An interest in academic medicine often sprouts from early exposure to research during medical school and residency but can begin during undergrad studies, according to the authors of an article published in F1000Research.[] 

One consistent personal value that influences the decision to go into academic medicine is a desire for intellectual stimulation.

Focus, passion, desire, clear communication skills, dedication, discipline, and resilience are all characteristics of mentees geared toward a career in this field, according to a think tank representing American physician-scientist training programs.

Related: I’m an educational multiplier, and it has benefits all around

The F1000Research authors interviewed five trainees and practicing physician-researchers to gain their perspectives on the pursuit of academic medicine as a career. Based on their responses, the authors stressed the importance of a strong mentor in inspiring a trainee to pursue academic research.

"Trainees that have a passion for research and academic advancement can be encouraged along this path by identifying them and pairing them with a strong mentor early in their careers. "

Authors, F1000Research

Weighing the pros and cons

Incentives for a career in academic medicine included the ability to realize a passion for research, gaining early exposure to research, and the ability to become an educator with clinical appointment, noted the F1000Research authors.

Panel findings from the 2021 Research Challenge hosted by the AMA found that a big draw to academic medicine was the ability of physicians to shape future generations.[]

“Growing up with the medical system, [and] through education, I had a lot of truly great teachers and mentors,” stated panelist Alëna A. Balasanova, MD, an assistant professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

"I felt compelled to pay that forward and to teach the next generation the way that I was taught."

Alëna A. Balasanova, MD

"It was something that was really important to me—to give something back," Dr. Balasanova said. "That was really what academic medicine represented to me.”

A career in medicine also permits a physician to pursue a career as a factotum—someone with diverse responsibilities. It’s a career characterized by responsibilities with inpatient medicine, outpatient medicine, research, publication, and teaching. The work bridges the gap between research and clinical practice, and informs health policy and decision-making. Nothing becomes old, and a physician can wear multiple hats.

Potential deterrents against a career in academic medicine, as reported by the authors writing in F1000Research, include lower remuneration, length of training, and lack of autonomy.

Depending on personal views, the “triple threat” of clinical work, education, and research can prove overwhelming. Other dissuading factors include concern over burnout, maintaining a work-life balance, family influences, and potential debt. Such factors can prove powerful, with senior residents reporting diminished interest in research compared with junior residents.

Related: The A to Zs of publishing as a medical fellow

Another drawback, highlighted by the 2021 AMA Research Challenge, is that the pace of academic medicine is protracted. It takes time to find one’s way and secure research funding. 

The wheels of academic medicine turn slowly, which can be frustrating to an eager young professional intending to make their mark.

Gender imbalance is common in academic medicine, the F1000Research authors acknowledge. The field tends to be dominated by men, and men make more money on average, which can be disheartening to female prospects.

Preparing for a job in academic medicine

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) provides a useful guide for preparing for a job in academic medicine. One area stressed is networking—members of your network can include recent graduates from your program; colleagues/friends at other institutions; specialty societies; alumni societies; faculty, administrators, nurses, and technicians; and sales or device representatives.[] 

"Ask about potential jobs. Ask those in your network to connect with colleagues on your behalf. It will never hurt to ask! "

Authors, AAMC guie

Keeping an ear to the ground involves an active presence on social sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Other resources to keep an eye on when looking for prime job opportunities include ResearchGate and Doximity.

Related: Get a head start: Breaking down the fellowship application process

A professional presence on Twitter can be especially impactful. Microblogging on personal research experiences, interests, and accomplishments, as well as connecting with academics, can help inform a search for an academic position; interviewers also tweet out tips on securing one of these positions. 

When leveraging a personal Facebook page for professional purposes, it’s also important to stay professional. For instance, don’t post pictures from parties, pictures with revealing clothing, or anything that would be best to keep private from a potential employer. Also, don’t engage in too much controversial discussion, including politics. Another bit of advice is to never divulge HIPAA-protected information. Physicians can also use privacy settings to limit content divulged to certain groups only.

Related: Make social media work in your favor during fellowship

Instead, use Facebook to reach out to professional organizations and recruiters who can help with finding an academic position. Foster discussions about personal research, achievements, and presentations. A well-cultivated social media presence can boost a physician’s reputation and perceived expertise.

LinkedIn is one of the most professional social media sites. Physicians should make sure their LinkedIn profiles are populated with accurate and up-to-date accomplishments, experiences, and pictures. LinkedIn can be used to connect with professional groups, organizations, and colleagues. LinkedIn represents a digital web of connections and allows for a seamless expansion of an individual’s professional network.

What this means for you

A career in academic medicine can be incredibly fulfilling. An academic-physician has diverse responsibilities, including those related to clinical practice, research, and teaching. Pursuing this career also presents an opportunity to pay it forward via teaching and mentorship while helping to shape the future of medicine. Drawbacks can include lower pay, lack of autonomy, and a long road to finding success. Having an effective mentor is key to pursuing a spot in academic medicine.

Related: Practicing medicine as a minority: What fellows need to know
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