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Study explores issues faced by early career research faculty

Jun. 28, 2018, 9:21 AM

In an electronic survey of early career research-track faculty at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, respondents confidentially reported their recent experiences with extra-professional caregiving, including care for sick or injured children, parents, spouses or partners.

They were also asked about their own health and about other stress-inducing personal circumstances.

Time- and money-draining personal challenges can threaten research output and career trajectories. While early career faculty begin the search for grant funding, they’re backed by institutional investments beyond their salary and benefits, including lab facilities and research support staff.

Each of these faculty members is like a little start-up, and for an institution like VUMC, work derailments at this developmental stage can pose significant financial losses.

Conducted in 2015-16, the survey had a 72 percent response rate. It had been preceded by in-depth confidential discussions with representative early career research-track faculty members. Findings from the discussions and survey, published recently in the journal Academic Medicine, provide a rare and detailed view of the extra-professional burdens posed for these faculty by personal commitments and setbacks.

Katherine Hartmann, MD, PhD

“A good portion of our early career research-track faculty say they’re stressed. They’re stressed by things that are perfectly normal and explainable, but in greater numbers than I had expected,” said one of the authors of the new study, and the instigator of the survey, Katherine Hartmann, MD, PhD, associate dean for Clinical and Translational Scientist Development.

“I had no idea that when you really add it up, more than half of our early career faculty have something significant happening in their lives in any given year, and about one in four of them will be managing classic caregiving needs of a family member in the hospital or a spouse with health issues or a parent who needs assistance.”

Among 152 survey respondents, 23 percent had a child or adult in the household hospitalized in the prior year; 24 percent reported being responsible for health care needs for a child or adult in the household, or for coordinating elder care, assisted living or hospice care; 18 percent reported major money problems; 9 percent reported experiencing other recent threats to well-being, such as major accidents, violence or physical or verbal abuse.

Individuals who were responsible for coordinating care for a loved one were 70 percent more likely to consider leaving academics, compared to those who did not have these responsibilities. The prevalence of caregiving demands did not differ by gender.

“The survey results underscore that, as an institution, we ought to be aware of these issues and think ahead about providing work flexibility and assistance, and determine if we can protect people’s careers by giving them extra resources to help them while they’re stressed outside of work,” Hartmann said.

To help eligible faculty keep their work on track, Hartmann established the Partnership in Actively Retaining Talented Early-career Researchers, or Doris Duke Partners.

Individual early career faculty members can receive up to $50,000 per year for extra assistance at work, and up to $10,000 per year for help at home. Since the launch in January 2016, more than 30 faculty members have received assistance.

The program was made possible by a five-year, $540,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and $250,000 of in-house funding, also spread over five years.

While the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation supports similar programs at nine other institutions, the VUMC program is unique in providing funds confidentially on a rolling basis, covering both PhD and MD researchers, and substituting a less formal, confidential interview for a written application process.

“Having a bit of extra money to pay for extra lab tech time, or editorial assistance, or additional biostatistics support, or extra research nurse time can have a huge impact in terms of keeping research on track and helping faculty members — men or women — feel their lives are less chaotic,” Hartmann said.

As for examples of how the funds might be used outside of work, Hartmann said they might go to reimburse a trusted agency to meet a home repair person, or to pick up the siblings of a sick child and drive them to after-school activities.

Per a stipulation of its primary funder, the program is obligated to exclude faculty using animals in research. Otherwise, the program is for faculty researchers in good standing who are funded by a career development award or are still within the funding period of their first large federal grant. Confidential eligibility screening is handled through the Faculty and Physician Wellness Program, which is part of the Work/Life Connections — Employee Assistance Program.

Hartmann directs the program with co-director Wonder Drake, MD, associate professor of Medicine and Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology. For more information visit the program’s website.

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