Professional societies form a living matrix where minds meet and engage and where trusted colleagues pool their knowledge, helping each other to glimpse and plumb larger forces at work, to see connections among events, and to imagine the future. The Association of Academic Psychiatry is a good example of these functions.
We internalize the cultures of which we are a part, and these days the dominant culture of most academic health centers might be characterized as “intellectual Darwinism,” or the pursuit of excellence through competition and human sacrifice. Junior faculty especially feel undervalued, and cynicism is more evident than cooperation and optimism. By contrast, within professional societies a generative and upbeat mood usually predominates. Individuals come for and find new sources of energy, ideas, motivation.
This article reflects on how professionals can maximize their use of societies as vehicles for career development and on why many women and minorities often find this process harder to navigate. Then it offers ideas on how professional societies can become more appealing and responsive to the next generation of academic physicians upon whom our society depends.
Medical academics are accustomed to thinking that their “intellectual capital” speaks for itself. But knowing “how” (i.e., scientific and clinical expertise) is but the first step in successful career-building. Professionals also need to know 1) why they are doing what they’re doing (i.e., what motivates them); 2) when to take actions (i.e., adaptability); and 3) whom to connect with (i.e., relationships with a broad variety of other professionals) (1). Professional societies are key to all three skill areas, particularly the last.
Career development is a contact sport. With knowledge exploding at an ever faster rate, it is impossible to be an expert in everything one needs to know. Professional relationships are thus more important than ever as sources of information, advice, and support. And the earlier a young physician or scientist begins intentionally initiating relationships with other professionals, the better (2).
A small number of “strong ties” end up being less important to career success than a large number of “weak ties” (3). An extensive network is like a sensory and intelligence system providing information on emerging forces. Thus, it is wise to build a diverse “constellation” or “mosaic” or “board” of coaches, advisers, learning partners, peers, and junior and senior colleagues. Seek critical thinking partners who can ask great questions, see many sides of complex issues, identify hidden assumptions, offer new lines of sight, and challenge and expand your “mental models.”
Some individuals seem born with highly functional “mentor receptors,” that is, they know when they need assistance, how to get it, and how to use it effectively (4). Individuals lacking such receptors may have great promise but need “pushes” and other kinds of help connecting with senior colleagues in strategic ways. This process also comes less naturally to introverts than to extraverts, but introverts can become skilled at networking too. Networking is not “schmoozing”; it is the work of building essential relationships.
If you are attending a society meeting for the first time, it is natural to be anxious about introducing yourself and making the best use of the time. It will feel less like diving into a cold pond if you set up a number of meetings in advance. E-mail individuals you’d like to meet who appear in the program (and others you know will be there) and ask for the opportunity to buy them coffee and to learn, for instance, more about a method they’ve developed, their views on where a subspecialty is going, who else they recommend you speak to about your interest in X, or if they can suggest how you might become more active in Y area. Keep a few “safeties” in your pocket—what books or articles have they read lately that they would recommend? It is helpful to attach your CV, and if they agree to meet, ask to see theirs in advance. After the meeting, follow up with a thank you note.
Some other recommendations: 1) Present at least a poster at every national meeting and discuss your work with enthusiasm at every good opportunity; always look for ways to acknowledge and draw attention to the contributions of others—this is gratifying and strengthens alliances as well. 2) Small professional organizations are much less daunting than large societies and offer more immediate opportunities for becoming active. 3) Shake hands with new acquaintances and try noting their eye color and repeating their names as memory aids. 4) Maintain a database of business cards, including notes to help you recall details of your conversations. 5) In conversations, learn to go deep fast, quickly moving past chitchat to connect on a useful level—what’s your big issue right now? What changes are occurring at your place?
Networking is not something that just occurs at meetings; it entails maintaining communications. One idea is to keep an evolving list of colleagues important to you and initiate contact at regular intervals or when you have something to share, for example, a clip of interest, information about a new resource, congratulations on an article published. Though e-mail is an essential tool, a phone call occasionally proves to be warmer and more effective.
Many benefits ensue from the investment of energy in professional relationships. In addition to the obvious advantages of new information and fresh perspectives, your colleagues can help you see your strengths and weaknesses and offer insights and advice at crucial junctures. And having a choice of individuals you can contact on those days when you need a boost is invaluable.
Individuals working at the intersections of disciplines must be particularly strategic about network-building. As with being on the vanguard of any endeavor, actively bridging multiple knowledge areas and nonintersecting networks takes extra time, courage, and diligence. The upside is that the learning that ensues from being at complicated boundaries accumulates into unique value (5).
Women and minorities tend to have a harder time building professional relationships (6, 7). Compared with men’s, women’s informal networks are usually less extensive and less likely to include superordinates or colleagues from previous institutions (8). One contributing factor here is that women often have less time for such relationships or for professional travel, given their responsibilities at home. Less obvious hurdles are that developmental relationships occur most naturally between “like” individuals and that automatic preferences tend to work in favor of the majority members, who tend to be most comfortable with and hold more positive views of one another. There is also abundant social science research showing that, even with equivalent credentials, men are assumed to be more competent than women and majority members more competent than minorities (9). One minority woman, as part of her president’s address at her society, noted, “While many minorities are wondering how to get through the front door, the white guys are asking ‘what door?’” One who is born in the “in-group” is likely to take for granted the advantages—which may be likened to being issued at birth an invisible knapsack of maps, provisions, and passports (10).
Though certainly not intended by white men, the result of these disadvantages is that women and ethnic minorities are less likely to reap the multiple benefits of networks. This relative isolation may further reduce their capacity for risk-taking and for the effective pursuit of their professional goals (11).
The mentoring that occurs in professional societies represents the most tangible bridge to continuing the traditions of excellence that are now threatened by lack of funding for medical education, dysfunctional payment mechanisms, and other concerning trends. Bringing junior and senior members of the academy together assists junior members in multiple ways, including assimilating the highest professional norms, becoming and remaining dedicated to an academic career, and navigating complex environments and career-building challenges.
Well-led professional societies are thus active in building bridges to the next generation. Central questions the leadership of professional societies might be exploring include the following: How can we better recruit and involve our younger colleagues, particularly those with the greatest leadership potential? What are they looking for in a professional society? What particularly can we offer women and minorities by way of assistance in getting connected within the society? How do we help them build the fortitude necessary to achieve their goals and become the next generation of leaders? One approach here might be to survey residents about their needs. A task force then can address feasible avenues.
To be sure, all societies are challenged to meet the diverse needs of each category of their members while simultaneously linking members with a common mission. Reaching toward the next generation while maintaining a high quality of offerings to current members is an additional challenge—one that may involve developing new structures. The goal is to be ever more alert to emerging realities and then to translate these into new patterns of organizing to facilitate the society’s evolution.
Effectively connecting with the next generation often involves a variety of adaptations on the part of some senior members who may be concluding that “they just don't make ’em like they used to.” Indeed, less in awe of authority and less willing to “delay gratification,” many young people believe that they cannot succeed at the expense of their family time and health and that a fuller life outside of medicine makes them better doctors (12). Older and mid-career faculty sometimes also express frustration that Generation Xers appear to view mentoring as a right rather than a privilege (13). Rather than making negative value judgments about young persons’ candor and “self-centeredness,” senior members might try instead for the “big picture.” Presbyopia provides a helpful analogy: as the lens of the eye ages, one reads better at arm’s length; so rather than “tightening their grip” when listening to young people, older faculty might better relax somewhat.
Seeking younger colleagues’ views of what they are looking for and what they are trying to accomplish is key. Residents need to see a light at the end of the tunnel, examples from which they can learn how to manage predictable difficulties in getting started, help in sizing up job options and organizational cultures, and practical financial and business advice. In offering advice, established members of the academy need to recognize that strategies which have worked for them in the past may not work for them today, given accelerating competition for resources and complexities of technological advances, research enterprises, and financing mechanisms. Each established member might also consider “sponsoring” a trainee’s attendance at every society meeting (e.g., paying the registration fee and some travel expenses).
In advising women and ethnic minorities, majority men might also consider that styles and advice which worked for them may not work for their more heterogeneous protégés. Our culture tends to allow women and ethnic minorities a narrower band of assertive behaviors than white men are granted (e.g., he “exercises authority” but she’s “bossy”) (14). Also, women tend to be more modest than men about their achievements and may be less confident, even when their credentials are equivalent or superior.
Effectively mentoring “across differences” takes extra effort and skill (15). But Vaillaint’s five-decades-long studies of adult development offer another reason for expending this effort. He found that adults who make a successful transition from “Career Consolidation” to the next phase, characterized by “Generativity” (that is, unselfishly guiding the next generation), triple their likelihood of experiencing a “vital, joyful elderhood” (16).
Over 35 professional areas of medicine and science now have an organization or unit devoted to the professional development of women (17). These typically evolved during the 1970s out of the need for women to discover peers. Such societies and caucuses now serve many functions, including continuing to assist women in comfortably building professional relationships. Vibrant examples of how essential societies can be to the professional development of their members, many now have male members as well and sponsor a broad variety of offerings.
A professional society is more than a sum of its parts—it is a self-organizing community of practice where individuals continually learn from one another and share new solutions as they devise them. But no matter how well it is serving its most established members, no professional society can afford to rest on its laurels. Continuing efforts are necessary to create an ecology of learning that will effectively recruit and nurture younger members.
Whatever frameworks facilitate both senior faculty effectively sharing the gifts of their expertise and the most junior members openly sharing their perceptions and questions deserve consideration. Academic psychiatry’s ability to attract and retain first-rate physicians depends on its building the sturdiest possible bridges to the next generation of educators and leaders.