Part-Time Faculty Member: Lightweight or Leader-in-Waiting?

work life balanceBy: Susan M. Pollart, MD, MS, senior associate dean for faculty affairs and faculty development, University of Virginia School of Medicine

Eighteen years ago, when my youngest (of two children) was born, I made the leap to part-time work in academic medicine. While my institution was on the verge of being ready for part-time prime time (i.e., had just begun to offer benefits for part-time clinical faculty), I was unquestionably a pioneer at my institution. Sometime over the next seven or eight years, I gradually returned to full-time work, moving from 75% to 80% then finally returning to full time when my youngest was well settled in school.

My experiences as a part-time academic clinician mirrored those reported by the 63 men and women interviewed as part of a qualitative study of U.S. part-time medical school faculty.1 Like those interviewed, I was pleased to maintain not only my professional activities but also my professional relationships and identity. I enjoyed the flexibility and the reduced stress that came with less juggling. But I had concerns about how my commitment might be viewed, what happened in my absence, and how my time away might impact my future career. Fortunately, my chair allowed me to continue in leadership roles and, during those years of decreased workload, offered new opportunities for both professional development and advancement.

Not surprisingly, my own experience has led me to wonder what may have changed over the past 10 years. With colleagues from across the country, I recently took a look at the current state of part-time work at academic medical centers. Looking at data from close to 700 part-time faculty members participating in the 2011-2012 Faculty Forward Engagement Survey, we found that most part-time faculty respondents are women and most worked at least half time. The predominance of female part-time faculty is not surprising given the proportion of survey respondents who indicated that their reason for working part time was to accommodate child and family duties, roles that disproportionately fall to women in our society. These findings contrast those of a 1993 survey of part-time faculty in medicine departments in which 63% of the sample was men.2 However our two studies concurred on one interesting set of observations: in both studies, the authors found that most men used the balance of their time to staff outside practices while most women devoted their “free” time to child rearing.

Understanding the differences in the reasons women and men choose part-time work in an academic setting is important in thinking about future expectations about this portion of the workforce and in planning for further workforce growth. Our findings about the reasons that faculty work part time have some interesting (potential) implications. For example, faculty (men or women) who work part time during periods of intense child rearing or family responsibility (and, during these periods, commit their entire work life to their academic position) may be more likely to return to full-time professional work as their children mature and their household demands decrease. Ongoing professional development allows these workers to return to full-time effort at a higher level of functioning than if they did not participate in such programs during this period of part-time employment. Conversely, faculty whose primary professional effort is not their faculty position but instead another employed position may be interested in academic professional development but may be less likely to provide their institution with a return on this professional investment. Also worth considering is the fact that participation in ongoing career advancement and professional development programs during these years may enhance the psychological contract between the employer and employee and ultimately improve faculty retention.

My own career accelerated once I returned to the full-time workforce, and I am more energized about my work now than at any other time in my thirty-plus year career. It is hard to say what has contributed to my progression from part-time non-tenured associate professor/stay-at-home mother to full-time full professor and senior associate dean. Perhaps it was the ongoing investment in my professional development. Perhaps it was the faith that my chair and coworkers had in me while I worked at a different pace than my colleagues. Perhaps it was the opportunity to have some control over my busy life as a mother and a professional, which certainly prevented my burnout. Regardless, I suspect I am not the only one to step aside in my career for a while and to return a better version of my personal and professional self.

 

  1. Bunton SA, Corrice AM. An Exploration of Part-Time U.S. Medical School Faculty: Thematic Overview. Washington, DC: Association of American Medical Colleges; 2011.
  2. Levinson W, Kaufman K, Bickel J. Part-time faculty in academic medicine: present status and future challenges. Ann Intern Med. 1993;119:220–225.

 

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