The Association for Academic Surgery recently presented the 13th Annual Early Career Development Course (ECDC) in La Jolla, CA, on October 21, 2017. This course occurs every year on the Saturday before the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress. I have been fortunate to attend this outstanding course as a resident, again as a fellow, and then several times as a member of the AAS Leadership Committee. As we consider how this course has evolved and what we can do to improve it even more, I want to offer a few reflections of what a unique and valuable opportunity I think it is for senior residents, fellows, and young faculty.
The prospect of beginning a career in academic surgery can be both exciting and daunting. Even for graduating residents and fellows who are fortunate to have strong career mentors, the challenge of finding and negotiating a first job can be intimidating. For those who do not receive adequate guidance from their home programs, it can be difficult to know where to start. The support and mentorship provided in a first job are critical to a successful “launch” in academic surgery, yet applicants may have blind spots regarding what they should look for (and what they should avoid). Similarly, once a new faculty member starts her or his first position, the challenges of getting one’s “sea legs” clinically and establishing a research program, all while adjusting out of the trainee role, can be daunting, even in the best institutional environments.
The ECDC begins with the perspectives of leaders in American surgery on these topics and more. The course faculty have been there, done that, and generally succeeded, but they are very candid about their personal challenges and missteps. After they offer pearls on finding and starting a new job, they cover other important topics related to establishing a national profile, funding and sustaining a research program, and ultimately being promoted. The faculty, all of whom volunteer their time, are also available to talk on-on-one with course attendees. The ECDC can be a valuable opportunity to establish relationships with senior mentors at other institutions, not to mention begin friendships with other young academic surgeons who are facing the same challenges as they begin their careers.
Importantly, the ECDC is not all about the successes of surgical leaders. A significant portion of the course focuses on setbacks and how to overcome them. In the last few years, this has been the most significant change in the course. While maintaining a focus on the strategies and ingredients for a successful start in academic surgery, we also feel that it is important to acknowledge that things often don’t go as planned. When that happens, resilience and strong support structure can make all the difference.
Having attended the ECDC 5 times, I can honestly say that I learn something new every time. I strongly encourage senior residents, fellows, and junior faculty to take advantage of this unique opportunity. If you have taken the course, consider taking it again! And if you’re there at the 14th annual ECDC in 2018, please come say hello and tell us how to make it even better.