Academic surgery is comprised primarily of successful scientists and educators that do not have advanced degrees. Though, you may feel that your scholastic development should not end with completion of specialty training in residency or fellowship. Obtaining an advanced degree may provide the personal growth, satisfaction, career development, and advancement that you are seeking. There are many options for the type and mode of study as well as the timing and pace of enrollment to consider. Many academic surgeons pursue Master of Public Health, Master of Public Policy, Master of Business Administration, Master of Healthcare Administration, Master of Health Professions Education, Juris Doctorate, or a Doctor of Philosophy.
My colleagues Filip Bednar, MD, PhD, Connie Sao, MD, pending MSPH, and Robert Hollis MSPH have authored an outstanding blog post on Advanced Degrees During Training that I recommend for medical students and residents if considering this pathway. Their focus was on how the advanced degree in training has focused or shifted their academic development and career trajectory. I plan to discuss the pursuit and attainment of an advanced degree while in academic practice.
I began my graduate studies during the first year of my academic practice in Endocrine Surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. I had completed some graduate coursework in epidemiology, biostatistics, and grant funding during my research years of residency and found the content to be stimulating and motivating. I particularly enjoyed the networking outside of medicine and surgery afforded by interacting with classmates in other medical specialties and professions. Completing an advanced degree at the time was not feasible due to the common barriers of time and money, but the spark was ignited and though the achievement was tabled, I knew that I would revisit the idea eventually.
When searching for my first academic appointment I made sure to investigate the possibility of graduate coursework, degree completion, and potential funding sources. Since I had previously determined that additional education was a priority for me, though had not narrowed to a particular field of study, I made broad inquiries regarding different course and degree options. Ultimately the degree type is not as important as the interest in the subject matter and ability to tailor the required and elective coursework to build the education or research career you are striving for. Determining whether you may attain support for courses or degrees at your university or elsewhere is paramount. If only internal credits are remitted is there a field of study that corresponds with your interests? Can the coursework be completed asynchronously, virtually, online? What are the in-person requirements? What is the mentorship and advising structure? Each of these elements, in addition to funding, are equally important to the acronym of letters that will eventually trail after your name.
I was fortunate to identify a Master’s in Health Professions Teaching which could be completed with tuition reimbursement at 15 credit hours per year. I was able to complete all coursework asynchronously and at my own pace. I utilized the opportunity to work smarter, not harder, and applied each of my course assignments to curricular design, education research, or health services research projects I was currently developing. I found the instruction and peer feedback invaluable to refining and improving my scientific rigor and each project greatly enhanced my scholarly footprint. I completed the degree in three years with a growing passion for education administration, education research, and my continuing academic and personal development.
Ultimately, the desire to complete an advanced degree while in practice takes time, advanced planning, and dedication. Cognizance of this aspiration is important to acknowledge when seeking and negotiating (or re-negotiating) a faculty position. Having financial support or tuition remission for graduate study is an important consideration. If you are not ready or able to commit to a full degree program, consider ad hoc elective courses to determine if the curriculum is right for you. There are also plentiful non-degree options through massive open online courses such as Coursera to augment your knowledge and skills without the associated cost or timeline.