Top 10 Pieces of Advice for New Behavioral Science Educators

Jennifer Ayres, PhD

Jennifer Ayres, PhD

I graduated 14 years ago with a plan. I envisioned a lifelong career devoted to the clinical care of underserved children, adolescents, and their family members. Pursuing a career in graduate medical education was not part of the plan. But a need to move closer to family and an interesting job description caught my attention and changed my career course.

During my phone interview, I was honest about my lack of experience in resident education. I believed my clinical skills and experience teaching mental health graduate students would generalize to family medicine residents. And they did…after a steep learning curve.

I learned a lot in the first few years. Here are top 10 pieces of advice I give to a new family medicine behavioral science faculty member:

  1. There are resources available that will make your job easier. There are two excellent websites to peruse for presentation ideas, research findings, and references: the STFM Resource Library and the Behavioral Science Wiki.
  2. Teaching residents and teaching mental health students require different strategies and techniques. There is a big difference between what a resident and a therapist need to do in a treatment room. Teach residents to be therapeutic in their patient encounters, teach mental health students how to conduct therapy.
  3. Join a community of peers. The STFM Behavioral Science/Family Systems Fellowship is taking applications for next year’s class. I joined the fellowship in its inaugural year. We became family through the fellowship and remain connected through that unique experience. This is a family you want to join.
  4. Reach out to others by joining a local consortium of behavioral science educators or an STFM Group. Connect with others who also struggle to integrate behavioral health into programs that are focused on the medicine aspects of teaching family medicine.
  5. Be patient. It takes at least 3 years to have a resident cohort that does not remember the program without you and is unable to compare you to your predecessor.
  6. Be flexible. If you thrive on a planned schedule and a predictable day, get over that quickly! Clinical care hours will be scheduled between intern application reviews, evaluations, didactic preparation, and “Hey there, do you have a minute for me to run something by you?” interruptions. Being overwhelmed is actually a good sign. It indicates integration into the program and respect for your perspective and contributions.
  7. Resist the urge to prove your worth. Some residents will not be ready for what you have to teach and will need several years of professional practice before they realize that behavioral health is a necessary component of family medicine. But perspectives change and someday you will receive requests from past residents for the same handouts they left on the table after your didactic.
  8. Don’t try to fill someone else’s shoes. They will not fit. Recognize that there will be people grieving the loss of your predecessor while you are trying to make your own footprints. Be respectful of that process and try to minimize your defensiveness by being aware that everyone is adjusting to the change. Not just you.
  9. Get to know your fellow faculty members. Make genuine connections based on who you are–not who you think they want you to be. Remember that long-term relationships develop over time and some connections are quicker and some slower to develop. Invest and be patient. I was fortunate to join a faculty that welcomed me and made it clear that I was wanted. Others were not as fortunate. As with the residents, some faculty members are not ready for what you have to contribute—yet.
  10. Attend the Forum for Behavioral Science in Family Medicine conference. This conference occurs every September in Chicago. Most presentations will apply to your work and you will emerge with new ideas to improve your teaching and your program. More importantly, you will meet wonderful people who will mentor you through the difficult times and generously share their resources and knowledge with you.

There is no single path to becoming a successful behavioral science educator. Success will be determined by your ability to acculturate into your program while holding onto your inherent skills and interests. Using this definition, you cannot be successful based solely on the quality of your work. In my situation, much of my success is attributable to the relationships I share with my fellow faculty members. We worked together to integrate behavioral health in a manner that fits my skill set and meets our program needs. As we move into another intern interview season, our integrated behavioral health and resident support groups will be identified as unique strengths of our program.

Graduate medical education was not part of my original career plan. Fortunately, plans change.

What advice do you have for new faculty? Let me know in the comments below.

3 responses to “Top 10 Pieces of Advice for New Behavioral Science Educators

  1. Well said, Dr. Ayres. Some of the best decisions you make sometimes are completely by accident. You have given some great tips on how to grow into the behavioral science position. It is an important life lesson that a combination of taking chances, working hard, using available resources, and surrounding yourself with good people can bring great rewards. In addition to your wonderful advice, I would say to pace yourself but also challenge yourself, push yourself but also be kind to yourself. Do a daily reminder to yourself of the unique contributions you have made and take the time to thank those who inspire you, support you and mentor you. Seek out that inspiration, support and mentoring and you will find some valuable guideposts along the way.

  2. Thank you, Dr. Ayres for these useful words of wisdom. I am grateful to read your words which reassure me that I am in only in my second year doing this great work. Although I come to this work after 30 + years in my counseling career I am still a “new bee” to this job. I appreciate your distinctions of teaching therapy skills to counselors vs. being therapeutic to Residents. I can tell that I will be reading these tips more than once and I will keep Dr. Frasers’ suggestions close at hand as well. Thank you!

    • Emma, welcome to a wonderful community of people. Please let me know if I could help you adjust. I am grateful everyday that I worked as a clinician for several years before joining our residency program.

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