It was serendipity: A qualitative study of academic careers in medical education

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Journal Article
Medical Education, 2015, 49 (11), pp. 1124 - 1136
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© 2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Context: Despite a demand for educational expertise in medical universities, little is known of the roles of medical educators and the sustainability of academic careers in medical education. We examined the experiences and career paths of medical educators from diverse professional backgrounds seeking to establish, maintain and strengthen their careers in medical schools. Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 44 lead and early-career medical educators from all 21 Australian and New Zealand medical schools. Questions explored career beginnings, rewards and challenges. Transcripts underwent systematic coding and independent thematic analysis. Final themes were confirmed by iterative review and member checking. Analysis was informed by Bourdieu's concepts of field (a social space for hierarchical interactions), habitus (individual dispositions which influence social interactions) and capital (economic, symbolic, social and cultural forms of power). Results: Participants provided diverse accounts of what constitutes the practice of medical education. Serendipitous career entry and little commonality of professional backgrounds and responsibilities suggest an ambiguous habitus with ill-defined career pathways. Within the field of medicine as enacted in medical schools, educators have invisible yet essential roles, experiencing tension between service expectations, a lesser form of capital, and demands for more highly valued forms of scholarship. Participants reported increasing expectations to produce research and obtain postgraduate qualifications to enter and maintain their careers. Unable to draw upon cultural capital accrued from clinical work, non-clinician educators faced additional challenges. To strengthen their position, educators consciously built social capital through essential service relationships, capitalising on times when education takes precedence, such as curriculum renewal and accreditation. Conclusions: Bourdieu's theory provides insight into medical educator career paths and the positioning of medical education within medical schools. Medical educators have an indistinct practice, and limited cultural capital in the form of research outputs. In order to maintain and strengthen their careers, educators must create alternative sources of capital, through fostering collaborative alliances.
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