Making a Good Program Better

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, Dr. Rick Valachovic explains how ADEA has expanded the reach of its premier program for encouraging students to consider academic dental careers.

“In dental school, one of my professors pulled me aside one day after class and said, ‘Have you thought about teaching? You’re great with your hands, and you’re always helping people.’ I said, ‘Thanks so much,’ but I thought he was crazy.”

Yun Saksena, B.A.Sc., M.M.Sc., D.M.D., Associate Professor at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, shared this anecdote with me when we spoke last month. Although I haven’t conducted a survey on the matter, I suspect her reaction would resonate with most students today. They see themselves headed in one direction—toward practice—and the idea of an academic dental career seems foreign at best. “People come in with blinders on, not realizing they have options,” Yun observes. “I’d like people to explore.”

Exploration is a big part of the ADEA Academic Dental Careers Fellowship Program (ADEA ADCFP), which has been encouraging dental and allied dental students and residents to consider academic careers by engaging them in research, teaching and one-on-one mentoring. The program, begun in 2006 with grant support from the ADA Foundation and initially cosponsored by the American Association for Dental Research and the ADEAGies Foundation, has provided over 100 students from 27 U.S. and Canadian institutions insight into academic or research careers.

That experience has been good for those individuals—and it would ultimately benefit the schools and programs where they may teach—but the program has done little to address an underlying culture that doesn’t support academic and research careers as much as it does clinical dentistry. That situation is about to change.

This year, ADEA relaunched the program with more ambitious goals. Anthony Palatta, D.D.S., Ed.D., who now serves as ADEA’s Senior Vice President for Institutional Capacity Building, led the redesign. I have heard Anthony call educators and researchers the “silent heroes” of our profession, the ones who make it possible for the vast majority of dentists to practice to the best of their abilities, so I wasn’t surprised by his eagerness to expand the reach of the ADEA ADCFP.

As we thought about the program, we considered several fundamental questions:

  • Rather than serving a few individual students each year, how do we increase the capacity of our academic dental institutions to engage and nurture future faculty?
  • What if we used the program’s resources and the wealth of experience among faculty members to create an environment in which any student with an interest in teaching or research would have access to information and support at his or her institution?
  • Could we create a critical mass of students on campus with an interest in academic careers?
  • Would their increased numbers elevate the value of teaching and research among their peers?

All good questions, which we are currently striving to answer. The literature confirms that the major reason students pursue academic careers is because a faculty member takes an interest in them. For this reason, the program has been transformed into a professional development initiative that equips faculty with resources they can use to help create a community of future academics and researchers at participating institutions.

At the ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition in March, the ADEA ADCFP held a two-day training for this year’s faculty mentors. Some were new to the program; others have been involved for years. They exchanged ideas about how they might structure the ADEA ADCFP programming at their institutions, learned about mentoring best practices and received guidance on recruiting students and other faculty mentors.

The new program—launched this month—retains many of the elements that distinguished the former version. The hope is that innovative ways of mentoring will emerge from each institution. In addition to regular contact with a faculty mentor, students take part in both a research and a teaching practicum. They conduct interviews with faculty and administrators who are at various points in their academic careers. The students, who have access to several webinars on teaching and research, also keep a monthly journal, write reflective essays about their experiences and maintain an ADEA ADCFP portfolio.

Former program guidelines required students and their mentors to attend the ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition, making sponsorship of more than one student–mentor pair cost-prohibitive for some schools. The new guidelines encourage students to create posters and present their research at the meeting, but since attendance (and therefore travel) is no longer required, more students can participate in the program.

The ADEA ADCFP was initially conceived during a time of concern about a faculty shortage. A shortfall still exists, but it is not as acute as it was a decade ago. The new program focuses on academic development and promotes the rewards that come with teaching and research. Even without as much pressure to fill faculty vacancies, it’s still important to combat the widely held notion that the academy is mainly a place to spend one’s end-of-career years.

“Typically, students don’t want to come back to teach immediately,” says Michelle Wheater, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Director of Research and Student Academic Leadership Development at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry (UDM SOD), “but we’re shifting to a culture where academia is considered a viable career option.”

Michelle is one of those educators who jumped at the opportunity to bring the ADEA ADCFP to her dental school. She and her colleague, Kathi Shepherd, RDH, M.S., Associate Professor and Director of Educational Development and Outcomes Assessment, had already worked on the development of a program at UDM SOD, entitled Explorations in Dentistry, to encourage students to pursue teaching careers, but Michelle appreciated the additional dimensions the ADEA ADCFP had to offer. Her students find the faculty interviews especially enlightening.

“I think it was an eye opener for a lot of students to see what faculty did on a daily basis,” she told me. Thanks to the Explorations program, which serves as UDM SOD’s teaching component within the ADEA ADCFP, students get to experience the faculty role as well. Dental and dental hygiene students learn how to prepare a course of six modules, which they then present to undergraduates who are interested in attending dental school. “It gives them a view of what goes on behind the scenes: preparing lectures, understanding new material, deciding the best way to teach this material, or determining how to assess the material appropriately.”

When it comes to the low number of graduates who choose to pursue academic careers directly out of the gate, Michelle is pragmatic. She points out that most graduates carry a lot of educational debt, and they know that practice is likely to be more lucrative, but perhaps not meet the needs of those who aspire to a career in academics. “Now if I could come up with something like a tuition reimbursement program for future faculty…” she muses.

Yun Saksena’s initial reluctance to pursue an academic career had less to do with money (although she acknowledges that salary is an important factor to consider) and more to do with questions of identity.

“I thought, most of these professors are old white guys. Why would I want to be like them?” she told me. Today her perspective is 180 degrees away from her initial assessment. While a teaching assistant at Tufts, she discovered that she loved teaching—so much so that she stayed on part time after graduating and moving into practice. Today she is full time on the Tufts faculty and actively engaged at her institution and through ADEA in promoting mentoring, academic careers and the ADEA ADCFP. She wishes she had realized sooner in her career how fulfilling she would find her current career in teaching and research. She’s also eager to see the Tufts version of the ADEA ADCFP evolve over time—maybe into a formal honors track for dental students with academic ambitions.

“I like academia much better than private practice and find it more fulfilling,” she says. “I feel I’m doing more. When you’re teaching, you’re affecting so many more people, and some of the people I’ve taught are faculty now.”

Visit ADEA’s website for more information on the ADEA Academic Dental Careers Fellowship Program.

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