Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine

Fall 2017

Guidance for Mid-Career Behavioral Medicine professionals: Staying Productive and Creative Amidst Career Challenges, Transitions, and Advancements

Amy G. Huebschmann, MD, MS, Education Training and Career Development (ETCD) Council chair

Welcome to the second “ETCD Council corner” segment.  In each issue of Outlook, look to the ETCD Council corner for information related to our mission, which is to provide Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM) members with opportunities and support to enhance their training and career development throughout all phases of their careers in behavioral medicine. The focus of this ETCD Corner segment is on mid-career professionals (researchers, teachers, and clinicians).  At the SBM 2017 annual meeting, Dr. Karen Oliver of the ETCD council chaired a panel with co-sponsorship from the Cancer Special Interest Group (SIG) and the Health Decision Making SIG to discuss strategies to maintain productivity and creativity during the mid-career phase. Below is my interview with the panelists to share their insights with our SBM community.  In addition, the ETCD council would like to highlight that Dr. Oliver is one of the SBM consultants available to consult with SBM members on career development concerns as well as research methods questions.  Feel free to seek out a SBM consultant who could help you with these types of questions.


Karen Oliver, PhD, Clinical Associate Professor/Health Behavior Coordinator, Brown Alpert Medical School/Providence VA Medical Center, ETCD Council member

Christine Rini, PhD, Director, Cancer Prevention and Control, John Theurer Cancer Center

Catherine Alfano, PhD, Vice President Survivorship, American Cancer Society, Inc.

ETCD: Your session title at SBM’s 2017 Annual Meeting suggests that mid-career challenges may include career transitions and advancements.  What do you find are the specific barriers that often challenge mid-career faculty’s time to be productive?  Are there different barriers that challenge faculty’s ability to be creative and motivated/engaged, as compared to barriers to productivity, or do you see that they are the same?

Dr. Oliver: Productivity is not always easy to define. Workplace productivity  includes meeting the expectations of the position, and those may not be directly aligned with one’s motivation or creative work. Workplace expectations (meeting performance measures, grant deadlines, etc.) are often the least creative part of a position, and the most tied to burnout/lack of motivation.

Dr. Rini: I think the barriers may be different, although that may be mainly because productivity is directly rewarded in the workplace. Prioritizing activities related to productivity is necessary for career advancement and thus more likely to occur naturally for most of us. That is not the case for staying creative and motivated/engaged—challenges that must be tackled more privately. In my opinion, another challenge is that we don’t always know what our next steps will be as a mid-career professional. What opportunities are available? Of those opportunities, which will lead to a more gratifying career? There are a number of possible directions and little guidance for discovering them and selecting among them. It’s hard to know where to target our goals and efforts without mentoring and advice, which are more readily available to early career professionals than to mid-career professionals.

Dr. Alfano: We all know that having multiple demands on our time (from research, teaching, grants, home, relationships, etc.) makes us feel crazed and rushed.  While it is possible to increase your productivity by being organized and focused even while juggling so much, this situation is not conducive to creative thought.  We have to set up conditions in our lives that make us creative but those conditions (e.g., taking time away from work, playing more, etc.) might make us feel like we are being less productive. I feel strongly that in the end, taking time away to develop creative ideas will pay big dividends at work and make me a happier person, but that is a tough sell for some people.

ETCD: In your experience, how can faculty sidestep these barriers?  Specifically, are the strategies the same or different to maintain productivity and creativity, respectively?

Dr. Oliver: I think that attempting to align workplace productivity goals with personal career goals/interests as much as possible is generally the best approach, but this is not always easy to do, and it is dependent on the work environment, leadership, and position expectations. It is important to find mentorship from someone with a similar career path to help identify and work around barriers. I also can’t stress enough the importance of work-life balance and taking time away from the workplace through vacations and hobbies as a way to recharge and reconnect with one’s creative self.

Dr. Rini: Some people build in protected time to work on projects that are particularly exciting to them—for instance, dedicating morning hours to writing. I’ve found that to be challenging, although it’s a good idea. For me and others I’ve spoken with, interacting with colleagues is critical for maintaining motivation and creativity. As a researcher, that’s one reason I enjoy team science. Also, I pursue opportunities to learn about others’ work and I try to stay up to date with new developments in the field. Regarding potential new career directions and their implications, I believe there is no better way to learn about them than to talk with colleagues. Keep an eye open for people in positions that seem interesting or people whose career trajectory is intriguing. They are often happy to share their insights and experiences.

Dr. Alfano: I think budgeting even small amounts of protected time (with no multi-tasking) daily toward your top priority projects progress make you more productive—but this is a 2-stage process of prioritizing your work then budgeting time in your schedule for it.  To stimulate creativity, I also advocate for time not thinking about the project to get your brain thinking creatively .  Prioritizing recharging (workouts, healthy diet, sleep hygiene, daily meditation practice) helps stimulate creativity, as does time spent “playing” (e.g. in music, reading for fun, athletics, games, cooking, brainstorming with colleagues, etc., that can lead to “aha” moments for your work).

ETCD Do you think that these mid-career issues are different for research-focused faculty as compared to teaching/clinically-focused faculty?

Dr. Oliver:  I think there is similarity in terms of trying to define one’s career path and goals in the mid-career phase, and the difficulties with finding mentorship later in your career, finding opportunities for growth, staying motivated, advancing academically, and learning to become a leader. However, I think the specific measurements of productivity are different (e.g., clinical revenue vs. grants/publications), and may present different types of barriers across differing positions.

Dr. Rini: As a researcher, it’s difficult for me to thoughtfully discuss mid-career issues faced by colleagues in teaching or clinically-focused roles. That’s why I was interested in being involved in the panel on mid-career challenges at SBM’s 2017 Annual Meeting. I think there is a great need for more—and richer—resources related to mid-career issues.

Dr. Alfano:  It seems to me that the factors that contribute to mid-career difficulties might differ depending on your work role and specific situations.  However, after listening to my colleagues’ mid-career challenges in the panel at SBM’s 2017 Annual Meeting, it seems like the sequelae of those issues contribute to similar mid-career angst among most people and the strategies to maintain creativity and productivity are fairly similar across job types.