A Day in the Life of An Academic Oncologist

Excerpt from Achieving Career Success in Oncology: A Practical Guide, Chapter 2, by Jennifer J. Griggs, MD, MPH, Gregory A. Curt, MD, Kathleen A. Cooney, MD, and Douglas W. Blayney, MD

The specific career path you choose within academia will determine how much time (if any) you will spend on any given activity. Daily activities in academic oncology are tremendously variable. Moreover, how you spend your time over your career will change as well. Many academic oncologists travel a great deal as part of their work. As you develop greater expertise, you will be invited to speak at other institutions and to serve on national committees. Let’s look at the activities an academic hematologist/oncologist might be involved in on a daily basis.

Designing Research Studies and Interpreting Results

An academic oncologist who devotes a substantial proportion of time to research will spend much of each day designing, conducting, interpreting, presenting, and publishing research studies. A productive researcher will have a well-conceived set of research projects that are related one to another but diversified enough to allow for continuous productivity and to prevent “dead ends” in the research program. Developing relationships with other researchers will increase the breadth and depth of your research.

Conducting research requires many things: applying for grants; working in the laboratory (either your own or that of a supervising mentor or colleague); training research staff, fellows, and junior colleagues; meeting with colleagues and the research team to review results and design experiments; presenting your research findings at weekly lab meetings and in educational conferences; and publishing your findings. Preparing a grant application requires not only time for writing the scientific portions of the proposal but also time to manage administrative issues like the budget and budget justification and supporting statements from collaborators.

Clinical investigators who conduct clinical trials or do epidemiologic or health services research are said to have a “dry lab” and need to create a schedule that allows for the same sort of time commitment as those who have a “wet lab.”

You will have opportunities (and, in fact, will be expected) to present your research findings to your colleagues in forums such as grand rounds and other conferences. It is also important for you to disseminate your research findings by publishing your work. As your expertise develops, you will also be invited to speak at other universities.

As your career progresses and you add junior faculty to your research team, your day-to-day research activities will likely be replaced with supervisory activities and mentoring. Retaining methodologic expertise and familiarity with the scientific aspects of your research program will maintain the quality and integrity of your research and will likely enhance your personal satisfaction as well.

Successfully applying for and obtaining grant funding for your research and developing a strong publication record of papers in high-quality journals are both required for advancement in an academic path with a research emphasis. It is critical for your academic success that you select an area of research and a mentoring team that will help you achieve these two equally important goals.

Patient Care

An academic oncologist will often have a specific area of clinical expertise, usually specific to a disease or set of diseases. Most academic divisions include physicians board certified in oncology, hematology, or both subspecialty areas. Note that an academic hematologist may specialize in nonmalignant diseases, such as disorders of the coagulation system or other benign hematologic conditions.

Patient care includes providing inpatient and outpatient consultative services, caring for inpatients, and seeing patients during and after systemic or multimodality treatment. If you are at a specialized center, you may spend a large portion of your clinical time seeing patients for a second opinion. Outpatient care is usually partitioned into half-days of clinic. Depending on your academic career path, you will generally see patients between one half-day and five half-days a week. Inpatient care is usually rotated between faculty members for blocks of time that range from a weekend to a four-week stretch. Some academic institutions employ hospitalists who specialize in the care of inpatients, but many oncologists will try to stay involved in important decision-making when their patients are hospitalized.

Teaching

Academic oncologists have opportunities to teach medical students, residents, and hematology/oncology and other fellows. Teaching occurs in a variety of settings — classroom lectures and case-based discussions, teaching at the bedside in the inpatient setting, resident conferences such as Morning Report, and teaching while seeing patients in the office. The field of oncology advances so quickly that lectures usually require substantial revisions each year.

Some faculty members choose to lead courses for medical students or electives for residents and fellows. Such courses require a tremendous time commitment but yield tremendous satisfaction. An approachable and energetic faculty member may spend a considerable amount of time mentoring medical students and residents and may write a dozen or so recommendation letters a year.

You may choose to involve students, residents, and fellows in your research projects and will thus be training, supervising, and mentoring in the research setting as well as the clinical setting.

Administrative Activities

Participation in the life of the division, the department, the medical school, and the institution is a consistent responsibility of academic oncologists. Regular attendance at faculty meetings and service on committees such as the pharmacy and therapeutics committee or protocol review committees (usually for two or three years) are expected and even required for academic advancement in many institutions.

Academic Service

Academic oncologists will be called on to review submitted manuscripts for journals and to serve on local, regional, and national grant review committees. You may also serve on expert panels. Although conference calls and e-mail may reduce the amount of travel required, many senior faculty members spend a great deal of time away from their university.

Community Service

As a member of a university, you will have opportunities to give lectures to community groups such as support groups and church groups and to serve on the boards of health and other community organizations. This is particularly the case if you have a larger patient practice and an area of clinical expertise.