Becoming outstanding educators: What do they say contributed to success?

  • Larissa R. ThomasEmail author
  • Justin Roesch
  • Lawrence Haber
  • Patrick Rendón
  • Anna Chang
  • Craig Timm
  • Summers Kalishman
  • Patricia O’Sullivan


Aspiring medical educators and their advisors often lack clarity about career paths. To provide guidance to faculty pursuing careers as educators, we sought to explore perceived factors that contributed to the career development of outstanding medical educators. Using a thematic analysis, investigators at two institutions interviewed 39 full or associate professor physician faculty with prominent roles as medical educators in 2016. The social cognitive career theory (SCCT) informed the interview guide. Investigators developed the codebook and performed iterative analysis using qualitative methods. Extensive team discussion generated the final themes. Eight themes emerged related to preparation, early successes, mentors, networks, faculty development, balance, work environment, and multiple identities. Preparation led to early successes, which served as “launch points,” while mentors, networks, and faculty development programs served as career accelerators to open more opportunities, and a supportive work environment was an additional enabler of this pathway. Educators who reported balance between work and outside interests described boundary setting as well as selectively choosing new opportunities to establish boundaries in mid-career. Participants described multiple professional identities, and clinician and educator identities tended to merge and reinforce each other as careers progressed. This study revealed common themes describing trajectories of success among medical educators. These themes aligned with the SCCT, and typically replayed and spiraled over the course of the educators’ careers. These findings resonate with other studies, lending credence to an approach to career development that can be shared with junior faculty who are exploring careers in medical education.


Faculty development Medical education Identity development Mentorship Career development 



This study was supported by a grant from the Western Group on Educational Affairs (WGEA) of the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC)

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

Ethical approval was granted as exempt by the Institutional Review Boards at the University of California, San Francisco (August 19, 2015, 15-17104) and the University of New Mexico (March 21, 2016, 16-045).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Hospital Medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center and Department of MedicineUniversity of California, San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA
  2. 2.Department of MedicineUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  3. 3.Department of MedicineUniversity of California, San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA
  4. 4.Department of Family and Community MedicineUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  5. 5.Departments of Medicine and SurgeryUniversity of California, San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA

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