Launching junior faculty into fulfilling careers

Taking a holistic approach, the Penn Faculty Pathways Program equips early career professors with the tools they need to excel professionally and personally.

Mia Levine looking into a microscope in a lab
Mia Levine, now in her second year of Pathways, gained skills in time management, leadership, and conflict resolution through the program.

With a bustling lab to manage, courses to teach, trainees to mentor, publications to write, and talks to deliver—in addition to a spouse and two young sons at home—Penn biologist Mia Levine’s plate is full. Yet last year she tried an experiment. Instead of squeezing in her workouts on the weekend, she began carving out time for a run during the workweek. Doing so required shuffling duties with her spouse and protecting the time from other demands in her schedule, but she committed to trying it for six weeks to see how it went.

“What became really obvious to me during this mini-experiment was that the weekend run was actually not that useful to me as a parent and a professor,” says Levine, an assistant professor in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS). “What was most beneficial to me was actually integrating a workout into the workweek, when I needed an outlet most.”

A year after Levine’s initial “experiment,” she’s still toting her gym bag along to her Lynch Labs office, one of the many lasting beneficial effects of her experience as a fellow in the Penn Faculty Pathways Program. The Pathways Program, now in its sixth year, offers a cadre of junior faculty in the STEMM fields (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine), a carefully designed curriculum intended to enhance their lives both professionally and personally. During a year of monthly sessions—and an optional second year—Pathways fellows gain skills to help them navigate their early years at Penn, plot out their future, and do so while maintaining a sense of control over the journey. 

“These groups are wonderful because the participating faculty are at a very interesting stage in their careers,” says Lucy Wolf Tuton, one of the Pathways co-directors and an adjunct professor in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. “If you can help them be reflective and start really thinking that they control their career as opposed to their careers controlling them, it can be liberating.”

Pathways has its origins in a four-year randomized intervention trial begun in 2009 and funded by a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, that was focused on female junior faculty in the School of Medicine. Designed to change the culture of academic medicine and support female faculty members, the program consisted of multi-faceted interventions and was a standout success. 

“We learned so much from that intervention,” says Stephanie Abbuhl, co-director of the Pathways Program and an emergency medicine professor in Penn Medicine. “And to create Pathways, we took our experience from that trial to put together a course that would help create a better career environment for both women and men.”

Abbuhl and colleagues, including the Wharton School’s Stew Friedman, Penn Medicine’s Tuton, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Susan Margulies, worked to craft the programming and lead the leadership development and skill-building sessions. These four became the faculty leaders of the program, with Ivan Dmochowski, a chemistry professor in SAS, replacing Margulies in 2017. 

Eighteen faculty from across the University are accepted into the program each year through a competitive application process. Once the first year is complete, participants may elect to partake in an optional second year of programming. To date, 106 faculty have participated or are currently part of the program, and roughly 85 percent who take part in the first year enroll for the second year as well.

Stew Friedman, Lucy Wolf Tuton, Stephanie Abduhl, and Ivan Dmochowski
Representing a cross-section of the University, Wharton’s Stew Friedman, Medicine’s Lucy Wolf Tuton and Stephanie Abbuhl, and Arts and Sciences’ Ivan Dmochowski serve as the faculty co-directors of Pathways.

Respectful of the fellows’ already busy lives, Pathways is structured as eight 2.5-hour sessions. Tightly orchestrated, the sessions also leave time for connection and reflection. To kick off the Pathways experience, Friedman leads an arc of three sessions based on his Total Leadership program, which encourages faculty fellows to consider their values with regard to four domains of life—work, home, community, and self—and how to create harmony among them.

“We start with the Total Leadership material because it really sets the tone,” says Friedman. “The conversation is about not just you as a scholar or a clinician, but as a member of a larger community and in all the different roles you play in your life.”

The very first day of the program, participants are asked to describe their vision for the future, specifically laying out what they believe a day will look like for themselves in 15 years. 

“We’re very deliberate about creating a sense of community and belonging in the group,” Friedman says. “Sharing your aspirations with the group starts the dialogue about what really matters to you in your life.”

Rabie Shanti sits at a computer discussing a graphic with a patient seated
Rabie Shanti, an assistant professor in the School of Dental Medicine and the School of Medicine, with a patient. He is in his first year of the Pathways Program. (Video still credit: Rebecca Elias Abboud)

Participants design “experiments” for themselves, such as Levine’s new exercise routine, to put into practice the values that they’ve defined.

Rabie Shanti, an assistant professor in the School of Dental Medicine and the School of Medicine currently in the first year of the Pathways Program, took to heart the need to ensure his day-to-day practices were aligning with his values. His first experiment in the Pathways program was, as he puts it, “learning how to say no.”

“I get requests to participate in activities that are of merit, but may not necessarily be part of the journey I’m on right now,” Shanti says. “Essentially I created a set of filters for myself, a scientific way of evaluating each new opportunity, to determine whether it’s something I want to create time for. It’s been really eye-opening to see that I can remain focused on my academic and clinical interests by not saying yes to every good opportunity that comes my way.”

“If you can help them be reflective and start really thinking that they control their career as opposed to their careers controlling them, it can be liberating.” Lucy Wolf Tuton, Penn Faculty Pathways Program co-director and adjunct professor in the Perelman School of Medicine

Abbuhl, Dmochowski, and Tuton lead other sessions, covering such practical and valuable topics as conflict resolution, leading teams, time management, and proactive career planning. They also welcome other speakers, such as Michael Baime, director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness, who leads a session focused on using meditation and mindfulness tools to help participants manage stress and cultivate growth, and Vice Provost Anita Allen, who shares details about the University’s promotion process.

Dmochowski, who gave talks to the group before joining as a co-director in 2017, says the co-directors work hard to select a diverse group of applicants, selected from across the six participating STEMM schools and representing a variety of life experiences. 

“These are some of the busiest junior faculty on campus,” Dmochowski says. “It’s striking how challenging their jobs are. But there are enough similar themes that they can benefit from the same programming and peer mentorship, even though they’re spanning all six schools.”

Drawing from his own experiences, both setbacks and achievements, Dmochowski, along with his co-directors, seeks to convey to the Pathways fellows a sense that there is no single correct path to success in an academic career. 

“We try to get students to take the long view,” he says, “and help them realize that they are much closer to achieving their dreams than they think.”

Ask participants in the Penn Faculty Pathways Program what their involvement has meant to them and you’ll hear statements like “life-changing,” “crucial,” and “profound.” Even years later, former fellows cite their time in Pathways as pivotal in shaping their careers.

Zahra Fakhraai, an associate professor of chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences, was a fellow in the initial Pathways cohort. She applied after coming to the realization early in her time at Penn that running a lab required management and people skills she hadn’t picked up during her extensive training in science. She developed those skills through the program, and also found a sense of community with her peers.

“Having a cohort of people in a similar situation was very helpful as it showed me that, independent of where they are on campus, their struggles were similar,” Fakhraai recalls. “We were able to mentor each other and support each other in building the skills we needed to grow.”

For Vijay Srinivasan, a pediatric intensivist with Penn Medicine and CHOP, participating in Pathways helped him stretch himself, defining new roles for himself in his job while developing new strategies to manage a busy home life with his wife and four children.

“Pathways really set the stage for me to jump into the next dimension,” says Srinivasan, who was in the fourth cohort of the program, beginning in 2016. Since beginning the program, he says he’s become more productive, taking on more opportunities to lecture, and stepping into positions on an editorial board, national pediatric and critical care societies, in Penn Medicine’s doctoring program and its Medical Faculty Senate Steering Committee, among other roles. 

“The program gave me the chance to craft what kind of leader I wanted to be,” he says. “Because of it, I bring a different skillset and sense of satisfaction to my work.”

Such glowing anecdotes seem typical of the program, but the faculty leaders of Pathways don’t rest on their laurels. Rigorous assessment is a facet of the program that dates back to its earliest incarnation as an NIH-funded trial. Participants fill out evaluations at the outset of their involvement in the program, after each workshop, at the end of each year they participate, and are tracked even after they complete their second year. 

“If anything we over-evaluate,” says Abbuhl. “We have the pre- and post-evaluations that tell us about the Pathways participants’ perceptions of their experience. And then we have the longer term outcomes—the ones that are so important but difficult to measure—how did this impact your career? That’s something you can only measure five, or maybe 10 years down the road.”

Recognizing the success of Pathways and a hunger for similar opportunities, University leadership is findings new ways of providing training and development, particularly for faculty in the early stages of their academic journey.

“Penn Pathways is one of the centerpieces of how the Provost’s Office seeks, with senior faculty and the Deans’ support, to prepare STEMM faculty for the rigors of the promotion and tenure processes,” says Anita Allen, who is also a professor in Penn Law School. “Its success has led the Provost to support, for the first time, a similar program for humanities faculty, Humanities Network, launched by SAS faculty leaders Emily Steiner in English, KC Tan in Philosophy, and Heather Williams in Africana Studies in fall 2018.”

Such programs are seeking to meet a need that the Pathways Program has identified and sought to fill, recognizing that the right kind of support can enable the talented junior faculty Penn recruits to flourish and reach their true potential.

“The sessions allow for thinking at a distance about what it is we’re trying to accomplish and how it is that we’re going about it,” says Levine, now participating in her second year of Pathways. “I’m continuing to grow and learn and develop my toolkit further. With each meeting I feel more integrated into the University.”

Stephanie Abbuhl is professor and vice chair of faculty affairs in emergency medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, executive director of FOCUS on Health & Leadership for Women and co-director of the Pathways Program.

Anita Allen is Vice Provost for Faculty, the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law in the Penn Law School, and professor of philosophy in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Lucy Wolf Tuton is an adjunct professor of medicine and epidemiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, director of professional development for FOCUS on Health & Leadership for Women, executive director of Bridging the Gaps, and co-director of the Pathways Program.

Stewart D. Friedman is Practice Professor Emeritus of Management in the Wharton School, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, founder of Total Leadership, and co-director of the Pathways Program.

Ivan Dmochowski is Alan MacDiarmid Term Professor and former undergraduate chair in the Department of Chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences and co-director of the Pathways Program.

Mia Levine is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Rabie Shanti is an assistant professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery and pharmacology in the School of Dental Medicine and has a dual appointment in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery at Penn Medicine.

Vijay Srinivasan is an assistant professor of anesthesiology, critical care and pediatrics in the Perelman School of Medicine and an attending physician in pediatric critical care medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Zahra Fakhraai is an associate professor in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry.

Bridget Keogh and Susan Primavera provide critical administrative support to the Pathways program.  

Homepage caption: For Mia Levine, an assistant professor in the biology department, shown with postdoctoral scientist Cara Brand, participating in the Pathways program has given her a chance to take a step back from the demands of her day-to-day tasks and reflect on larger goals.

The current cohort of first-year Pathways fellows gather with the faculty co-directors for a lunchtime session.