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March 31, 2016

Dental program targets national faculty shortage

The American Dental Education Association has been tracking the national shortage of dental faculty since the 1990s, showing that, while it peaked a few years ago, it is still being felt by dental schools around the country. This national shortfall has spurred Pitt’s School of Dental Medicine to create an area of concentration that this spring will graduate its first six dentists trained specifically for a career in higher education. Eight more are set to graduate in 2017.

Directors of the School of Dental Medicine’s academic career training program, Zsuzsa Horváth (left) and Christine Wankiiri-Hale

That may not sound like a large percentage among the school’s 320 students. But given the desire for most dental medicine graduates to move right into practice, program director Zsuzsa Horváth says the numbers are “beyond our dreams.” In January, the school held its first career day for current and potential students of the academic career track. Students nearing graduation presented a summary of their experiences to the school at large and competed for an opportunity to present their experiences at the American Dental Education Association’s national meeting.

David Cole, a fourth-year dental student in the academic career track who will be an orthodontic resident at Virginia Commonwealth University this summer, spoke first: “Initially I didn’t see how they could be related,” he said of learning dentistry and pursuing an academic career. Then, as part of the dental school’s teaching prep program, he began to meet with fellow students after classes to show them the operative techniques he was learning. “Inspiring and empowering people, seeing someone get a lot of confidence, is what I liked about it,” he said of the program. Helping to teach in a dental school faculty member’s classrooms “was a really neat responsibility and a fun kind of experience,” he said. Cole now is considering a part-time or full-time faculty position at some point in his career. In the meantime, he added, “I certainly saw, in a future in an orthodontic practice, the importance of being able to articulate myself well, to lead a team, to teach my patients.”

Another fourth-year student, Aaema Athar, will begin her prosthodontics residency next year at Pitt. “When I started out in school I actually had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to be a dentist,” she said. Now on her way to completing the school’s academic career track, she has discovered: “I also really love teaching now, through my experiences [here], so I can really see that being in my future.”

In February, the school also conducted the first national teleconference about academic dentistry with students from three other universities. All of these efforts are designed to show that becoming a part-time or even full-time academic is not only possible but desirable for today’s dental student.

Dental students may take the full two years of courses in the academic career track, which they complete during the third and fourth years of their dental degree, or they may take just a few electives in the program to get a taste of an academic career in the field. “We want to be a community for the students who are interested in these topics,” says Horváth, who also is the school’s director of faculty development.

Christine Wankiiri-Hale, associate dean for student affairs, is co-director of the program, which offers students experience in classroom and one-on-one teaching, as well as with benchtop and community research, and gives them the chance to interview current faculty about taking on academic leadership roles, such as serving on faculty committees or becoming an administrator. Coursework in the program also helps students learn how to train more junior members of their future dental practice staff and learn more effective methods of educating patients about treatment compliance.

Students in the program learn in classroom, pre-clinical and clinical settings, then use their newfound skills to practice teaching first- and second-year dental students. The program includes courses on teaching principles and methods as well as educational administration, an introduction to leadership and career development, teaching practica and an introduction to peer tutoring.

The academic career track began with one teaching practicum course in 2013 that drew increasing interest in subsequent semesters. “Based on that experience, we got the green light to initiate the program,” says Horváth. “That helped engage the students’ interest in something bigger. We found that some of the students may be

Dental medicine faculty members (left to right) Kurt F. Summersgill, Joanne Prasad and Alexandre Vieira

Dental medicine faculty members (left to right) Kurt F. Summersgill, Joanne Prasad and Alexandre Vieira

interested in a little bigger commitment … and a more structured curriculum.

“There’s a great need for dental education,” she adds. “There’s a shortage of dental educators in the field.” While half of Pitt’s dental medicine faculty members are part-time, often maintaining a private dental practice as their full-time occupation, the national faculty shortage “has not impacted us much except in achieving adequate diversity and prolonging recruitment,” says Horváth.

Wankiiri-Hale and Horváth understand that their academic career-training program may produce many such part-time faculty. “That makes them even more robust in the clinic,” Wankiiri-Hale says, since such part-time faculty members are in touch with the latest dentistry and students can relate to their experiences. “For a new dentist just graduating, it might be a hard job for them to handle, to jump right into academic medicine,” she adds.

The two faculty members teach nearly all the program’s courses, aided in the research practicum by faculty who are more involved in a variety of research projects, and by other school faculty in the clinical practicum. Following completion of these practicum courses, students are permitted to assist in teaching certain courses.

“We coach the students in preparation,” says Horváth. “We want to make sure that they have a safety net … and that whatever they teach is in alignment with our

teaching methods.”

Program students also get written feedback from the faculty overseeing them and from the underclassmen whom they teach.

To encourage more students to enroll in the concentration, the school also holds one-hour lunch discussions thrice yearly to which the entire school is invited. Here current faculty members, including part-time faculty, talk about their own experiences and why they like to teach; upper level deans and associate deans explain how they reached their current positions; department chairpersons, program directors and other mid-level administrators lay out their journeys through academe; and current program students speak about their experiences in this area of concentration.

The final semester in the program — the capstone course — helps students summarize their experiences by creating a teaching portfolio containing their resume, teaching philosophy, descriptions of courses taken, sample lecture plan, reflection on the teaching experience and evaluations.

The school’s first Academic Career Day teleconference last month involved dental students and faculty at Pitt as well as the University of Detroit Mercy School of

Students currently in Dental Medicine’s academic career training program.

Students currently in Dental Medicine’s academic career training program.

Dentistry and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Dentistry, with students from the University of Nebraska College of Dentistry listening in.

Overall, Horváth told the gathering, the ultimate goal of the program is to make certain dental medicine students realize that academia is a viable career option: “To

make sure you are well-equipped if you want to join the club.”

Before afternoon sessions of speed mentoring from Pitt dental faculty, students heard Janet Guthmiller, dean at Nebraska, describe her career path, and Michelle Wheater, an assistant dean in Detroit, explain possible faculty positions in dental schools (course director, simulation laboratory instructor, clinical instructor and researcher), faculty rankings and tenure versus non-tenure tracks.

Pitt dental faculty members joined the conference next to answer local students’ questions about the three main aspects of daily academic life: teaching, research and service.

“How do we balance?” said Alexandre Vieira. Faculty must address all three areas in order to grow personally and professionally, he said: “To teach, it takes time. It is very easy to put together a lecture that is disconnected to the whole course. It is very easy to put together a handful of questions for an exam that is not very intellectually challenging.

“My best teaching is when I have one-on-one with my students,” he added. “Trying to have my classroom act like that is what I strive for.”
Said Kurt F. Summersgill: “You’re going to have to do some sort of scholarly activity, but it doesn’t have to be benchtop.” Faculty may work on quality-control research, extracting data from patients’ electronic medical records, he explained. They also may study dental treatment outcomes or examine health care disparities among patients in different demographics, as he does.

Joanne Prasad tackled the last part of the academic triad: Her public service includes doing surgical pathology work throughout western Pennsylvania, consulting with Pitt’s medical school, acting as director of quality management and improvement for her school and sitting on many committees through the years.

“It’s different every single day, literally,” she told the students.

Was there any time in your career when you changed the balance among teaching, research and service? asked David Cole, one of the students about to graduate.

“It’s very customizable,” Prasad answered, although she added: “When somebody asks you, ‘Can you serve on this committee,’ you should usually say yes.”

“That somebody being the dean,” Summersgill added. He noted that entering academia with a PhD atop his dental degree gave him flexibility about joining the tenure or non-tenure-stream as a faculty member. He opted for the latter, he said, rather than let the tenure track determine how he would spend his next seven years — the normal length of time required to achieve tenure. “I wanted to have a life,” he said, so he opted for three-year faculty contracts. “One-year contracts, I wouldn’t be so happy,” he said.

Vieira added the caveat that “with one-year contracts it is very hard to plan ahead,” and suggested that faculty with these minimal commitments negotiate up front for their desired balance among teaching, research and service.

Another dental student asked about the fate of tenure-stream faculty who fail to achieve tenure in the requisite time.

“The system is built to avoid that,” Vieira said, with three-year reviews allowing faculty members and supervisors to review progress and opt for an extension of time or for dropping out of the tenure track if necessary. Even with tenure, he cautioned, “it’s not that my stresses are gone. They are just different.”

During a break in the conference, third-year dental student Chris Yang reflected on the larger challenges of combining a dental practice with teaching: “Dentistry is a very dynamic field. As a faculty member it would be a big challenge to keep up with all the changes in dentistry. One of the jobs of a faculty member is to bridge that gulf between education and the real world.”

—Marty Levine 

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