Midcareer Medical School Research Faculty Perspectives on Vitality and Professionalism During the COVID-19 Pandemic

JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Aug 2;4(8):e2120642. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.20642.


Importance: As medical faculty have central roles during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to study the pandemic's association with the vitality and careers of medical school faculty.

Objective: To examine how the COVID-19 pandemic affected midcareer research faculty in academic medicine.

Design, setting, and participants: This qualitative study included medical school faculty who participated in the C-Change Mentoring and Leadership Institute. All US medical school faculty recipients of recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) RO1, RO1-equivalent, and K awards were invited to apply to the institute. The 99 applicants who met inclusion criteria were stratified by degree (MD or MD/PhD vs PhD), gender, and race/ethnicity. Enrollment was offered to applicants randomly selected for 40 spots, demographically balanced by sex, underrepresented in medicine minority (URMM) status, and degree. In April 2020, an inquiry was emailed to faculty enrolled in the institute requesting responses to questions about meaning in work, career choice, and values. A qualitative analysis of narrative data responses, using grounded theory, was undertaken to determine key themes. This study is part of a NIH-funded randomized trial to test the efficacy of a group peer mentoring course for midcareer faculty and study the course's mechanisms of action.

Main outcomes and measures: Key themes in data.

Results: Of 40 enrolled participants, 39 responded to the inquiry, for a response rate of 97%. The analytic sample included 39 faculty members; 19 (47%) were women, 20 (53%) identified as URMM, and 20 (53%) had an MD or MD with PhD vs 19 (47%) with PhD degrees. Key themes in the data that emerged describing faculty lived experience of the pandemic included increased meaningfulness of work; professionalism and moral responsibility; enhanced relationships with colleagues; reassertion of career choice; disrupted research; impact on clinical work; attention to health disparities, social justice and advocacy; increased family responsibilities; psychological stress; and focus on leadership.

Conclusions and relevance: During the pandemic, diverse PhD and physician investigators reported increased meaningfulness in work and professionalism and enhanced relationships, all intrinsic motivators associated with vitality. Working during the pandemic appears to have produced intrinsic rewards positively associated with vitality, in addition to adverse mental health effects. These findings have implications for combatting burnout and retaining investigators in the future.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • COVID-19*
  • Career Choice
  • Faculty, Medical / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Professionalism*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Research Personnel / psychology*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • United States