Medical Educator 101

February 13, 2024

Wait..a “Medical Educator”? What is that? Do you mean you teach students and also research how to best teach them? Oh..I thought only scientists and doctors conducted research?... The flurry of questions that ensue after I tell people what I do for a living. Ouch!! I must admit that the last question does hurt.

Now hear this! A medical educator is a stable and sustainable academic job at a medical school within a university held by doctoral degree holders who conduct educational research with little to no pressure of procuring external grant funding. Amazing, right? But what does this job entail apart from teaching students in a medical school? And where should one begin if they want to apply for such a position? I try my best to answer most of the basic burning questions along with providing some external resources regarding this career.

To apply for a medical educator position you will need a terminal degree (M.D or a Ph.D.) in one of the foundational science disciplines taught within the medical school curriculum. Having postdoctoral experience is not a significant requirement, and I know PhDs who entered this field straight from graduate school. As a fact, my postdoctoral position lasted a mere 14 months, and I managed to publish nothing more than a literature review paper; thanks to the pandemic. Also, the uncertainty that comes with any postdoctoral position made me jump ship. 

Although becoming a medical educator was not on my professional radar, I enjoyed teaching as a teaching assistant during graduate school. My love for teaching made me lap up any teaching opportunities, voluntary or paid, even after graduate school. I taught the same undergraduate courses as I did in graduate school albeit as a postdoctoral fellow but now upgraded to a course coordinator on the course syllabus.  

What is MedEd research you may ask?

I must admit that I believed that the art of teaching and learning was rather intuitive. I took teaching and learning for granted and never gave the process of learning (or teaching) much thought. I assumed that some people are natural teachers and that the ability to learn (or teach) was almost like a talent that people are born with. Even worse, I assumed that one can never learn to teach effectively or teach a person how to learn! 

Although my assumptions may have had some truth to it, nevertheless much of our learning that happens is via cognition. Indeed, there is a science to how information is presented, perceived, processed, reasoned, and eventually understood. Medical educators tap into the science of learning to look for creative and innovative ways to teach concepts to our students. We work with our learners to identify various methods of lesson delivery which then allows for different styles of learning. 

In short, one can learn to teach and teach in a way that most students enjoy the benefit of learning. 

Not just that, medical educators test innovative teaching techniques for their accuracy using predefined research protocols, very similar to a drug trial undertaken by scientists or clinicians. Implementing such a tried and tested teaching innovation shown to be beneficial to several students is now considered evidence-based and is utilized by other educators. Medical educators draw upon evidence-based teaching strategies to ensure that their teachings optimize their learners’ thought processes and help them obtain a deeper understanding of the lessons taught.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into being a medical educator…
For example, a recent and exciting theory within medical education is “threshold concepts” by Meyer and Land. Threshold concepts are these annoying little educational concepts that no matter how hard you try, you end up spending a good portion of your time and effort learning this topic. However, there is a caveat. Once you gain mastery of these complex concepts they serve as a strong foundation upon which we can build several other topics. Understanding threshold concepts provides the “aha’ moments that can transform the way we learn subsequent topics. Brilliant! Isn’t it? And yes, educators came up with this theory.
For example, the ‘Cre/lox’ mice breeding system is one of the most powerful genetics tools that is available to researchers to create transgenic/mutant mice and study the role of several genes. The Cre/lox breeding scheme provides researchers control over the location and timing of a specific gene expression. But for researchers to manipulate gene expression and optimally use this tool to their benefit they first need to have an understanding of how the Cre/lox breeding schemes work. So one could argue that the ‘Cre/lox’ breeding system is a threshold concept as it is a complex core concept in the field of genetics research when once understood transforms their genetics research. Once researchers gain mastery over this system, they can easily manipulate gene expression in mice to answer several research questions.
As a medical educator, I could open a dialogue with my learners to identify such threshold concepts within my subject discipline. Further, I could seek out different teaching tools and techniques in an attempt to overcome my learners’ thresholds and make comparisons. That in and of itself is a research project which I then could publish in a journal.
Is it a career option after my Ph.D? 

Yes, absolutely! Research experience is valuable when it comes to medical education. The papers you publish as a Ph.D. or postdoc will count even if it is in wet lab basic science. Medical education research is an up-and-coming field and applicants are not expected to have experience in such a type of research unless the job description demands it. 

However, if you were able to take any electives in education or obtain a teaching diploma/certificate it will help you transition into this role better, although that is not a requirement. Most medical educators including myself have entered this field from being basic scientists working at the bench. Naturally so, as we are the people who can best teach foundational courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, immunology, and physiology among others.

I stumbled upon becoming a medical educator purely by chance and I am glad I did! I had a humble goal of being an academician either in a community college or a smaller university with undergraduate research without the stress and hassle of procuring million-dollar funding. 

If these are also your thoughts, then being a medical educator might be the right career for you.

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