Meet The Mentor
Scientific Leadership and Work-Life Balance: Advice from a Pathology Chair
Dani S. Zander, M.D.
Chair of the Department of Pathology
Pennsylvania State College of Medicine
What is it like to be Chair of an entire Pathology department? What are some advantages and disadvantages to the position?
As a Chair, you play a central role in the strategic planning and operations of your department, and of the professional development of its faculty, trainees and staff. You represent the department to your institution, negotiating resources on behalf of the department and enabling your department to serve the needs of the institution by providing patient care, teaching, research and administration. By promoting the growth of research and participation in professional organizations and conferences, the Chair also contributes to the advancement of science and medicine. These activities bring a great deal of satisfaction to me, and seeing the benefits these actions bring to others is very rewarding.
The position also allows for a great diversity of activities, which makes for an interesting worklife. I spend the largest amount of my time in administration, dealing with issues involving people, budgeting and financial analysis, strategic planning, recruitment, quality improvement, laboratory utilization, and laboratory accreditation. However, in addition, I also participate in patient care in Surgical Pathology and Cytopathology, teach Pulmonary Pathology to our medical students and residents, and participate in research looking at the pathogenesis and prognosis of lung cancer and certain inflammatory lung diseases. With this range of activities, I am well-protected from boredom!
The position of Chair is – not surprisingly – quite time-consuming. This may be a disadvantage in that it reduces the time one has available for other pursuits. It may also be an advantage if you find the work very satisfying. Having the support of one’s family and friends is extremely helpful.
What previous positions and leadership roles have you had that played an important role in you becoming Chair?
In 1992, I was appointed as Chief of Anatomic Pathology at one of the major teaching hospitals at the University of Florida. Although this was very soon after completing my residency, I rapidly grew into the position and learned a tremendous amount about many aspects of administration. I moved to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School in 2002, where I served as Chief of Anatomic Pathology and Vice Chair, and also held the Harvey S. Rosenberg endowed chair in Pathology. The size and complexity of the clinical service and its outreach services were much larger at this medical center, and the opportunities for research collaboration were much greater, enabling substantial growth in my administrative and research experience. These opportunities were crucial to my becoming Chair. Having seen a variety of practices at both institutions has given me insights and perspectives that are invaluable for my current position.
What attributes helped you obtain and succeed in these leadership positions?
Determination, optimism, resourcefulness. I have also been fortunate to have had the help and advice of some very gifted people.
How has ASIP helped your career?
ASIP has made it possible for me to meet outstanding scientists and leaders in Pathology. We’ve worked together on research projects, books, and committees, which have benefitted my career significantly.
What advice do you have for trainees that would like to become leaders in their professional society or institution?
- Attend the meetings of the professional society. Although this seems obvious, it can be difficult at some points to find the time to come to the meetings, but meetings offer opportunities to meet people and set up projects that can help you enormously.
- Don’t be afraid to volunteer for projects that will benefit the organization. If an opportunity is offered, even if it seems like a large commitment, think seriously about accepting it. Taking ownership of a project and bringing it to a successful conclusion will often bring you recognition in the organization and lead to other opportunities.
- Set short- and long-term goals for yourself. This will help you direct your efforts to lead to your success in the goals you set for yourself.
What strategies have you found that enable you to balance both work and family in your career? For example, do you have a certain point in the day when you shut off work and focus exclusively on family or vice versa?
I don’t set any firm boundaries between work and family time. I sometimes work at home and occasionally bring family to the workplace. This flexibility has enabled me to accommodate the fluctuating demands of work and family life. Feeling that I needed to separate the two was a source of stress for me earlier in my career, because I felt forced to make a choice. When I moved away from that philosophy, and integrated the two more, I became more comfortable.
I also look for opportunities to reduce activities that don’t contribute to happiness at work or home. For example, I have been fortunate to be able to hire people to clean my house and mow my lawn.
At what points in your career did you have children? Did you find that having a child at one time was easier than at another?
My older child was born in my last year of residency, and my second child was born in my second year as a faculty member. Although both times were challenging, in comparing notes with others I think that these were reasonable times to choose. Life will be busy no matter when you choose. Having a solid financial base helps a lot with the expenses of babysitting, etc. Also having a stable job – at least for one parent – helps to counterbalance some of the pressures and changes involved with being a new parent.
Have you ever had to deal with negative attitudes concerning your decision to focus on family? If so, how did you deal with them? If not, how would you advise someone that is dealing with them?
I encountered relatively little negativity. In fact, people often went out of their way to help me with challenging situations when they occurred. One of my fond memories is from a day when I brought my two toddlers into the hospital with me when I was called in for a frozen section. A senior colleague saw us together and offered to bring the children down to the cafeteria for ice cream. They came back messy but smiling after my frozen section was done!
The negativity I encountered related to occasional emergencies (children ill) requiring someone else to cover my responsibilities, and in a couple of individuals, a suggestion that having children meant that I wasn’t serious about my career. I could understand someone else’s frustration at having to provide unexpected coverage, and expressed my deep gratitude to them. In the second situation, I took the position that hard work and dedication would prove them wrong – and it has.
Another key point here is that one needs to choose one’s battles. Not every ill or bad deed is worth fighting for or about. If there is a significant problem, though, think carefully about how to present it, whom to involve, and what type of outcome you want. Ask others for advice, confidentially, if you can. Act thoughtfully and deliberately, rather than emotionally or impulsively.
Have you ever had to choose between your career and your family? For example, accepting or declining a job offer that would directly impact your family. If so, how did you make this decision?
I have not taken jobs that involved substantial traveling, due to my desire to be available to my family. As my children are now more independent older teenagers, however, they want to spend less time with the family and more time with friends, which has made it psychologically easier for me to travel. Also, for the last several years my parents have lived in my house, which provides a safety net – they are available to help the kids, if needed, and the kids are available to help them, if needed.
As my husband and I have looked at the decisions about whether to move, we have tried to maximize the total happiness of the family. We’ve spent numerous hours deliberating on the impact of the move on each family member, personally, and for my husband and I, professionally. In one case – the question about moving when one child was in high school – the short-term consequences were unpleasant while the long-term consequences were much superior to the status quo. I know others who have handled this situation by maintaining two households until the child graduates. When there is a conflict between job opportunities, living separately during the week and together on the weekend is a choice that many couples have made. Others decide to trade off between the partners over time, allowing one person’s needs to take precedence at one point, then the other at a later point. Again, I think the idea of maximizing the happiness of the individuals involved is a key theme, and communicating empathy and appreciation for each other’s sacrifices. Spending vacation time together and creating happy memories is also very important for maintaining the “team”!