This week’s spotlight features an OT who pursued her PhD with the intention of becoming an occupational therapy professor. This occupational therapy faculty member shares insights on how to pursue a role like hers!
What is your full name and title at your current job?
Khalilah R. Johnson, PhD, MS, OTR/L
Assistant Professor, Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
Where are you located?
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Where did you go to OT school, and what year did you graduate?
I earned a dual Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in OT from Brenau University Women’s College (class of 2006) in Gainesville, Georgia. A dual degree program allows you to earn a BS and MS in 5-5.5 years. I earned my PhD in Occupational Science from UNC Chapel Hill in 2016.
What did you do when you first finished school, and for how long?
My first clinical job after graduation was in acute care and inpatient rehabilitation at Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC), Gainesville, Georgia. I primarily worked with patients with neurological and orthopedic impairments/injuries, but also worked with patients who were deconditioned due to illness. I worked at NGMC for 3.5 years and then transitioned to home health.
What did you do after that, and for how long?
I worked for Amedisys Home Health for 4 years in Georgia and during my first year in North Carolina. I also worked with patients who had returned home after hospitalization due to stroke, surgery, cardiac events, etc., with self-care and home-care activities—but I was also able to work on home modification and redesign, as well as community participation, among others.
What did you enjoy about your early roles? What didn’t you enjoy?
I really enjoy medically complex cases and the pace of working in a hospital, but ultimately found I was able to be more creative and occupation-focused working in patients’ natural/home environments. I found both settings to be fulfilling but in very different ways.
At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue an OT faculty role, and why?
The first time I considered a career in academia was during my final year of graduate school. We completed a small group research project during the final year.
I loved everything about the research process: being immersed in literature, identifying the gaps, developing research questions, design a research protocol, collecting data…everything! So, I inquired how an occupational therapist could also be a researcher. I also asked many questions about post graduate education and what my options were as an OT.
At the time I graduated, no one was pushing a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD). My advisor fed my curiosity but also encouraged me to get a few years under my belt as a clinician and then pursue a PhD.
What are you doing these days?
Currently, I am an Assistant Professor (tenure-track) in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. I’m also an affiliate Assistant Professor in the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Are you still treating patients, or are you solely non-clinical?
At this time, I am solely non-clinical. As a junior faculty member/researcher, I am spending the majority of my time developing my program of research and teaching. I do hope to return to more clinical work.
How long have you been an occupational therapy faculty member?
I’ve been at UNC for 3 semesters
How did you find your job?
I was recruited during my final year of my postdoctoral fellowship. It is common practice for colleges and universities to recruit postdocs.
Did you do anything special to your resume and cover letter to land the job?
It was extremely important that I tailored my CV and cover letters to the universities where I was submitting my dossier. For example, I highlighted my research experience, publication record, and research goals for UNC and others who have Research 1 distinction.
For those colleges and universities who were not Research 1, I highlighted my clinical and teaching experiences, community engagement, and goals for integrating my research interests into the classroom.
What was the interview like for the role?
Interviewing for a tenure-track faculty position can be a bit grueling. Most were done over two full days. I was interviewed by faculty, students, deans, admins, and others. Some universities required a public research talk while others require you to present a guest lecture (one school required both).
You eat every meal with someone from the university and/or search committee, so your interview doesn’t really end until you retire for the night. My throat was sore at the end of each interview…and not to mention the fatigue from traveling.
Did you get any special certifications or training along the way to help you become an OT faculty member?
Yes. Many tenure-track positions prefer a candidate with postdoc experience. So, after I completed my PhD, I applied for and interviewed for several postdoctoral fellowships. I landed at the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry, and Innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University where I worked two years with a team of community-engaged researchers on community level health interventions.
How have people reacted to you leaving patient care?
The response to my decision to leave full-time patient care to pursue a career as an academic was overwhelmingly positive. Diversity in occupational therapy has been an issue for some time. Black practitioners make up less the 7% of the profession, the number is even lower for Black OT faculty.
What’s a typical day or week in the life like for you? What types of tasks and responsibilities fill your time?
The typical week often includes daily meetings with colleagues, research collaborators, and students. I also block of several hours a week to work on manuscripts, grants, and lectures. The applied research seminar that I taught this semester met once per week.
Pre-COVID, I also spent time meeting with community-partners (adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and practitioners who work with this population). When I’m not engaged in the aforementioned activities, I attend board meetings and other professional service.
What are some of the challenges of your role? What are the rewards?
Setting boundaries around my work can be challenging at times. What I mean by that is that being a professor is not a clean 9 to 5 kind of job. Sometimes it feels like I’m working 24 hours a day. Also meeting the pressures and expectations of the academy when research funds are dwindling can be a bit daunting. But I have an extremely supportive department who is invested my work and my success!
The rewards are nearly the same. I have an incredible amount of support and flexibility to do the work that is most meaningful to me and to the communities with whom I work. I get to contribute to occupational science and occupational therapy in very different ways now.
How do you think working as an OT prepared you for academia?
I would not be the professor I am without having had clinical experience. To teach clinical content or relate research to practice, you should have some clinical experience. My work as an OT inform my research questions, it informs how I teach, it informs how I mentor students.
Roughly speaking, how are the hours and pay compared to patient care?
Depending on the setting, you can make more money as a clinician than as a professor. As a professor, you work more hours. I don’t make significantly less now (my lifestyle didn’t change), but I do have more freedom/liberties with how I organize my time.
What type of person do you think would do well in your role?
You must be organized and detailed. You must a confident public speaker. You must be a strategic risk-taker. You must be an “ok writer” at minimum, but be prepared to write a lot nonetheless. Be prepared be critiqued and challenged – you’re not just an academic, you’re an intellectual.
Do you work remotely or on-site?
Does your organization hire others into roles like yours?
Yes. We have faculty who are strictly researchers and then we have faculty who are strictly clinical.
Did you read any books, take any courses, or do anything special overall to get you where you are today?
Yes. I earned a PhD which takes 5 years to complete on average, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship which can be 2 to 5 years.
What is a typical career path for someone in your role?
Clinical degree > clinical experience (not required) > PhD (or equivalent) training > postdoctoral training (not requited)
What is next for you? What do you want to do with your career long-term?
I am continuing to build my program of research in cultural and contextual mediators that impact service access and utilization for African Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I hope to be awarded enough funds to open a center dedicated to this work and higher more researchers and practitioners of color.
What would you recommend to someone who is considering going into a role like yours?
Think long and hard on your career goals and aspirations. That will help you decided which terminal degree is appropriate for you.
Not everyone who goes into academia needs a PhD, but if you’re interested in having a research career, a PhD would provide you the type of training you’ll need to be an independent researcher.
Take your time and research programs, they’re not all created equal. Speak with students and faculty in these programs and visit when possible. Let your clinical experiences feed your passions. Being in academia is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle!
What would you like to change most in your profession, and why? How would you propose doing so?
At this moment, I wish we were graduating more PhDs. There is a severe shortage for OT programs.
Increasing funding to cover tuition and research training, I believe, would help the PhD workforce crisis tremendously. As I type this, I’m also thinking about the ability to be able to do this part-time because not everyone can resign from full-time employment to go to school.
If you could give yourself one piece of career advice you wish you had during school, what would it be?
Don’t wait 6 years before going to get my PhD. If you feel ready, do it!
If you could teach anything to today’s graduate students in your profession, what would it be?
A dedicated course to health policy and its impact on rehabilitation/allied health professions.
Where can people find you on social media?
Instagram – @TheAcademicDiva
Twitter – @OccScienceBae
Facebook – Khalilah Robinson Johnson