Keneshia Kirksey's Path to Leadership
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Keneshia Kirksey's Path to Leadership

Keneshia Kirksey, MD is the Residency Program Director, an Associate Professor and Medical Director of the Spinal Cord Injury inpatient program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). An AAP member since 2013, she has a special interest in resident education and spinal cord injury and spinal disorders. She is a co-investigator for the UAB Spinal Cord Injury Model System and a collaborator on several ongoing research projects. Throughout her career, Keneshia has received 7 teaching or leadership awards. Discover her path to leadership – in her words.

I knew that I wanted to become a physician at a very young age. My plan was to become a “baby doctor." After completing my pediatrics rotation, I was not so sure. My brother, who is also a physiatrist, encouraged me to explore the field of physiatry. I was apprehensive initially, but I am so glad I took his advice. I rotated for 2 months in pediatric and adult PM&R as a 4th year medical student and immediately knew that PM&R was it. PM&R has been the perfect specialty for me and I love what I do! I enjoy having long-term relationships with my patients and families and the ability to collaborate with other providers. I give and receive gratitude daily for being a part of helping patients improve quality of life and functional independence. The opportunity to educate the community about individuals with disabilities in order to break down barriers and identify accommodations needed to get patients back home, work or school is also fulfilling for me.

My Academic Leadership Path

I joined the faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of PM&R in 2007. When I decided the academic medicine pathway, I never intended having a long-term career in academic medicine. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by such great mentors and leaders in the field of PM&R, which helped to solidify my career choice. I chose a career in academic medicine because of the desire to continue with an intellectually stimulating work environment. After the first year, I was still unsure of my future career path; however, I knew that I enjoyed teaching residents and medical students. One of my mentors, Dr. Laura Kezar, encouraged me to get involved with medical student mentorship opportunities along with teaching in the medicine school. This experience was invigorating and reenergizing for me. I soon realized how much I enjoyed working with students and residents. I began to express my interest in leadership roles to leaders in the department. In 2009, I was appointed Medical Director of the Inpatient Spinal Cord Injury Program.

By the end of my 3rd year, as Assistant Professor, I had solidified my decision to stay in academic medicine. I had no idea of what other leadership positions or roles would be available for me, so I wanted to be well prepared for the right time and opportunity when it did come. I also expressed to senior leadership my interest in pursuing more leadership roles. I started by getting involved in my department and seeking out opportunities nationally to develop myself professionally. These and other opportunities such as AAMC Early and Mid-Career leadership seminars and AAP's Program for Academic Leadership have aided in my success. The AAP has contributed to the success of my career immensely. I was honored to be selected to participate in the Program for Academic Leadership (PAL) from 2014-2017. This experience was an invaluable opportunity to be mentored by senior academicians and others leaders in the field. PAL has enhanced my leadership skills and provided a better understanding of how academic institutions function on a research, administrative and education level.

The need for academic leadership development cannot be overemphasized. It is important to seek continuous learning and networking both formally and informally throughout your career. In 2014, I took on a leadership as PM&R Residency Program Director. Serving as Residency Program Director and having the opportunity to teach residents and medical students is the most rewarding and gratifying accomplishment in my career. The mentoring, support and endless resources I’ve also received through the AAP’s Residency Program Directors Council has been extremely useful. Because of my active involvement, I have been given the opportunity to participate on various committees and be a part of change.

To advance in your career, you must promote yourself. Know your worth and advocate for yourself and others. Not only is it imperative to be a role model and mentor for other young physicians, but we must explore opportunities to mentor and engage people in our communities. Do not limit yourself! You have more leverage than you think, even early in your career. Research your salary and compensation, and do not be afraid to negotiate. I encourage you to understand the promotion process early in your career. After residency and fellowship, continue to seek professional development opportunities. Attend your national meetings and get involved. Find mentors, sponsors and coaches to assist with development of your career path. Most importantly, aim for work-life balance as much as possible and take care of yourselves both physically and mentally!