Honoring Excellence: Q and A with Susan E. Kirk, MD

January 25, 2023

This interview is one in a series of interviews with recipients of the 2023 ACGME Awards. The awardees join an outstanding group of previous honorees whose work and contributions to graduate medical education (GME) represent the best in the field. They will be honored at the ACGME Annual Educational Conference, taking place in Nashville, Tennessee February 23-25, 2023.

2023 Parker J. Palmer Courage to Lead Awardee Dr. Susan Kirk is the designated institutional official (DIO) and associate dean for GME at the University of Virginia (UVA).

ACGME: How did you become involved in medicine, and in academic medicine specifically?

Dr. Kirk:
When I was 10, I told my mother that I wanted to become a veterinarian, and she suggested that becoming a doctor might be more fulfilling as it is easier to talk with one’s patients. Now 36 years into my career, I’m not sure she was right. I’ve met some fabulous vets over the years who seem to have communicated just fine with our furry family members! Then when I was 15, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The wonderful doctor who cared for me also had Type 1 diabetes and I decided at that moment that I wanted to do exactly what he did. Over time, I found that I really enjoyed teaching medical students and residents and so that became my natural career path.

ACGME: What does this award mean to you?

Dr. Kirk: This award means so very much to me. The DIO community is filled with hard-working, self-effacing, creative, determined (the list of adjectives could go on!) individuals, and to be recognized out of so many worthy individuals is truly humbling. I’m also a huge fan of so many of the DIOs who have won this in previous years. GME is a team sport, and there is no way I could have achieved my success over the years without the support of so many people. In that way, it is also a recognition of graduate medical education at UVA. Finally, in a less-than-six-degrees-of-separation cool kind of way, I am thrilled to share this year’s Courage to Lead Awards with Kim Baker-Genaw, with whom I worked closely on the ACGME Institutional Review Committee, and Antoinette Spevetz, who is the DIO at my alma mater. Although Antoinette and I have never met, we’re connected to many of the same people in medical education.

ACGME: What do you feel is the most important job a designated institutional official has?

Dr. Kirk: The most important part of this job is ensuring that everyone else succeeds, from the newest intern to those in the largest residency program. That is often time-consuming, and occasionally involves performing delicate balancing acts. The most important traits that a DIO can bring to the job, in my opinion, are to be consistently fair, to be a good listener, to avoid making quick judgements, and to hold things in confidence when necessary. And to pay attention to details and deadlines! If a DIO can do those things well, they will serve their community well.

ACGME: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Dr. Kirk: I know it sounds cliché, but it is in seeing others succeed. To watch a new intern or faculty member, new program director, or GME staff member learn and grow in their role and then fledge to a bigger perch (to use a birder’s analogy) is so satisfying. It’s also very rewarding to work with a struggling program or learner and see them turn it around completely. Often this takes a lot of effort from many people (see the ‘team sport’ analogy, above), but it is so worth it.

ACGME: What is the most challenging?

Dr. Kirk: The most challenging thing is to have responsibility for an environment where there is a large need for resources, but not to be in control of where those resources are allocated. I am grateful that things are going well at my institution, but it is a constant effort to ensure that GME is not taken for granted, and that everyone has what they need to take care of patients and receive the training they need.

ACGME: What advice do you have to residents or fellows who may be interested in pursuing a career in academic medicine?

Dr. Kirk: Keep at it! No one graduates from high school saying, “I’m going to be a DIO (or program director) when I grow up.” Often this career path isn’t obvious until you are actually immersed in it. Opportunities arise frequently; just be ready to accept them when they do. Programs are often looking for help with Program Evaluation Committees, or interviewing, or help in revising a curriculum. There are a lot of ways to be recognized for your talents early on, and people will notice!

ACGME: Is there anything you would like to add we haven’t asked about?

Dr. Kirk: You didn’t ask me what my favorite bird was. Almost everyone asks that! (I don’t have a favorite… it’s more of a top 10 list). More seriously, I’d really like to thank all my colleagues and my family for their support in the 17 years I’ve been at UVA. They have ensured that I have had the best job in the world.


Learn more about the ACGME’s Parker J. Palmer Courage to Lead Award and nominate a deserving DIO for the 2024 Award – nominations are due by March 15, 2023.