FAQs: Learning Network

I’m new here.  And I’m kinda overwhelmed.  Where should I start?

I suggest that you start by glancing over this set of slides.  Don’t take more than 20 minutes.  Then glance over this list of FAQs on this page.  Again, don’t take more than 20 minutes.  If you’re still interested, go back to the slides and spend more time.  But don’t read all of the links, unless it really interests you.  Then come back to the FAQs.  After that, it completely depends on you.  Consider coming to the meetings.  Or learning more.  Or connecting with other students or faculty.  Feel free to ask lots of questions!

Can I come to your meetings if I am not employed by you?

Absolutely!  The meetings are open to all:  paid, unpaid, future students, former students, community professionals, concerned citizens, faculty, administration, etc.

Will I be a university employee?

No.  You will be an employee of Dr. Swanson.

What is it like to work with Dr. Swanson?

Here is some feedback from students that have worked with me.

Should I cc you on emails if I am organizing meetings, inviting other people, mobilizing, etc?

Feel free to cc me on any correspondence that might be relevant.  Err on the side of contacting me too much.

Should I provide the contact information for the personal references, or a letter?

Definitely include contact information.  It is up to you if you include a letter.  Or you could attach an audio or video reference.

Should the references be sent directly to you, or as part of the packet?

Preferably as part of the packet.

I’m worried about wasting my time.  It seems like there are so many applicants for so few positions.  Should I just not bother?

Maybe.  If your primary motivation is pay, this opportunity is probably not for you.  I’m looking for people whose primary motivation is to contribute to or catalyze a premier learning network.  If that’s you, you won’t likely feel like learning about this is a waste.  You might even find it exciting, refreshing, and motivating even if you don’t get paid.  Also, I’m convinced that other funds will emerge.  Because this is important stuff.  But I could be wrong.

What if I don’t think that the complex systems lens (or learning network or collective impact) that you are advocating is the best approach.  Can I suggest something different?

Absolutely!  If your proposal demonstrates a thoughtful critique of any of my approaches, it deserves special and extra consideration.

If my proposal wasn’t accepted, should I reapply next time?

Yes, if you’re genuinely interested!  You are welcome to apply as many times as you’d like.  Demonstration of learning and commitment over time will be a very positive consideration.

You’ve said many times that we should share our ideas, that we should mobilize others.  Won’t that backfire?  Aren’t I in competition with other students?

It does seem paradoxical.  I’m more interested in hiring students that are learners and mobilizers and inspirations that I am in hiring students that think that they have the right or best answer and feel a need to keep things secret.  I know that this might go against what you’re accustomed to, but improving health is a tough problem.  We need to learn from each other!

I’m really frustrated.  On the one hand, I’m intrigued by the ideas, and inspired by the potential.  But despite hours of reading, I still have no idea where to start to develop a proposal.  Everything just seems too abstract and conceptual.  Any suggestions?

I don’t have any detailed recipe for success.  But here’s one possible approach:

  1.  Consider what is happening now with regards to health in the community that you are interested in.
  2. Imagine the ideal future in 20 years in that community.  This document might help with these first 2 steps:  https://docs.google.com/document/d/194MNeFCI7Ls5h7oijTaFeUu5IU9TGonKN7hd0v3N-5A/edit
  3. Who are the key stakeholders that would need to be engaged to realize that future?
  4. Are those stakeholders engaged in a learning organization or network with a complex systems lens?  If so, what could you do to join them?  If not, what could you do to catalyze one?

When I’m hired, will we definitely implement my proposal?

Probably, but not necessarily. And there will almost certainly be modifications to your proposal.  Once I’ve hired students, we will sit down as a team,and decide.

How sure are you that this opportunity will continue?

I’m 99.99% sure that it will last one semester, 80% sure that it will last more than a year, 65% sure that it will last 5 years, and 50% sure that it will last 20 years.

Can I include funds in my proposal for travel and conference expenses?

Yes.  However, you’ll need to ensure that your conference and travel expenses (and other proposed funds) add value to the network.

Can I get paid for activities such as course work, clubs, another job, reading, learning, honors thesis, attending meetings, masters project, etc?

Yes.  As long as the work that I am paying you for is advancing the learning network from a complex social systems perspective.

Should I cite references with my proposal?  If so, do they count toward the total word count?  How should I reference them?

Feel free to cite references.  They do not count toward the word total.  Reference them anyway that is consistent and professional.  I prefer a link placed as a footnote so that I can easily refer to it.

Ok.  I’ve tried that approach.  And I’ve read for dozens of hours.  I’m still interested, but still not sure what to propose.  Should I still apply?

Yes.  This is more about a learning journey, than it is about finding the one perfect way forward.  In your proposal, share what you’ve learned, and how you could learn more.

I think that (insert a political party, ideology, interest group, etc) is to blame for our health systems woes.  Can I focus my proposal on why I think that?

Absolutely.  But you must frame it from a complex systems perspective.  And the more complex a system is, the more distributed the blame.

Is complex systems thinking aligned more with one political party or ideology?

No.  In my view, the concepts could be applied equally to socialists and libertarians.

Do you want to replace biomedical reductionism with complex social systems thinking in health?

No.  I recognize the phenomenal successes of reductionism.  I’m just seeking an optimal balance that better approximates what we as a society want.

You say that I can ask as many questions that I want.  Do you really mean that?  What if you get too many questions?  Will you have time to answer them all?

I do mean that.  If you are willing to put in the time to learn and explore, I’ll engage with you.  I suppose that I could imagine a scenario where I just don’t have time and I’d have to change my approach.  But that seems highly unlikely.  I’ll spend at least one minute on each email that I get.

I’m worried that my question might be stupid.  I feel like I should read more before asking.  Should I?

If you’re uncertain, err on the side of contacting me too much.

I’m really interested in these ideas and this movement.  If I’m not hired, I’d love to volunteer.  I’m concerned, though, that my ideas and contribution won’t be valued.  How much time or priority will you give to those of us that weren’t chosen to get paid? 

My priority will be based exclusively on the extent to which we share a vision and commitment to a premier health learning network.  My engagement will have nothing to do with whether you were chosen to be paid.  I realize that the process of hiring is imperfect.  I also realize that some of the greatest contributions to social movements have come from volunteers that are self-motivated.  I sincerely hope that you’ll join us regardless of whether or not you get paid.  And you might get hired next semester.

I’m interested in focusing my proposal on (insert your problem or population of choice here:  pediatric AIDS, breast cancer, biotechnology, diabetes, hispanic poor).  Can I do that?

Yes.  However, you will need to approach your specific issue with a complex systems lens, and make a strong argument for how your proposed activities will strengthen a learning network long-term.

What style of systems theory are you likely to be using? For example: systems dynamics, complexity theory, systems analysis, chaos theory, cybernetics?

Purists may be disappointed, but I apply those concepts and theories (and combinations) that seem to have practical application.  Mostly complex adaptive systems, and systems thinking.  I’ve been influenced by the following books (all worth glancing over):  Peter Senge’s the Fifth Discipline; Donella Meadows’ Systems Thinking:  A Primer; Bob Williams’ and Richard Hummelbrunner‘s Systems Concepts in Action; and Scott Page’s Great Course on Complexity.  Mostly, I hope is to contribute to a network and institutional changes where experts and practitioners are supported and incentivized to apply any and all of the complexity and systems methods, tools, concepts, approaches, and theories as needed to optimize how we as a society approach health improvement.

What specific areas of the healthcare system are you interested in? For example, are you researching flows of resources or patients in hospitals, inter-hospital flows, or macro-scale public health relationships?

I’m most interested in catalyzing and/or contributing to a learning network that considers and addresses all of those issues, and many more.  I’m most interested in historical, transformational change that has a global impact.

Is your interest in the subject theoretical, or are you already involved with a collective impact organization? If the latter, then what stage of development is the endeavor in (has the backbone organization been formed, for example)?

My interest in collective impact is fairly new, though I’ve been interested in the ideas for years, and have loosely applied the principles.  For example, I formed this network:  http://st4chealth.com/about-this-call/

Can I email you a rough draft of my proposal for feedback?  If so, how many times can I do that?

Yes, though I will only spend about 1 minute per email initially.  If I think that there is potential, I’ll spend more time.  You can send the draft back to me as many times as you’d like.

Is it okay if the proposals I send build off of each other?

Yes!  In fact, I only suggest that you send proposals that build on previous or ongoing work.

Are you seeking students who are searching for part-time or full-time work?

Part-time, though the hours could be full time for a short period of time.  Students can’t work for more than 1000 in a year.

Will the research be organized by you or are you seeking proposals for research ideas from your applicants?

Could be either.  I will review the proposals, decide who to hire, and then we will decide together as a team.

Could my research involve clinical trials? 

Maybe, but probably not.  I’m mostly interested in catalyzing or contributing to a long-term health learning network.  Keep in mind that this opportunity is not exclusively or primarily about research.  I’m interested in catalyzing and/or contributing to a premier health learning network.  As such, you’ll want to consider activities such as advocating, mobilizing, advertising, organizing, etc, as well as how your research proposal furthers the strengthening of the network.

Do you know how many students will be in attendance at the meetings?

I really don’t.  In the past, sometimes only 1 or 2 show up, other times dozens do.  You could take a look at the doodle scheduling to see how many have responded.

If our proposal is accepted, and it involves research, will you be our mentor for methodology?

I will help as much as I am able.  Having said that, I strongly urge you to seek help from a full-time, professional academic as well, preferably from your institution.  There are several reasons for this:  my experience and knowledge with rigorous research is limited; my time is even more limited; and engaging with academics has the potential to strengthen the network long-term.  You can, however, count on me to provide guidance as it relates to complex systems thinking.

What would you expect work time to be used for?

I don’t have any specific expectations.  Great question, though, and here’s a more detailed answer:  https://healthsystemsstewards.wordpress.com/2015/11/06/expectations-and-emergence/

Would the 5 people hired work together in any way?

Probably, but not necessarily.  That depends on your proposals, our discussions, and other factors.

Where would we work?

There will be no specific location.  I’m committed to coming to UVU and BYU campuses once a week for an hour.  If there is interest at the University of Utah, I could go up at least once a month.

I will be gone for an internship (or job or trip or whatever) for a few months.  Should I still apply?

Yes.  You could potentially work anywhere, anytime that you have internet access.  I will be very flexible if we have a shared vision.

Are we responsible for the necessary funding to complete our proposed project?

No, but you are welcome, (and maybe encouraged) to consider additional funding and/or collaborators.

Is the proposal you would want us to submit a project we would then work on if we were hired or would we join a project you have already begun?

Either.  However, I caution against thinking in terms of discrete, isolated projects.  Everything that we do ties into catalyzing or contributing to a long-term learning network with a complex systems perspective.

Can my friend and I submit a proposal together, or do we need to create independent proposals?

You can submit as many proposals as you’d like, and however you’d like (as a group, or individually).  If you submit a joint proposal, consider sending a separate individual proposal as well, or a statement that describes possible options.

Should I email the proposal to you?


Should my proposal be primarily focused on improving the local, national, or international healthcare system?

Any is fine.  I’m most interested in catalyzing or contributing to a premier learning health network.

Is there a ballpark amount of hours per week you are looking for?

The only requirement is that each student not exceed 1000 hours in a year.

I may be out of town for part of the time (such as on Jan 1).  Could I still be considered?


Unfortunately, I do not have any background in this field, or related accomplishments, do you think I would still stand a chance to compete for a position?

Yes.  Shared vision, passion, and commitment are much more important than background or accomplishments.

How ambitious are you hoping our proposals to be?

Very.  I’m convinced that together we can change the world.

I have an idea for my proposal.  Would it be alright if I developed it with a Doctor/Mentor of mine?

Absolutely!  In fact, I encourage you to involve others.

What do you want the proposal to be? I think you are looking for a proposed plan for how to further you mission, but are there any specific ideas you want me to propose a solution for?

I don’t have any specific suggestions, though I’m happy to discuss sometime when we meet.  The proposal is for ideas and activities that will strengthen the learning network long-term.

You mention “a video or audio introduction”.  What things would you like in this introduction?  Is it simply an introduction of who I am? 

That is up to you.

And what should I do if I have not had any “accomplishments related to the mission”.  To be honest I had never heard of this mission until a few short weeks ago, so I do not think that I have any such accomplishments.

Shared vision, passion and commitment will be much more important than accomplishments.

I am a little confused as to what exactly you want in the application packet.  You mention “samples of writing or other creative activities” but I am unsure what exactly you are expecting.  You also mention “links to accomplishments”.  I think I understand, but I would like some clarification.  Are these simply things I have accomplished in my life so far?

I don’t have specific expectations.  It is completely up to you.

Would I be too inexperienced as a college student to make a difference?

No.  Shared vision, passion and commitment are much more important than experience.

Are you considering students that are not nursing majors?

Yes.  All majors are encouraged to apply.

Is the proposal the same as a research project?

Maybe, but probably not.  The proposal is your idea to contribute to the vision of a 20 year transformational health learning network.

Can I work for pay after graduation?

Possibly, but not as likely for reasons that I share below.

Can I apply if I’m an international student?

That depends on the type of VISA that you have.  My understanding is that you cannot work with student VISAs.  Keep in mind that you will be Dr. Swanon’s employee, not an employee of the school.

Do you work with people that are finished, or almost finished with school?

I try to work with students that have at least a year left in school for a couple of reasons.  First, there is often lots to learn.  Second, I’m interested in institutional change, which takes time.  If you’re passionate about this idea and movement, however, let me know.  I’m willing to consider any number of possibilities if we have a shared vision of the future.  And there may be lots of other possibilities for funding and involvement, especially in the future.

Is it ok if I only attend one of the meetings?

I will try to avoid duplication of the content of the meetings by posting a summary of the previous meeting on the blog.  There will inevitably be some overlap.  You are welcome to come to as many or as few of the meetings as you would like.

What will be doing during the meetings?

That is entirely up to you.  We could discuss questions or suggestions that students have; review articles on complex systems thinking and health; consider and review proposals; work in small action groups; have students prepare presentations.  I will not be preparing formal material.


  1. […] FAQ page has been updated.  I don’t think that there will be many more additions, but I don’t […]

  2. […] Comment below if you have requests or suggestions for next weeks’ meetings.  We’ve decided to imagine possibilities for proposals at UVU.  If you have further questions about the meetings, see the FAQ page. […]

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