At every stage of my journey in medicine, I have relied upon my mentors. These mentors have led by example, answered my anxiety-filled questions and guided me through career-defining moments. The first half of my residency has been a period of growth for me when it comes to clinical acumen and professional development, and my growth in both domains has been facilitated by my residency mentor.
While certain fundamental characteristics of mentorship are important at any stage of your academic journey, your specific needs will change as your career progresses. As a resident with my eye on fellowship and career opportunities, I look for residency mentors who can help me navigate new scenarios like how to negotiate a contract, how to brand myself as a physician and how to grow as a clinician. Here are three things I’ve learned are important to keep in mind when seeking out a mentor.
1. It’s OK to Say “No” When the Fit Isn’t Right
I started to explore medicine as a potential career in high school. I shadowed a number of medical professionals, from dermatologists and family medicine physicians to nephrologists and interventional cardiologists. These experiences were incredibly informative, as I was able to get a glimpse into different specialties and see how different physicians navigated challenges like work-life balance.
Each of these individuals provided advice — sometimes unsolicited. I will never forget the internist who asked me, “Are you sure you want to go into medicine? You see what my life is like here. Do anything else.” I was startled by his negativity and uncomfortable when he interrogated me about my interest in medicine and my plans for the future. Before I left his clinic, he asked me to keep and touch and said he would love to help me achieve my goals. I realized then that not every mentorship opportunity you come across is one that’s worth taking. Look for the mentors who are going to support you on terms that are healthy and productive for you.
2. Commitment Matters
In medical school, I sought out the mentorship of multiple hematologists/oncologists in both the internal medicine and pediatrics departments. I had assumed that physicians in my subspecialty of interest would be the best or at least most appropriate mentors for me. However, the people I had considered as potential mentors were either overcommitted or unable to help me navigate my journey.
Instead, I found myself mentored by a pediatric pulmonologist and a pediatric intensive care physician. These two mentors were committed to my career — they wrote letters of recommendation, informed me of research opportunities, discussed residency options with me and took the time to check in on my status. Even now, they touch base.
The takeaway? An excellent mentor doesn’t have to do exactly what you want to do in the future. It’s more important that your mentor is committed to your success.
3. You Are Likely to Have Multiple Mentors
There are very few physicians-in-training who stumble across an all-in-one mentor. For example, I have personally benefited from a number of mentors who specialize in different areas of my work life. I have a mentor who has a career in pediatric hematology/oncology, I have a research mentor, I have a mentor who has helped me to navigate the crazy world of residency, and I have a mentor who has modeled a work-life balance that I want to replicate in my career.
I’ve found it to be quite helpful to seek mentorship from individuals who are one step ahead of you in their career, as well as those who are a few steps ahead and those who are settled in their career. Each of their perspectives has been crucial. Each time you meet a potential mentor, ask them for one to three like-minded individuals who could also help you along the way.
Mentorship is invaluable. A great mentor can help you define your path, and a phenomenal residency mentor can help you navigate the transition from training to practice. Often, your residency program will set you up with a de facto residency mentor. This mentor may serve as an all-in-one contact person for you, but if not, they can be your jumping off point. Finding the mentor — or mentors — who will be truly committed to your success may require some self-motivation, but it’s worth the effort.