Mentorship in medicine may come naturally to many doctors. The act of sitting down with another physician and either giving or receiving career advice is similar to the nature of a patient consultation – you and your mentor will need to sit down together, be present, and listen to what’s being discussed. Despite this natural affinity, young physicians are increasingly bypassing these traditional mentor-mentee relationships – according to some medical schools, because so many medical students are on fast tracked academic programs that do not offer work experience, and because so many career questions can be answered online now, many young doctors are seeing these mentor-mentee relationships as old fashioned.
This couldn’t be farther from the case. Since so many medical programs offer fast tracked academic pathways, many medical students go a long time before hitting critical ‘decision points’ in their career goals, such as which job to take, which physician to work under, or whether to pursue an additional certification. When these decision points do happen, physicians who have an established mentor relationship with someone older and wiser are much more likely to make choices they won’t regret. In addition, mentors can often offer much in the way of professional connections, coaching, and sponsorships for publications, promotions, or specific job duties.
The importance of a mentor in achieving career goals can’t be overstated – many physicians across all specialties will admit that they owe much of their career success to good mentors, and many became mentors themselves. So how can a mentor help your career? Here are some things to consider:
1. Finding a Mentor – or Two
While it might seem daunting to go seeking out mentor relationships, many mentor-mentee situations present themselves on their own. Are there doctors you met in residency you might ask to mentor you on a longer term basis? Older students in medical school? Established doctors at a new hospital or clinic? Taking on a mentor can be as simple as asking a physician you trust for some advice.
Outside of formal mentorship programs offered through employers and residency positions, most mentorship in medicine relationships aren’t labelled – that is, you don’t necessarily go up to a colleague and ask them to mentor you. Instead, most physicians recommend looking for someone ahead of you in the specialization or on a career track you could envision yourself in and asking them some specific questions – like ‘how can I find a research opportunity in pediatrics before I have experience in the specialty?’ or ‘what has your experience been while working at this clinic?’ before suggesting you two get coffee or chat.
Depending on what stage you are in your medical career, you might have multiple mentor relationships. For example, a medical student might continue to be mentored by an older physician who they met in residency. If they take on a new role in another clinic, they might also have someone who acts as a clinical mentor, monitoring and assisting in their progress in this specific location. If they’re interested in a research role, they may also have an academic or research mentor to assist in getting them publications or opportunities within the field.
2. Establish Your Mentor’s Role
Once you’ve established a mentor-mentee relationship, the next step in developing this relationship is setting out expectations for you and your professional advisor. According to the Harvard Business Review, the mentorship arrangement need not be the typical ‘seasoned expert providing guidance’ scenario – mentors could also act as coaches, sponsors, or connectors. In addition to the more typical mentor who guides you along your career track overall, you could also have a coach at your employer, a sponsor who vouches for you when it comes time to land a new job opportunity or promotion, or a connector, someone who has many contacts in the field and will serve as a ‘master networker’ and link you with the coaches and sponsors you need for success.
One of the most important factors in the successful mentor-mentee relationship is that your mentor knows the kind of role they play. Some mentors might only be interested in connecting you with other doctors or sponsoring you for promotions. They might be too busy or not interested in connecting with you on a more personal or continuing mentorship basis, but happy to connect you to their contacts or sponsor you when it comes down to a promotion. Keep in mind different physician’s levels of experience and prominence within the field.
A highly established medical specialist might be the perfect person to vouch for you for a job opening in their specialty, but not necessarily the most available for personal conversations. Make sure both you and your mentor have a clear understanding of the roles you’ll both be expected to play, although this doesn’t have to be a formal conversation. Just make sure to read the room while you’re connecting – do they book a full hour for your coffee chat, or just spend a few minutes responding to emails? Do they seem interested in your personal development as a whole, or just offer their experience as a connection? Paying attention to the little signs and cues from your meeting will give you a good indication of what kind of role your mentor wants to play. If your meeting goes well and you do want a more traditional guidance based relationship, ask them if they would be willing to meet on an ongoing basis to help you along with your career.
3. Career Development Questions to Ask Your Mentor
Once you’ve established a mentorship relationship and thought about your mentor’s role in your career, the next step is to start thinking about some career development questions to ask mentors. Make sure to think hard about these – good questions will reflect your genuine interest, your passion for the field, and be specific, targeted, and answerable. Don’t ask senior medical staff questions that you could easily find answers to on the internet, and try to avoid pumping your mentor for information on how to get something (like a residency spot in pediatrics or a juicy connection). Questions that are too open (such as ‘I’m interested in internal medicine. What is your best advice?’) might be hard for your mentor to answer or make you seem like you haven’t put enough thought into your meeting – what parts of internal medicine are you interested in? Are you looking for help choosing one program or the other? Connections to land a job offer, or just advice on how to transition into the field?
Instead, target your questions to the kind of mentoring relationship you think you’ll have. If you’re looking for more of a sponsor or a connector relationship, some career development questions to ask mentors might be along the lines of ‘I am interested in working in pediatrics after graduation, but I did my residency in family medicine. Do you have any advice on how I can transition into the field?’
For more traditional mentor-mentee relationships, career development questions to ask your mentor might be more personal. Forbes magazine suggests prompting your mentors to tell you stories about their career – such as ‘would you have expected to be where you are now when you were in medical school?’, ‘what are some risks you’ve had to take in your career?’ or ‘tell me about the kinds of patients you’ve had in your practice?’. This is doubly true for medicine, where seasoned physicians who have had long and exciting careers would likely enjoy regalling you with tales from the ER or clinic. You could learn a lot from these conversations as well, so making sure you have enough time to listen and pay attention to what your mentor is saying is key too.
On a more strategic level, career advice questions to ask mentors might involve discussing your strengths, skills, and goals, or be along the lines of ‘how can I transfer my experience in the ER into a position in academic medicine?’ – assuming your mentor knows your career track so far, they will understand your unique skills, experiences and talents, and be able to help you chart a course to your career destination. They can also help you see the pitfalls of a certain route and help you make major career decisions or transitions.
Other career development questions to ask your mentor could involve your current workplace situation, including getting along with coworkers and medical office staff, how to ask for and develop skills for a promotion, and what kinds of continuing education opportunities you should pursue to achieve your goals.
Since physicians can take on such a broad range of roles, see all kinds of patients, and work in so many different settings across the country, the importance of a mentor in achieving career goals is crucial for doctors – not only can a good mentor guide you along your career path with ease, they also offer the kind of invaluable advice that only comes from experience. If you’re respectful, thank them for their time, and listen closely to what they have to say, your mentor relationships could help you out for years to come!