If you are like me and you love pop culture, then when you think of a teacher or a mentor there are number of characters that come to mind. Thoughtful, engaged individuals such as Yoda or Mr. Miyagi or Dumbledore. If you want to get medical, you could even think of crusty yet wise people like Dr. Cox. As you can tell, they all have a different style and approach, but they all are pretty effective in the end. Mentors serve a valuable role in your growth as a medical professional, both now and into the future. You can learn a great deal about medicine from books and journal articles and even by seeing patients. But to truly learn how to be a physician, you also need to be able to push yourself, to identify weak areas, to work through difficult and trying times, to move outside of your comfort zone. These things are difficult to do on your own. A good mentor can help you do all of these things in more by giving you a different perspective and by sharing their experience and knowledge with you.
So what is the key to finding a mentor? To me the biggest thing to consider what you need. It sounds a bit dirty or unseemly to say that mentoring is a “transactional” relationship, but I think there is a lot of value in thinking of it that way. What are you trying to get out of this relationship? Can that other person provide what you are looking for? Thinking of it this way can help keep the relationship sharp and focused and lead you to identify individuals that can properly assist you.
The first mentor that I had in residency was an individual that I selected specifically because I identified that there were certain skills that I was deficient in that I felt that I needed to gain in order to progress as a teacher and administrator. I tend to be a conflict avoider and non-confrontational, but I knew that going forward as a leader I needed to expand my skills. I needed to find ways be more comfortable with conflict, with saying things that needed to be said, even if it was unpleasant. I needed to be able to look at situations more critically and look for ways for a project or an idea to be improved and not just settle for “That looks good enough!” There was a faculty member that I admired for her ability to say what needed to be said and smart about ways to improve ideas and engage with other members of the team to do so. To not settle for good enough and to encourage those around her to stretch out of their comfort areas. So one day, I went up to her and asked her if she would be willing to teach me some of these skills that she had. She agreed and we have had a rather successful collaboration since then.
So… what do you need? Think of it broadly. For most of you, you are interested in trying to get into residency and you are looking for someone with the experience to get you there. Am I competitive enough? How many places should I apply? Which programs are right for me? But there are also many other things you might be in need of. Maybe you are looking to start doing some research and there is a faculty member working in an area that you are interested in. Or maybe they have a way of speaking or a way they carry themselves as a professional that you admire and you want to be more like that. Maybe they have the type of career or specialty that you are interested and you want to learn more about how to make that happen. All of these reasons and more are great traits and skills to identify in a potential mentor.
Do not be afraid of the faculty. While not every single faculty member is willing or interest in being a mentor to a student, the fact is that many of them are. They are interested in talking with, working with and engaging with learners. That is why many faculty members are here at the academic center. They could be out in the private world making more money or having better hours, but they are here because they can engage with the energy and spirit of learners. Plus, who doesn’t feel a bit flattered when someone comes up to you and says “You have something worthwhile to offer me, I want to be more like you. Please help me do that”? So, if you are working with an interesting faculty member on the wards or in clinic, strike up a conversation with them during a free moment. Ask to set up a meeting with them. During the pre-clinical years, approach faculty after lectures or exam blocks or at the end of the semester. Look them up in the email system and send them an email asking to meet. As long as you are courteous and professional, what is the worst thing that can happen? They may say no. But, there is also the overwhelming possibility that they might say yes.
Having a specific purpose for wanting this person to be your mentor also might help convince the faculty member to say yes. Just asking someone vaguely to be your mentor can feel a bit daunting or overwhelming to the faculty member. It can feel like a large commitment. However, if you are asking about a specific skill or project or goal, it can make the experience seem more manageable to your potential mentor. Plus, it is a way to stay focused when you meet, it gives you a purpose and can help both of you get more out of the experience. It can also help when it is time to end a mentoring relationship. While ending any relationship will hurt somewhat, by having a specific goal or task in mind when that goal is achieved it becomes a good time to reassess if the mentoring relationship should continue on, or if it has run its course. And if progress is not being made towards the goal, it is an appropriate stimulus to break off a mentoring relationship that is not working.
Many students are looking for a Career Mentor to help them explore specialty interests and make themselves more competitive for residency applications. The Mentoring and Advising Program has cultivated a list of contacts in each department to help each student better engage with the specialties. Please check out our new page for information about contacting a Career Mentor. Remember that this individual is not necessarily intended to be your long-term mentor. They are merely an entryway into the specialty and to help you further engage and find an actual mentor or more than one mentor.
Don’t be afraid. Go out an find your Yoda. Hopefully you won’t have to go on too far reaching of a quest…
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Dr. McKenna is a graduate of IU School of Medicine, where he also completed a pediatric residency. He served as chief resident and was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the Associate Program Director for the pediatric residency p...