What you need to know about medical student mentors
No matter what field you’re in, mentorship is one of the most important factors in your early career. A study of private sector mentorship shows that mentorship (having junior employees develop a professional relationship with more senior employees) is a crucial way to develop employees and build leadership skills. And when you’re in a highly specialized, high-pressure field like medicine, that mentorship becomes even more valuable.
What does a mentor do?
Med school will teach you what you need to know about the science and practice of medicine. It teaches you the theory, the ins and outs, the blood and guts. That part doesn’t change, whether you have a mentor or not. What a medical mentor does is offer you the practical side of that knowledge—someone who’s been where you are now, showing you what it’s like to put your education into everyday use.
A mentor can help you with those transitional steps between med school and full-fledged practice, talking you through applying for jobs, preparing for residency interviews, dealing with the stress of the job, dealing with setbacks in med school and out in the field, and helping you find your specialty. A mentor may be a cheerleader—but more importantly, he or she is someone who has your professional interests at heart and wants to help you build a successful medical career. That may involve some tough talk or recommendations that aren’t easy, but are necessary.
Why you need a mentor
No one transitions from school to career without loads of questions. What do I do next? Am I doing this too early/too late? What if I fail a class? What is it going to be like once I graduate? And sure, you can probably cobble that information together from the Internet. But don’t discount the benefits that come from a face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) relationship with someone who already has that knowledge. School can feel isolating, especially as you start to make Big Deal career decisions, so having a go-to relationship where you can ask questions and get honest real-world feedback is extremely helpful.
As you make choices about your future career, you want to make sure you’re making informed ones. Having a source of feedback and help can prevent you from making those decisions in a vacuum and then coming to regret them later. Having someone to say, “Look, here are some hard lessons I learned when I chose to become an internist,” is a major asset if you’re thinking about going down that path, as well.
How to get started
If you’re a med student, you can always try to match to a doctor in your field of interest to act as a mentor. But don’t discount other health professionals who can provide that essential perspective. For example, nurses are in the trenches with doctors and are responsible for providing much of the direct patient care. They can provide precious insight into what it’s like to work with patients, what you can expect to see every day, and how to do basic and essential procedures. They also work closely with physicians and very likely have a solid perspective on what makes a good doctor vs. a not-great doctor. If you’re looking for guidance on the practical aspects of the job, you want it from someone who does it (and does it well) day in and day out, regardless of the degree that person has.
If you want someone to help you with some of the more administrative aspects of being a doctor (like passing exams, the application process, interviews), then you’ll want someone who’s been there—a physician or an administrator. Keep in mind that you’re not limited to just one mentor throughout your career; you can get super-valuable help from different people on different career aspects.
Your mentor can be someone you shadow in the workplace, but don’t feel confined to that box or to your own residency program, if you’ve already started one. Your mentor could be someone you consult on the phone or via email/chat/FaceTime/your preferred digital platform.
If you’re interested in finding a mentor and role model, there’s no time like med school to get that started. That’s not to say that you can’t find one later when you’re already settled in a residency or other job and a great mentoring opportunity presents itself. But like just about all career planning, it’s best to start as early as you can. Things aren’t going to get any easier as you prepare to graduate, and this special kind of networking is best done when you have time to develop a relationship with your mentor.
How to find the right mentor
Like any kind of networking, the place to start is thinking about who you know already. You can ask your faculty advisor if they know anyone who might be a good fit for the kind of mentor you need. There’s also good old online research, if you’re looking for a very specific type of mentor. And if you’re feeling truly stuck on how to get the mentor-mentee process underway, the American College of Physicians (ACP) has a mentor matchmaking database that you can register to use.
Know what you want in a mentor. Do you want someone with a particular research interest? Someone with specific technical expertise? Do you want to know what the everyday life is like for a thoracic surgeon? Before you start reaching out, know what you want to get out of the relationship.
Make sure you’re asking the right questions. Think of it like an interview for your mentor (though obviously, be respectful of their authority in the field and the time they’re taking to speak with you). But in the course of conversation (or in email), feel free to ask them questions like how they chose their specialty, what brought them to medicine, what their own goals were when they were in your position, and what their biggest professional challenges have been. Come up with a list of questions in advance before you talk to your potential mentor.
Keep an open mind. You may find that a potential mentor is great at talking you through exam prep, but not great at helping you find job openings. Or she can offer brilliant insight on research, but not necessarily the day-to-day questions you have. There’s no reason you can’t build relationships with different mentors for different parts of your career—and again, don’t forget to consider people who might be nurses, administrators, or other non-physicians who could bring different perspectives to your career.
Once you’ve found the mentor (or mentors) of your professional dreams, make sure you take care to keep the relationship going—even after you’re no longer a student/newbie. You never know when those professional connections will come in handy. And then the day may come when you find yourself ready to take on a mentee of your own.
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