By Shikha Jain, MD
Mentorship is such an important aspect of medicine. Unfortunately, with the increasing demands on many physicians’ professional lives, mentorship can often take a backseat to other, sometimes menial tasks. Making sure our charts are closed on time so we aren’t penalized can seem like a more pressing commitment than sitting down with a young physician to discuss their career. But mentorship is one of the things that makes medicine such a special field. Mentors have the awesome responsibility, and privilege, of guiding the next generation of physicians. By doing so, the next generation can come through medicine and make it better for both those who work in health care as well as the patients whose lives rely on it. Mentorship serves the purpose of not only helping individuals succeed in their career goals but has the potential to make a difference on a global scale by grooming the next set of physicians to take the lead and improve upon an imperfect medical system.
I have been fortunate thus far to have several mentors who have had a major impact on my life and my career. I have accumulated unique pearls of wisdom from different people at different stages in my life. This is why I encourage young physicians and trainees develop a “binder of mentors” as opposed to finding just one. Each mentor can serve a different purpose and help in a different way, and a mentee can thrive by building this collection of mentors throughout their professional life. There are many qualities that I have found to be effective in the mentors I have been lucky enough to interact with, and I have tried to implement them in my mentor/mentee relationships. Here are a few that I have found to be especially helpful.
Initially, find the time to meet at regular intervals, and continue to be available to your mentee. Between charting and patient load, research projects, and trying to keep up with updates in our fields, sometimes it is difficult to pencil a few moments in. Many of us worry that we need to find a significant amount of time in order to be inspirational or provide the highest quality of mentorship. Phone calls or meetings with our mentees end up delayed until we find that amount of time. But setting up a regular check-in with your mentee can be incredibly useful to develop the relationship, and when that bond has been created, future chats do not always need to be as structured or regular. Building the bridge and relationship early on will lead to a more fruitful relationship in the future. Do not wait until you feel you have “enough” time. Developing a more consistent relationship with continuity early on may be more beneficial to your mentee than a few longer meetings where you feel you had the time to make a significant impact. One of my earlier mentors was the program director (PD) of the internal medicine program at my medical school. We started out with lunch every few months when I was a third-year student. We developed a strong mentor-mentee relationship, and now all these years later, I can send him a quick email or text when we can’t get together and know that he will send me back insightful advice. This is despite the fact we no longer live in the same state. Because he knows me well from our first few years, he is able to provide guidance and advice this many years later from a different time zone. These types of relationships have been my most rewarding as a mentee. We have coffee and meet when we can, but the relationship we forged early on over lunches and casual sit-downs has now developed into one of mentor/mentee, and friendship.
Help your mentee define what they hope to get from the relationship. Encourage them to come up with a list of short-term and long-term goals, and how they feel you can help them succeed in achieving their goals. If they aren’t sure how to create goals, or map out their future, help them tease out what they hope to accomplish in their career and work backwards.
Acknowledge and address imposter syndrome, especially if your mentee brings up feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt. It is pervasive throughout medicine, and helping your mentee name it, and then come up with constructive solutions early on will help him or her to succeed. You may be experiencing some of your own imposter syndrome while mentoring, and that is also perfectly normal. Use your experiences to help your mentee face his or her challenges. It has been found that many physicians, often women, do not apply for opportunities because of feelings of inadequacy, or the feeling that they do not “fulfill all of the requirements” and thus are not deserving of the opportunity. Encourage your mentee to explore prospects that may seem like a stretch. The worst that can happen is they are rejected, and then that experience can be used as a learning opportunity to help them achieve their goals down the line. Many times, the grant/position/committee/speaking engagement may seem out of reach, but your mentee may be pleasantly surprised when they unexpectedly succeed. By sponsoring them and encouraging them to step outside of what they feel is their comfort zone, you may be able to help them achieve goals they had not thought were possible.
On that note, find ways to be a sponsor as well as a mentor. Lift up your mentee and give them credit when they accomplish something. Champion them by suggesting their name for projects or committees or leadership roles that may help them advance in their career. It is the responsibility of senior faculty to amplify young physicians, and not only acknowledge the work they do, but also give junior faculty the opportunity to put their name on their work and be recognized. Remember that their successes are also your successes, and by giving credit where credit is due, you not only help them develop their career, you also strengthen the mentor/mentee relationship. My first mentor was my father, a vascular surgeon. He encouraged me from the day I expressed interest in becoming a physician to reach above and beyond what I thought was possible. He championed me by suggesting I apply for opportunities that I would have never thought attainable. With his guidance and support, I was one of the first medical students to present my research at a national surgical conference. His counsel and sponsorship are a large part of who I am today, both professionally and personally. Because of his support and confidence in me, I was recently able to develop and execute a first-of-its-kind national women in medicine conference at my institution. My father continues to be a wonderful sponsor and continues to encourage me to reach above and beyond, and for that I am forever grateful.
While sponsoring and mentoring, it is incredibly important that you are honest and frank with your mentee. They will benefit most from hearing from your experiences, and what you have learned from them. Your missteps and challenges can become the stepping stones your mentee uses to help them achieve greatness. I have several virtual mentors in oncology who are very open about mistakes they have made in the past, and how they have used these challenges to improve upon themselves and become successful leaders in the field. They have learned from their challenges, and they use these lessons to help prevent me from making the same mistakes.
It is also important to remember that you can mentor at any stage in your career. Medical students can mentor college and high school students, residents can mentor medical students or interns, junior attendings can mentor residents, and so on. Do not think that because you are not a senior faculty member that your insight and experiences are not relevant. Some of my most insightful and effective guidance has come from trainees at different times in my career.
I recently heard some poignant words from Dr. Thomas Varghese where he described what he does at the end of the day with his team. He buys them coffee, sits down with them, and they debrief. The conversation can revolve around patients they saw that day, the surgeries they completed, or personal anecdotes. He explains that learning where his trainees come from, why they chose medicine, their thought processes, and what makes them who they are helps him to work better with his team, and be a more effective mentor and leader. We must learn to take the time to sit and talk to our next generation of physicians. The few minutes we spend with them may have a significant impact on their future, and we will likely learn a few things from them in the process.
So don’t put off being a mentor or developing the mentor/mentee relationship because you feel like you don’t have the time, or you think you won’t be a good mentor, or you suffer from imposter syndrome. Sometimes, a small amount of effort put in early on will make all the difference in the world, and we all can work towards improving the health care system and the practice of medicine one physician at a time.
Dr. Jain is a board-certified hematology and oncology physician on faculty at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Her research interests include GI oncology, the impact of social media on medicine, gender equity and career advancement for women in medicine, medical education, and she writes and speaks on these topics. She has written for Doximity, KevinMD, and ASCO Connection, and she founded and co-chaired the first CME Women In Medicine Symposium at Northwestern. Follow her on Twitter @ShikhaJainMD or her website www.shikhajainmd.com.