By Atlal Abusanad, MD, MSc, FRCPC, CIP
Being an oncologist trained abroad allows me to appreciate mentoring as a cornerstone for training and career development. Upon returning to my home country, Saudi Arabia, and beginning to practice as a junior staff physician, I had many ambitions and aspirations motivated by being the first female medical oncologist from my institute, and among a few female oncologists in my country. One of my priorities was partnering with a seasoned professional in my field to help guide and facilitate the new journey. Naturally, I did not know that finding a mentor was such a challenge because I was granted mentorship as a part of the training curriculum abroad. Loaded with enthusiasm, I approached an expert within my professional circle who seemed like a potential mentor. However, the attempt was unsuccessful in connecting our career paths. I decided to try again and follow a more methodical approach when questing for a mentor!
I kept an eye on every potential candidate who seemingly shared my values and career aspirations. The next step was to pinpoint the highest priority of my career and how it could be refined through mentoring. The following step was to assess if the candidate was the right match for my goal. Not only that, but I thought of how to ask someone for mentorship, hesitant to ask them directly to avoid embarrassment if the request was declined. Knowing that mentoring is voluntary, a mentor has to appreciate your potential, assess your values, and decide for themselves to extend a hand if interested. A successful mentorship is mutually beneficial for the mentor and mentee, where each party has to recognize and understand what the other is offering and whether it fits each career path.
An invitation for collaboration on a research project introduced me to my mentor and represented the point where our career paths crossed. Following a number of professional encounters, our mentee/mentor relationship developed steadily over time. I should admit that I was skeptical at first. Nonetheless, my mentor delivered the impression of being invested largely in my professional growth and advancement, a goal that bonded us, and was a gesture that encouraged me to trust this professional association. With that being said, building a mentoring relationship should not be the sole responsibility of the mentor. As a mentee, I had to be communicative and open to feedback.
Mentoring is an evolving process that takes time to mature to achieve the desired outcome, whereas pressuring yourself into finding a mentor may bring you frustration. Timing also plays a crucial role in establishing a mentoring relationship, which we have little control over. Fortunately, my mentor was invested in mentoring at the same time that I was on the lookout for a mentor. While I knew that mentoring was a satisfying task for my mentor, I made sure to show appreciation and gratitude whenever appropriate in exchange for his valuable time and guidance. Another way to reward your mentor's efforts is by showing them that you are becoming a mentor yourself, and will ultimately pass on their mentorship legacy to the next generation.
I also noticed that certain things could only be learned by observing others' experiences; being attentive to my mentor's untold experiences taught me life lessons not reviewed in textbooks.
Distance should not be a barrier to seek mentoring once the looked-for mentor is found. I had a few in-person meetings with my current mentor; however, social media offered us the opportunity to have regular interactions. International oncology societies have adopted cross-border mentoring. For instance, ASCO provides a virtual mentoring program that pairs members with a mentor outside of their institution through phone calls and video conferencing.
Whether virtual or in real-time, the person seeking a mentor has to take a proactive approach, rather than waiting for it to happen. Similarly, engaging with more than one mentor is not unusual, with each providing unique qualities that complement the other and enhancing the career development experience.
While hoping for a long-term mentoring relationship, I reflected on and assessed how I am being supported and empowered by my mentor regularly. We tend to expect more as we grow older and advance more in our careers. Accordingly, having realistic expectations can help frame the mentor/mentee relationship within the appropriate boundaries and avoid frustration.
Lessons learned throughout the mentor quest:
- Pinpoint the highlight or highest aspiration of your career and how it could be refined through mentoring.
- Look for a potential mentor who values mentoring.
- Try again if you could not partner with a mentor.
- Approach a mentor in a way that shows your main goals and career aspirations.
- Allow time for the mentoring relationship to develop.
- Show appreciation and acknowledge whenever appropriate.
- Reflect on and assess your mentorship association periodically to make sure it is helping your career advancement.
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