Why all physicians need mentors

Having a mentor leads to a more successful and satisfying career for doctors. So how does one go about finding a mentor mid-training or after training? Many medical schools and residency programs have mentorship requirements for trainees. But those mentorship needs may change if a student or resident (like myself!) changes their mind about what they want to be when they grow up. I have been enthusiastic about a different specialty every one to two years during training which led to frequent frantic searches for mentors. Even now as an attending four to five years into my career, I continue to seek advice from peers and more experienced colleagues. Here is what I have learned.

Finding mentors in medical school

I started with a devotion to emergency medicine, migrated to surgery and then, surprisingly to me, ended up in pediatrics. I had to find mentors at each stage because my assigned advisor was not in any of those fields. The first activity I joined as a medical student was the Emergency Medicine Interest Group (EMIG, anyone?). Many other specialties have interest groups as well and invite attendings to talk about their career paths and usually leave their contact information for medical students to get in touch. Interest groups may also keep a list of attendings willing to speak to trainees about their careers one on one.

When I became curious about surgery, I reached out to a few surgeons via the school’s directory and asked to shadow a surgery during the summer between first and second year of medical school. My first experience in the operating room was a kidney transplant. My brain that day had so many questions and so much excitement! I became more interested in cardiothoracic surgery, a small department, where everyone there became my mentor  —  all male. I also went to the cardiothoracic surgery website to contact and meet up with two female cardiothoracic surgeons from different programs to pick their brilliant minds.

Finally, when I realized my interest in pediatrics (last rotation in third year, of course), I didn’t have much time to find a mentor. I talked to the clerkship director about my interests in pediatric emergency medicine, and he set me up with more time in the pediatric section of the emergency department at our hospital during my rotation. I also kept in touch with two of my inpatient attendings and many years later, emailed them about job opportunities and career questions.

Finding mentors in residency

During residency, I was so very sure I would finish and go on to a pediatric emergency medicine (PEM) fellowship. I reached out to a PEM attending and asked to collaborate with him on a research project. I got started on doing chart reviews and collecting data on bronchiolitis admissions from the emergency department. Then July of second year rolled around and, huh, I didn’t even sweat missing the deadline for fellowship application, and that’s when I realized what my peers knew all along, my calling was in primary care pediatrics. All the attendings at my continuity clinic played some role in mentoring me and answering my questions about career development. As I looked for a job, one of the inpatient directors also gave me very practical advice and feedback about interviewing and emotional intelligence.

Finding mentors post training

Once I found a job, I was focused on survival for a few years. Recently, however, a community pediatrician retired. I have been interested in her advocacy work, so I used the opportunity to send her an email congratulating her on retirement and asking to meet her over coffee, lunch, or breakfast, specifically as a mentor. She was so thrilled, and I was so excited to absorb her passion and to brainstorm with her some future projects. Furthermore, through my professional organizations (American Academy of Pediatrics, Pennsylvania Medical Society), I have found a few more seasoned pediatricians to run by questions about difficult cases, career development and compensation and advice for communicating with the media and blogging.

Final tips on finding mentors

Research strongly shows that mentorship matters — especially for women and minorities. Don’t wait for a mentor to appear in the seat across from you at the coffee shop. Reach out. Even for introverts, you can start the process from the comfort of sitting alone on your laptop. Find mentors through interest groups, hospital directories, specialty websites, and professional organizations. Also, make your interests known to let those around you help gets you connected, because the medical community is sometimes a small world, and chances are someone you know knows someone who could be a potential mentor.

Joannie Yeh is a pediatrician who blogs at Betamomma.com and is a founding member, Girl Med Media, Inc. She can be reached on Twitter @Betamomma.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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