Has Mentorship Become Cliche?

September 29, 2016 | Olivia Hung, MD, PhD
Career Development

The importance of mentorship cannot be emphasized enough. It is especially critical during the last years of training and the first few years after fellowship completion because this is the time when we are at our most vulnerable. We face career decisions amidst the growing need to accommodate family considerations and we want to enjoy some of the rewards that have been implicitly promised to us when we enrolled in medical school. The next steps in our trajectory are no longer pre-programmed and obvious. As a result, this is a time when we are most likely to need strong mentorship.

But how does one actually find that coveted perfect mentor who will launch one’s career into infinity and beyond the glass ceiling? We have been advised to seize the countless opportunities to get mentors and to work hard on developing those relationships. We have also been counseled to seek multiple mentors and showcase (only) our strengths to them. Most of you will find similarities to my own trial-and-error experiences with mentorship. I have gone through formal mentorship programs, attended mentoring sessions and developed relationships with my supervisors. I have been matched with others through arbitrary selection processes and awkwardly asked directly to be a mentor. I have also formed friendships with people who I share common interests or personality traits.

Several mentorships have been failures. Many have been “paper relationships” – those that look great on a grant application but are superficial with cursory interactions. I mentor you because I need to write on my CV that I am a mentor. I choose you as mentor because I need your name on my CV to demonstrate that I am worthy. In my opinion, there is very little intellectual or emotional reward to these types of relationships and should not even be considered mentorships.

Others have been one-sided. I seek you out as mentor because I admire you and aim to accomplish career-wise where you are now. If I can please you enough, then perhaps I will get your position when you vacate it. However, you may not be actually interested in mentoring me. Perhaps it is because you are overcommitted and just don’t have the time. Perhaps we have very different personalities, philosophies and/or priorities. But because “no” was never said, you end up as my “mentor.”

What makes for a successful mentorship? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a Mentor as “a person who acts as guide and adviser to another person, especially one who is younger and less experienced.” Later, more generally: “a person who offers support and guidance to another; an experienced and trusted counselor or friend; a patron, a sponsor.”

One of my most influential mentors was my middle school math teacher. I had been pretty decent at arithmetic as a kid but never thought about advancing beyond what was taught in the classroom. Mr. V recognized my potential and encouraged me to teach myself at a faster-than-usual pace. I trusted him and, under his tutelage that year, I zoomed through the pre-algebra, algebra and algebra II textbooks. He didn’t give me career advice – I was too young – instead, he helped me realize that learning came best through internal motivation and curiosity, and that helped set me up for high school and beyond.

Over the years, I have found that trust is the most important ingredient. In a healthy mentorship I trust my mentor enough to open up about my weaknesses, desires and dreams. This puts me in a vulnerable position because it is often easier to present a strong façade to the world than to admit that I have no idea what to do next. This is when silence instead of encouragement from a mentor could deflate budding dreams, or when a casual compliment about innate gifts can launch careers in a wholly unanticipated direction. And so, I have to trust that my mentor understands me and has my best interests in mind when they are guiding me.

At its crux, a mentorship is a relationship. Asking “how do I find a (the perfect) mentor?” is akin to asking “how do I find a (the perfect) husband/wife?” It does help to know how relationships work for you. For myself, I enjoy having a few close friendships that have been strengthened over the course of several years. On the other hand, I know several colleagues who love the variety of relationships that a full contact list can provide. Mentors are available everywhere – family, friends, hospital attendings, university professors, gym personal trainers, conference attendees, and more. If you’re still having trouble getting started, then getting online may be a solution. After all, online dating has gained significant traction over the past decade. Why shouldn’t you find your mentor online?

Check out the Mentoring-Program website for more information and to get started finding your mentor.

This article was authored by Olivia Hung, MD, PhD, a Fellow in Training (FIT) at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

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