In medicine, we largely learn from one another. Sure, we spend years reading textbooks, taking multiple choice exams and memorizing minutiae for those classic presentations of disease processes. But the day-to-day learning, the clinical reasoning, judgement and intuition that happens on the wards, in the operating room or in the clinic comes from a hierarchy of learning which spans from medical students to interns, residents and fellows all the way to attending physicians.
This type of learning is often unique to our profession and lends itself to mentor-mentee relationships that are not typically a transfer of information, but rather a two-way balance of two colleagues working towards both shared and individual goals.
For me, it takes a village. I am decisive, but I like to gather the opinions of other people because their viewpoints are often different and to bounce ideas off of people whose perspectives are different from my own. Many of my mentors are female physicians representing specialties from internal medicine to surgery.
My main mentor throughout my pre-clinical years is a middle-aged man who has been the source of professional and personal advice from the first day I started medical school. They all bring something different and important. He brings data and experience to answer my questions and often allay my concerns. One of my research mentors gave me the space and encouragement to create a pilot study that has grown in ways I don’t think either of us imagined. Similarly, my other mentor is most like me in personality. She and I commiserate on how taxing advocacy is in certain landscapes and she is honest about the pitfalls of taking on too many projects.
And, sometimes, all it takes is one person to tell you, “You’d be good at this, look into it.” I heard this echoed by a couple of female and male surgeons during my surgery rotation, so I explored those opportunities and ended up learning about opportunities in gynecologic surgery as a result. I think it was the first time I truly began to see where my capabilities actually lied and what I could choose to do if I wanted.
Medicine is all about paying it forward. That’s how we learn and teach those around us and those who come after us. Even working with first-and second-year medical students, who are essentially our peers, we find a way to mentor — whether it’s guidance on starting a new research project or giving them the space to realize what matters most as we go through rigorous training.
In addition, many of my mentors are early career physicians who are also establishing their place in academia, their personal lives or the community. I find ways to give back to them, whether its recognition for all that they do, keeping them in the loop on opportunities in their areas of interest or being a sound board for their trajectories. At first, it seems odd to do, given they have already gone through the things you are just starting to face professionally and often personally. However, like any good relationship, both parties need to be invested.
Recently, I have found myself asking what makes a good mentee? The obvious characteristics that come to mind are being an effective communicator, being flexible, showing initiative and taking responsibility for what you want out of the relationship. It also means promoting the work or projects that mean the most to your mentor. Many of my mentors are early career physicians and some are well-seasoned in their fields. Regardless, I have found and built a lot of community locally and nationally by engaging in my mentors’ accomplishments, whether it is a new paper or a national talk. We all need a cheering section who will support us. You can be that for your mentor despite how little clout you believe you have as a student. After all, we will all one day be colleagues in the same profession.
But part of the process is also realizing that one mentor cannot give you everything, no matter how amazing they are. It’s realizing that you can take charge of the situation and speak up when something is not working for you. It’s also about learning how your mentor effectively guides you and incorporating some of that into how you work with your own mentees.
The best mentor-mentee relationships I am a part of have allowed me to make mistakes while encouraging me and giving me targeted ways of doing better the next time around. They have also consisted of developing realistic goals and expectations. But, above all, they have taken what I bring to the table and helped elevate what is already there, not change it. That’s the hallmark of any good relationship. In medicine, I have found that these relationships are not only invaluable, but they lend themselves to a network of people who are committed to making sure you take care of yourself so you can take care of your patients for years to come.