When I find myself at a crossroad, asking questions about the direction
I should take my career, I realize that I need a sounding board, an experienced
guide, a mentor.
The word “mentor” was inspired by the character of Mentor in
Homer’s Odyssey. Mentorship has existed since ancient times. It
pertains to the relationship that the less experienced “mentee”
establishes with the more experienced “mentor.” In academics,
mentoring and advising are often used synonymously, although advising connotes
lesser responsibility. The goal of effective mentoring is to help the mentee
advance his or her career, enhance education and build networks. People in
various arenas have flourished from mentoring relationships in their careers,
as well as personal and spiritual lives.
A successful career requires envisioning a clear goal, strong
commitment, unrelenting endeavor and direction from valuable mentorship. As
junior physicians, we face a number of decisions as we strive to shape the
course of our career. We examine the accomplishments of our senior faculty and
start to picture our own.
Allocating the time for planning career direction may seem like a
difficult task amid clinical duties and educational obligations. Many wonder
whether there is a way to make this process easier. Akin to any complicated
decision-making process, addressing the various components of the matter makes
this undertaking easier. It is in this process that we get to closely examine
ourselves and answer important questions, such as:
- What is my career goal? Start from yourself. This is about your life
and career. Explore your gifts and talents. Be honest with yourself. Find your
passion, your drive. A very helpful tool that I learned at a mentoring workshop
was that the process of synthesizing a career mission statement makes you
explore and inspect yourself. You start from a relatively broad and lengthy
statement and continue to refine it into a very specific objective. It helps
you understand your priorities. Practice this with your colleagues. Try to
accomplish a specific mission statement in one sentence using 10 to 15 words.
An example is Google’s mission statement: “We organize the
world’s information and make it universally accessible and
- What are my responsibilities? This brings to mind a quote by Arnold
H. Glasow: “Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion. You
must set yourself on fire.” Self-discipline, repeated self-assessment,
documentation of progress and regular amendment of strategies will take anyone
a long way in any career. Multiple attempts need to be made and revisions are
often necessary. When we fall, we dust off and start again (notice I use
“when” and not “if”). Remember though, we are not alone.
Our colleagues, friends and mentors help bring us back on track.
- What should I look for in a mentor? Understand that in most
situations in your career, it may be impractical to find one single mentor to
fulfill all your career needs. In general, mentors are experienced,
well-accomplished individuals after whom you aspire to mirror your career.
Various aspects of an individual could attract a mentee. It could be a specific
area of expertise that the mentee would like to learn, the overall balance of a
mentor’s career accomplishments or personal integrity. A shared personal
experience may also be the link. Mentoring often matures over time in which a
more personally supportive relationship evolves. Again, it should be emphasized
that it often takes multiple mentors for one’s success in a career.
There is no single formula for successful mentorship. One simple rule is
that the mentor should be approachable and available. Although this is one of
the basic expectations, here is where most mentoring relationships fall short.
An accomplished academician’s life has multiple demands. A more junior
faculty member, on the other hand, is at a stage at which his or her own career
requests attention and serving as mentor may be impractical. In addition, a
junior faculty member may be less well recognized in his or her field, which
may limit the ability to promote a mentee’s career.
Conversely, they may be empathetic and practical due to their recent
experiences of being in the mentee’s position. Therefore, depending on the
kind of mentorship one needs, these would be factors to consider during the
selection process. It is important to remember that expectations from both the
mentor and the mentee should be clearly stated in advance. Maintaining regular
communication, preferably with an agenda, is crucial.
Successful mentoring not only benefits the mentee but also boosts the
mentor’s career accomplishments. Mentorship is obligatory in career
development and research. As an example, the NIH career development programs
and entry level awards (K awards) require effective mentorship. Mutual efforts
from the mentor and mentee contribute to a productive relationship.
Dina Belachew, MD, is a fellow in the department of endocrinology at
Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Disclosure: Dr. Belachew reports no relevant financial