HealthDecember 23, 2021

Don't go it alone: Mentoring in medical education

By:Agnieszka Solberg, MD

A mentor can help propel you toward success. Here's a look at mentoring in medical education - why a mentor matters and how to find one.

Navigating the intricacies and minutiae of medical school can overwhelm even the most prepared and eager students. Without mentoring in medical education, a green medical student can easily lose direction and become frustrated. From adjusting to the rigors of the academic requirements to figuring out how to apply for residency, it's nearly impossible to survive unscathed without a trusted medical school mentor to rely on for guidance and advocacy. In fact, having a medical school mentor - or a network of mentors - can make all the difference when it comes to your success in the field of medicine.

Neither my medical school nor my residency program had a formal mentorship program. I'm embarrassed to admit that when I began medical school, I didn't even understand how many specialties there were and the timing of choosing one. This was obviously before the time when we could ask Siri, Alexa or Google about anything. When I started medical school, all I knew was that I wanted to help people. I wish I'd known that I needed a medical school mentor, too.

The benefits of mentoring in medical education

Having a mentor can be a comfort during stressful times, provide a life rope when you feel in over your head, give you an edge as you progress through your training - or all of the above. Below we'll explore the three most important ways having a mentor can enhance your med school experience.

1. Achieve your goals

Every student has a different reason for entering medical school. Our tastes and passions vary widely. Defining your ultimate goal, and even your sub-goals, can be challenging so early in your medical career. A solid medical school mentor can help you sort out why you're here and where you want to go, before you spend too much time in the wrong hamster wheel.

Once you define your goals, a mentor should help you develop a diverse plan to achieve those goals. For example, great mentors understand that your exam score shouldn't be the sole focus of the mentoring sessions. You should also discuss other facets of advancing your medical career including publications, research and attending national meetings in your field of interest.

Most importantly, your mentor should cover important topics that aren't typically taught in medical school. Self-care is one area that's essential to address early on. Establishing a reliable wellness regimen will help you avoid burnout both during your training and your career. Other important topics include the business of medicine, advocacy in medicine, finances, ethics and finding work/life balance. Great mentors will tailor their insight and advice based on your individual needs and direct you to great references or other people and groups for support.

2. Access better opportunities

Your medical school mentor should also be your sponsor. In addition to bestowing yards of advice and knowledge, they can find opportunities for you and support you with those projects. For example, a sponsor may have a colleague involved in a study related to your field and recommend you for the project. A sponsor doesn't just give you advice. They'll stick out their neck for you in an effort to push you ahead of the competition. When an opportunity arises, be honest with your mentor about whether you can take on a project. Your mentor would prefer to know upfront if you can't complete the project because they're risking their reputation for you. Try your best not to disappoint them.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of networking in medical education and business. Unfortunately, I didn't realize this until my fellowship. I was rotating with a distinguished and world-renowned faculty member, and I noted he had innumerable connections. I mentioned that I was an introvert and not at all good at networking. With brutal honesty, he said: “Agnes. If you want to reach your goals, you need to get good at networking.” He was absolutely correct. Whether you choose an academic setting, private practice or nonclinical work, doors don't open for you on their own. Your mentor can introduce you to people who can help you open those doors. At the very least, they can point you in the right direction and offer advice on how to make those crucial connections.

3. Succeed in residency applications

Navigating the National Residency Match Program® can be overwhelming. Your mentor can help diffuse the stress related to the Match and increase your chances of a successful outcome. The choice of specialty is the most important factor in a successful residency application. Your mentor can help you decide whether your goals align with your initial specialty choice or whether another specialty would be a better fit. When you choose a specialty for the right reason, everything you do to prepare for residency becomes an opportunity to learn and excel, instead of another annoying prerequisite. Residency program directors know which applicants have their heart and soul invested in their choice and who's there for less noble reasons.

Once you've chosen a specialty, your mentor should already be thinking about how to make you shine on paper. Program directors won't be able to see your zeal if you aren't granted an interview. USMLE scores aside, involvement in medical societies, leadership positions and research or publications can help your application stand out. Depending on the specialty and type of program, your mentor can help you focus your efforts on the most critical activities to bolster your portfolio. Lastly, recommendation letters are key, and your mentor should steer you toward appropriate faculty early on, so you can develop a solid relationship with them.

Finding the right mentor in medical school

Now that you know why you need a mentor, let's delve into how to find the right one.

Where to start

Your medical school may have resources to help you make the right connections, or they may assign you a mentor automatically. Be sure to make the most of any opportunities offered to you in a more formal manner. But if you're starting from scratch, or the mentor assigned to you doesn't feel like the right fit, you'll have to employ a little DIY ingenuity.

First, ask a few trusted fellow med students or favorite professors for mentor recommendations. They may know someone whose strengths, areas of expertise or network are particularly suited to you and your goals.

Expand the field

You can also look to specialty interest groups, whether locally or on the internet, for advice on finding a suitable mentor. Most medical specialty organizations have a mentorship program, and many also have special programs for women and underrepresented minorities. Reach out to someone in the resident or medical student section of your specialty's organization for help or volunteer in the RFS section.

Less formal grassroots programs are also available through social media. Facebook groups and Twitter chats are great for meeting people in your specialty. Social media truly levels the playing field for applicants, as many prominent physicians have an active online presence.

Find the right fit

A mentor should share or complement your own personality traits. If you respond to warm and fuzzy, look for a warm and fuzzy mentor. If you prefer tough love or straight-shooting, look for someone who will cut to the chase.

It's good to be picky, but don't wait too long to decide on a mentor. It's better to have someone than no one. The relationship doesn't have to be forever, either; if you and your mentor aren't compatible, it's OK to find another one. And you definitely don't need to limit yourself to just one mentor. Your goals may change, and sometimes your mentor may need to change as well.

After starting my medical school experience completely solo, I now have various mentors from different fields advising me on different facets of my developing career. There's no way I could do it without them.

Learn more about Lippincott for medical students.

Agnieszka Solberg, MD
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