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Seeking, Establishing and Maintaining Mentorship: A Resident’s Perspective

Rosanne Thornhill, MD

Successfully getting through residency requires hard work and perseverance. While a strong support system provides much needed encouragement, having good mentors can elevate your experience remarkably. A good mentor can identify the gap between where you are and where you aspire to be, and can guide you, or connect you with the right people, to help you reach your goals. Finding the right mentors can be difficult. Here are some tips from a resident’s perspective, on seeking, establishing and maintaining mentorship.

Take The Initiative

Some people are fortunate to be introduced to individuals who become great mentors for life. For those who aren’t as lucky, seeking mentorship requires taking initiative. This is often the hardest step. If there are individuals in your field of interest at your institution, reach out to them. A carefully written, succinct message should introduce yourself, express your interests, and invite your reader to engage further, if so inclined. If you don’t receive a reply, a polite follow-up email can often help to distinguish a simple oversight from genuine disinterest.

If you don’t have direct access to such individuals, reach out to your mentors in other fields. While your personal network may feel small, it only takes one person invested in your success to make their network work for you. If, for example, your institution doesn’t have a cardiothoracic surgery department, your colorectal attending may be able to connect you with a cardiothoracic surgeon they know elsewhere. Letting the people in your network know your interests and desire for mentorship allows them to help where they can and connect you with people who can carry the baton further. Additionally, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons and Women in Thoracic Surgery both offer great mentorship programs that members can take advantage of.

The More The Merrier

This may be an unpopular opinion, as “too many cooks spoil the broth”, but having multiple mentors can be beneficial. You may admire some attendings for their surgical skill and others for their administrative discipline. Your chief resident may help you navigate your program’s intricacies, while your fellow may share key tips on matching successfully. Some attendings are great at helping you navigate the job market. Others may be better at providing support and wisdom during your first few years of practice. Everyone’s experience is uniquely reflected in their style of mentorship, providing a diverse collection of perspectives for different phases of your journey.

While networking with various individuals has immense value, every person you meet doesn’t have to become your mentor. Among the wealth of advice you will receive, a few individuals will stand out. Some of my mentors were obvious after our first interaction, explicitly offering their active support. Others became apparent over time, as we built positive working relationships over patient care or research. A few were surprising, as chance encounters sparked introductions to individuals who later became pivotal mentors. Be sure to recognize the potential mentors around you and make a conscious effort to further establish those connections.

Stay Connected

Life gets busy and residency is hectic. Bouncing between rounds, the operating room, clinic, consults, traumas, inpatient work, and administrative duties is time consuming for trainees and attendings. It’s easy to get stuck in the routine while time passes by. Be sure to check in periodically with your mentors. This allows you to update them on your progress, thank them for their continued support, and continue building your relationship. This consistent avenue for engagement allows mentors to share advice and opportunities relevant to your current stage and can help you feel more comfortable reaching out when specific questions arise.

Above all else, remember to be grateful. These individuals are not compensated for the time and effort they invest in you. They do it because they want to see you succeed. Be sure to appreciate that, not just with your words, but with your actions. Acknowledge and respect their time. Be honest and maintain integrity in all interactions. Be professional and represent them well when they introduce you to their network. Most importantly, remember the impact they have on your journey and be sure to pay it forward to the upcoming generation.