As a junior student with a budding interest in Emergency Medicine, I recently realized I was missing a crucial component for building a successful EM career: a mentor.
A mentor may provide a protégé with career advice, research and networking opportunities, personal guidance, and perhaps a strong CaRMS reference letter. A number of physicians I admire have told me they attribute much of their career success to strong mentorship received as students, residents, and even as staff physicians.
“Heck, having a mentor sounds pretty sweet! How can I get one?”
This is probably the thought that crosses the minds of most medical students when they learn about the benefits of mentorship. Yet, despite the integration of mentorship programs into medical school curricula, most students continue to say they do not have a mentor, even though they would like to have one.
Why do students lack mentors?
The literature on mentorship describes the qualities of a successful mentor-mentee relationship, desired characteristics for each role, and even topics of discussion for regular meetings. What is missing is advice on practical issues, such as where to meet staff physicians and how to approach them about the “M” word, especially without appearing like an insufferable “gunner”. I believe this lack of practical guidance prevents many students from entering into mentoring relationships.
Since no mentoring relationship can begin without a mentor, the following is my personally-tested way of finding a physician who may fit the role.
Let your mentor come to you – Start with the Emergency Medicine Interest Group at your school. If there isn’t one where you are doing your training, consider starting one. An interest group is a great place to meet a new EM doctor each week and learn about their specialty, interests, and personal attributes. Don’t be discouraged if you are unable to ask about personal life or mentorship as this point, especially since your peers will likely surround the doctor as soon as the formal talk is over. In a way, approaching attending EM physicians is like approaching attractive girls: they are rarely alone, have very short attention spans, and are always in a rush. Use this opportunity, however, to introduce yourself and express interest in an observership with that doctor. A more in-depth personal discussion can occur later in a more private setting.
The direct approach – Another approach to meeting EM physicians is to directly look up faculty members and ask them for a short meeting or observership, especially if you have an area of interest that matches theirs. Most staff are receptive to medical students’ emails and answer quickly. At the very least, they may refer you to someone who is more available or better matches your interests. Approaching staff after Grand, Research, or Resuscitation Rounds is another option, as there will be fewer students speaking to the doctor once the meeting is done. Be aware, however, that the physician may soon be rushing off to work or speaking with his peers and prepare any questions with brevity in mind.
Approach anxiety – Use Twitter to learn about the field of medical education and EM. I was amazed at the number of prominent leaders on Twitter, their willingness to casually respond to questions, and their readiness to share opportunities. Once you find someone whose opinions or work you like, contact them. Like email, Twitter can be a great tool because it gives you time to think about what to ask and how to respond. Unlike email, however, you won’t have to worry about whether your note ended up in the junk folder or whether someone will have time to read your message. Once you’ve established rapport, you can propose a Skype meeting or project that the two of you could work on together.
A word of caution – When you reach out to a potential mentor for the first time and they agree to speak with you, especially if they have never met you before or are in a position of leadership, make additional efforts to use their time appropriately. You can ask any clerk, resident, or doctor about daily aspects of a specialty, why they chose that path, positive and negative aspects of their job, and so on. However, if you are contacting someone for a specific reason, such as wanting to work on a project under their guidance, for example, make this the primary goal of your interaction and communicate it to that person quickly. Then show them what you have to offer.
Step outside your comfort zone – Be proactive. EM is a competitive specialty, and asking for help, whether from peers or superiors, can make all the difference. Realize that most staff in academic institutions are there because they genuinely like to teach and guide students.
Once you have made contact, the first step to building more than a superficial relationship with a potential mentor is to speak with that physician privately. The benefit of doing this during an observership is that you get to see how the doctor interacts with patients and colleagues, and whether he or she is someone you want to emulate. The disadvantage is that, especially in the ED, you may not have the time or opportunity to ask questions outside of patient care. Nevertheless, you can usually bring up these questions or suggest an additional meeting after your observership, when you are thanking the doctor in person or by email.
I believe another reason students fail to find mentors is that they approach only Program Directors or Department Chairs, likely because letters of recommendation from these figures are highly valued for CaRMS. Yet, these people are often the least able or willing to take on new mentees due to other time commitments, an excessive number of students contacting them, or their current number of mentees. While their endorsement might be invaluable for CaRMS, asking for a few shifts with them during your rotation is very different from asking them to be your mentor. Remember that one of the most valuable assets of a mentor is the mentor’s availability!
On the other hand, more junior doctors are often eager to share their knowledge and experience. Their advice regarding career choices and applications can be especially useful since they are closer to the process than their more senior colleagues. These more junior staff are often more approachable, but may be just as busy as senior staff while establishing themselves professionally. Additionally, they may not have as much influence over the resident selection process as senior staff.
Focus on finding a role model: look for someone you get along with and admire personally and professionally. If you respect them, chances are others do too. Try to choose someone who will help you understand more about your future field and career goals; this should be the main objective of having a mentor, rather than finding someone who you believe will write an influential reference letter.
In the end, the journey to finding a mentor is a personal one, but I hope these tips, which have worked for me, are simple and practical enough to get you started.
Peer reviewed by Dr. S. Luckett-Gatopoulos (@SLuckettG).
Peer review by S. Luckett-Gatopoulos(@SLuckettG)
Sarah Luckett-Gatopoulos is a PGY1 at McMaster University’s Royal College Emergency Medicine Program. She is also a Resident Editor for BoringEM.org.
I’d like to add a few tips of my own.
1. Be open.
As a junior resident, I embrace the opportunity to mentor near-peers. Though I’m only a year ahead of those who just clicked ‘submit’ and sent their CaRMS applications out into the world, I still have something to offer junior and senior medical students. When the ED is not busy, it can be a lot of fun to sit with a student and discuss their approach to the chest x-ray, but it’s also enjoyable to chat about residency and career choices. I have spent a fair amount of time this year talking with emergency medicine hopefuls in person and over Skype, and editing personal letters for CaRMS.
Unfortunately, sometimes med students are not open to residents, preferring to focus their time on staff physicians, and especially program directors. Residents can be a great resource, so don’t shut the door to near-peer mentorship. It’s true that we won’t be providing you with reference letters, but we can tell you a lot about residency and will happily introduce you to staff physicians if we can identify your common interests.
2. Broaden your search.
I have benefited from extensive mentoring throughout my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and also through medical school and the beginning of residency. Yet, I don’t have someone I would consider my emergency medicine mentor.
I was fortunate to be mentored by an incredible neuro-anatomist during my undergraduate degree, and we still keep in touch via long emails (often with pictures of our travels and major events in our lives). I also had the great fortune to work with a wonderful clinical case manager while I was engaged in research. She and I continued our mentoring relationship as I graduated from a data monkey to research assistant, to psychoeducational tester, and onward. Neither of these fantastic women worked in emergency medicine, but both have provided me with invaluable guidance, especially during difficult periods and transitions in my medical life.
I was also fortunate to participate in the fantastic mentorship program that is part of the curriculum at my medical school at Queen’s University. This program brings together staff and students, and though the staff group leaders were not emergency medicine physicians, they were able to provide great insight into the medical life, which guided me in my choices. Do I think an emergency medicine mentor would be a great addition to my robust network? Absolutely. But I’d encourage you to look around; sometimes mentorship is found well outside your specialty of interest.
3. Be genuine.
Nothing is more endearing than talking to someone with a genuine interest in the specialty you love. Canned questions and obvious angling are irritating. Just be yourself and you’ll find people who share your interests and want to help you along the way.
All of this is written from the perspective of a lowly junior resident, but stay tuned…maybe we’ll here from some staff physicians soon!