Medical Education

How to find a mentor in medical school

Medical students who have gone through the process of finding a mentor share their tips.

Medical school is tough, and you can’t do it by yourself. Finding a mentor to help guide you will greatly benefit your academic and personal lives. It’s also a great way to start incorporating yourself into the medical community. Medical students who have gone through the process of finding a mentor share their guidance for connecting with the best mentor for you.

David Shumway, DO, Air Force captain (O3) and first-year resident in internal medicine at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, says medical training is a lot like wandering through a dark forest.

“About midway through medical school, you transition from following a well-lit, linear road that guided you through undergrad and didactics and begin traversing a wilderness of many branching pathways where the goal is no longer clear and success becomes harder to judge,” says Dr. Shumway. “While it’s possible to get by while stumbling your way through the thicket on your own, the deeper you go, the more important it’s going to be to have a guide. Otherwise, you may get to the other side and realize you’ve missed some critical opportunities.”

While it’s usually recommended to seek out a mentor who is practicing or doing research in your desired specialty, it can sometimes be difficult to find someone who fits that bill. Also, you might still be figuring out what your desired specialty is. If either of these scenarios applies to you, you can start by seeking out a mentor who can help you work out where you want to go from where you are now and how to get there.

Sherri Eldin, OMS III, who attends the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, says that while mentorship is important, it’s also good to recognize that you don’t have to follow all of your mentor’s guidance to a T.

“I’ve seen students heed others’ advice as if it were the gospel, only to find it working against them,” says Eldin. “If you get a mentor, or even if you speak to anyone of higher ranking, keep in mind that you may have to adapt their advice to make it work for you. You have to go through trial and error, and you will likely find that some of their advice won’t work for you at all. And that’s OK. Keep what works for you and discard the rest.”

Finding the right fit

A good starting point when looking for the right mentor for you is reaching out to one of your lecturers or professors and seeking them out at an academic center.

“Ultimately, this sort of relationship-building is not that different from making friends or meeting people in general,” says Dr. Shumway. “You have to get on well with the person and have compatible personalities. As hard as it is to make the first step, sometimes the best thing to do is ask and test out the waters.”

Eldin agrees, recognizing that everyone is so busy, and whenever she was going through something, she didn’t always want to bother or burden someone else, but found that reaching out helped her feel less lonely. She has two mentors, one through her school’s program and one she found on her own.

“Identify what’s most important to you at the time and then ask around as to who might fit that profile,” says Eldin. “In my case, physical fitness has always been important to me. So, I started asking if anyone knew of a second-year who had run a marathon — not only was it a life goal of mine and a special way to connect with someone, but also, any student who had figured out how to train for something that demanding would certainly be a great mentor on how to get in the simplest workouts. He ended up becoming a good friend, and he helped me navigate my first year in the personal and academic realms. Finding that shared interest will more often than not open the door for you to receive support in so many other ways.”

For Nicolet Finger, DO, a second-year resident in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, finding her mentor was critical to ending up in her specialty. Although she originally wanted to be an OB-GYN in medical school, she realized it wasn’t a fit for her and started panicking over what she wanted to do instead.

“I had a friend suggest a PM&R mentor, and he was so enthusiastic about the field and teaching students,” says Dr. Finger. “That excitement drew me in – it felt like he was already in my corner. While I also felt a connection with the team members, this enthusiasm and passion stuck out to me and totally changed the course of my life.”

Maintaining boundaries

Part of going through medical training is learning professionalism, and you can get great practice with this while finding your mentor and building that relationship. It’s critical to maintain boundaries and be respectful of your mentor’s time – you might not be the only mentee they’re currently working with. In most cases, mentors are volunteering their time and energy to you. Dr. Finger recommends treading gently when asking for your mentor’s time, and also seeking out a mentor who has mentored others before or is currently doing so.

“The first place I would look to for a contact is the faculty in your preferred specialty,” says Dr. Finger. “They’ll know who has volunteered to be a mentor before, which is a good sign because it shows that they want to give back their time. And they can refer you to good contacts if they’re currently too busy.”

Different mentors serve different needs

It’s possible to have multiple types of mentors throughout medical school, says Dr. Shumway, who notes that each is important to your success.

“The first mentors I had were preceptor attendings who I used as role models during my clerkship rotations,” he says. “I tried to borrow things I noticed they did really well and incorporate them into my own practice. The second type of mentor I had was my fellow medical students, specifically those in the classes above me. Upperclassmen are the absolute best resource for learning about and preparing for things, and I could not have succeeded without good advice from those that had done it before. The third type of mentor I had in medical school was those in research. The research mentor is one of the strongest relationships you can develop in medical school; this mentorship has the potential to develop your skills and resume for residency/fellowship applications, where research is critical.”

What to ask your mentor

Students should first try to see if they have compatible personalities with a potential mentor, because if they don’t, there may be little gained by either; a mentorship that only looks good on paper won’t always lead to something tangible in the future.

“The most important questions any student can ask are ‘why is the potential mentor interested in working with students, and what do they want to get out of the partnership,’” says Dr. Shumway. “That helps prevent a mentorship from being too one-sided.”

If it’s possible to do an elective rotation with your potential mentor, that can be helpful to give you a look to see if what they do really fits in with what you’re looking for. Gaining that extra experience with them can help give you a leg up later for residency interviews.

“Each type of person will come with their own unique set of traits,” says Eldin. “I would recommend finding someone whose experience aligns with yours; if you’re struggling and your mentor can’t relate, it won’t make matters any better.”

Maintaining the connection

Making a schedule that works best for you and your mentor should be done at the start – whether you feel you need to meet once a week, once a month, once a semester, etc. is up to the availability of you both, and depends on what you hope to get out of the relationship.

“It really depends on what kind of project you are working on,” says Dr. Shumway. “If you are doing research or publishing something, you may need to meet more often, depending on the deadlines of the project. You may also meet with your mentor more frequently when approaching a big deadline like ERAS applications or interview season. But if you have a mentor who is really hands-on, you can meet as often as they show interest in meeting, and that you can balance with your own schedule.”

In this digital age, it’s also a bonus to stay connected with your mentor via text, email, or GroupMe chat. Dr. Finger’s mentor started a chat with all of his mentees, so they can also connect with one another and help out their classmates with extra advice, guidance, or commiseration.

“It’s allowed an informal means of communication, and encourages us to converse with each other to show that we’re all team players,” says Dr. Finger. “We have an almost daily conversation that he sees and can jump into.”

The amount of communication beyond what is scheduled should be organic – when you need to reach out, you can (within reason and respect), and vice versa. You can reciprocally keep the communication honest and open.

“Students get out of it what they put into it,” says Dr. Shumway. “If you are motivated, energetic, and give your mentor a lot to work with, it becomes much easier for the mentor to justify taking time away from their clinical duties and family life to help you.”

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