Practice Makes Improvement: Becoming a Mentor at Any Stage
Being an unofficial peer mentor has been one of the most unexpected growth opportunities during my MD-PhD program. Throughout my life, I have always cherished the opportunity to pass down tips and experiences to trainees earlier in training. It wasn’t until graduate school that I realized I could use these experiences to practice good mentorship. We all have stories of mentors who have impacted us for better or worse, and I want to be one of the better ones. Like any learned skill, the only way to get better is to practice. Here are a few tips I have learned as I attempt to practice mentorship:
1. Recognize that all great mentors started from the same place.
No one starts their career as an incredible mentor. It’s a skill that is not often officially built into training programs or is provided by unguided/unstructured mentorship matching programs. Take advantage of the opportunities you are given, either on your campus or through professional society mentorship programs, such as the American Physician Scientists Association. You can also create short- or long-term mentorship opportunities for yourself by making yourself available to your fellow trainees to answer questions or provide advice. Be sure to reiterate this because trainees can be intimidated by reaching out to ask for help (I know I was!).
2. Learn to set boundaries.
Picture this as something between a small business and a personal relationship. You can easily run yourself into the ground by making yourself available 24/7, and your own well-being should also be a priority. Set expectations with your mentee for email/message response times and turnaround times on documents, then do your best stick to them. It will take some time to learn what’s reasonable for you but being reliable and consistent are two key features of a good mentor. You can even include a provision that urgent/immediate responses can be accommodated if that is made clear in the subject line or first part of a message if needed. However, it’s not selfish to protect your own time and well-being. Doing so will prevent burnout and make you a better mentor in the long run.
3. Realize the true goals of mentorship.
The true goal of mentorship is to help your mentee achieve their goals, not yours. You are not to use your mentees to retroactively correct your own mistakes or create a new and improved version of your career. The best mentors I have had put me in the driver’s seat of my own career and let my voice be heard. Avoid making decisions for them or directly telling them what to do, instead guiding them to make decisions for themselves. Having mentors do this for me was invaluable because it made subsequent troubleshooting and decision-making much easier. This includes editing personal statements! It can be difficult to edit documents and maintain the voice of the original author but remember that a personal statement ultimately tells the story and personality of the applicant, not their mentor. **One thing that mentorship is NOT is a place for you to air your grievances about your own career. Using examples from your experiences is helpful and encouraged but avoid using your mentee’s time to vent about bad experiences.
4. Ask for feedback (and be prepared to receive it!)
Feedback is necessary to improve almost any skill, even if just in the form of honest self-reflection. Seeing yourself through a mentee’s eyes can be difficult at first, but their feedback is crucial to creating an effective partnership. To elicit honest feedback, you must first create the kind of relationship that makes the mentee feel safe enough to give it. Be honest with them that you are still learning and want the process to be as effective for them as possible. Prepare your heart and mind to receive critical feedback and ACT ON IT. If a mentee sees that you repeatedly fail to respond to feedback, they will likely stop giving it.
5. Forgive yourself.
Even if you make mistake, an earnest mentor is always helpful to their mentees. Just one nugget of learned wisdom can make a difference. Both you and your mentees are human—expect imperfection on both sides! If you do make a mistake with repercussions for your mentee or if you feel you have damaged your relationship, be honest with them, apologize, and explain how you plan to improve. Openly discussing these issues will contribute to the creation of a productive, safe mentorship relationship for both of you.
As one final note, mentorship is a valuable experience on both sides and should be included on your CV. If you mentor someone in any official capacity or for a significant period, start a section on your CV for mentorship and list the names of your trainees. As stated above, mentorship is often not structured into many programs, so demonstrating experience in this area is a huge advantage. Everyone in academic medicine is a mentor to someone, so start practicing now!
Hannah R. Turbeville