While I was eating lunch with him, my research mentor, who is a renowned urologist, said to me, “I always learned from the person who was one step ahead of me.” This meant when he was an underclassmen, he learned from upperclassmen. As an upperclassman, he studied those who were attending medical school. As a starting medical student, he would imitate and follow M2’s, M3’s, and M4’s years. As a sub-intern, he would learn from the residents. This trend continued to this day, as he is still learning from others. As a physician in his late 60’s, there are not many people who are ahead of him but he is still humble and hungry to learn. He had many mentors in his life and thus stressed to me the importance of mentorship.
I have never referred to him as a mentor. He is my boss but I still learn from him as if I were his apprentice. That is the beauty of mentorship. It does not need a title. It does not need to be formal. All you have to do is watch and learn. The word mentor is actually derived from Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. Mentor was the name of a character that guided Telemachus on his journey to find his father Odysseus. Today, a mentor means a wise and trusted counselor or teacher. Whether indirectly or directly, mentorship is pervasive in our culture and crucial to the advancement of society. Without mentor mentee relationships, budding doctors would be lost and misdirected.
In his article, Dr. Ahmed Mian explains the importance of mentorship in the field of medicine. He concludes:
“A good mentor is a tremendous asset in this complex profession, so search for one. Once you have found one, cherish his or her time and wisdom. Mentors, in addition to teaching through words and deeds, show us care and respect and empower us to confidently approach the myriad complications inherent to the human condition.”
For those who want to go to medical school and eventually become doctors, it is good to have mentors. You can learn from other successful premeds that are further along the path. You can ask practicing physicians, whether you know them personally or not, if you could shadow them and see how they practice their profession. In your research laboratories, you will have a mentor who will teach how to think critically and scientifically. Even in campus groups, churches, fraternities, or any other social group, you should have mentors who shape your character and personality.
Once again, mentorship can be formal or informal. You could be part of a program that provides mentorship or you could simply shadow a physician, listening intently to every word he speaks and watching carefully every move he makes. Attitude is more important than titles. As mentees, the most important quality we should have is “teachability”. We must be humble and ready to learn–easy to teach. When we combine that attitude with keen observation, critical thinking, and constant communication with our mentors, we can learn so much.
So how do search for mentors? Unfortunately, not everyone is given the same opportunity. Sometimes great mentors just walk into our lives. Fortunately, when they do not walk into our lives, we can walk into theirs. Here are some final tips on finding mentors and learning from them:
1. Take initiative
Most potential mentors are busy people, whether they are physicians, medical students, or graduating seniors. So you have to make the first step. You can email them, talk to them in person or ask to be referred to them. When they see how serious you are about learning from them, they might actually let you into their busy lives. Taking this kind of initiative also shows them that you really care about becoming a good doctor. A compassionate and wise doctor would see this passion and give you careful consideration.
2. Be persistent
The people you are asking probably receive hundreds of emails a week or even a day. You may become a tad annoying but if there is someone you really want to learn from, be persistent and have good reasons why you want him or her to mentor you.
3. Learn informally
Watch and learn. Observe and absorb. No matter what situation you are in, learn from others. This is informal mentorship. If a physician is giving a presentation about his research, go and watch him. Take note of his body language, how he delivers his words, how passionate he is, the kinds of experiments he did, how he communicates with the audience, etc. I think the majority of mentorship is simply learning informally.
We can’t offer our mentors much. But our way of showing them gratitude is by becoming excellent physicians who also mentor future mentees. We honor our mentors by passing on the baton that they have passed onto us. In life, we must receive and give. However, there’s no way to give if we’ve never received in the first place.