Academic Medicine

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Academic Medicine:
Research Reports

“Having the Right Chemistry”: A Qualitative Study of Mentoring in Academic Medicine

Jackson, Vicki A. MD, MPH; Palepu, Anita MD, MPH; Szalacha, Laura PhD; Caswell, Cheryl MBA; Carr, Phyllis L. MD; Inui, Thomas ScM, MD

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Purpose: To develop a deeper understanding of mentoring by exploring lived experiences of academic medicine faculty members. Mentoring relationships are key to developing productive careers in academic medicine, but such alliances hold a certain “mystery.”

Method: Using qualitative techniques, between November 1999 and March 2000, the authors conducted individual telephone interviews of 16 faculty members about their experiences with mentoring. Interviews were taped and transcribed and authors identified major themes through multiple readings. A consensus taxonomy for classifying content evolved from comparisons of coding by four reviewers. Themes expressed by participants were studied for patterns of connection and grouped into broader categories.

Results: Almost 98% of participants identified lack of mentoring as the first (42%) or second (56%) most important factor hindering career progress in academic medicine. Finding a suitable mentor requires effort and persistence. Effective mentoring necessitates a certain chemistry for an appropriate interpersonal match. Prized mentors have “clout,” knowledge, and interest in the mentees, and provide both professional and personal support. In cross-gender mentoring, maintaining clear boundaries is essential for an effective relationship. Same-gender or same-race matches between mentor and mentee were not felt to be essential.

Conclusions: Having a mentor is critical to having a successful career in academic medicine. Mentees need to be diligent in seeking out these relationships and institutions need to encourage and value the work of mentors. Participants without formalized mentoring relationships should look to peers and colleagues for assistance in navigating the academic system.

© 2003 Association of American Medical Colleges


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