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PRSonally Speaking

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Finding a Mentor
by Jon Ver Halen
The authors write, “An even greater problem is that many studies do not define mentorship before they ask subjects to describe their experiences, so it is impossible to know whether the relationship they discuss is in fact a true mentorship.”  So what is a mentor?  There is a strict definition of “mentorship” with regard to the NIH career-development awards that Dr. Kevin Chung discusses in his article, "“Mentorship: Concepts and Application to Plastic Surgery Training Programs”.  Outside of this, the lines are blurred.  As a person who has been a mentee, a mentor, and contributor to the proposed YPS Collaborator and Mentor database, I offer up some observations on mentorship.

1) I was looking at Table 1, and thought to myself, “who in the world meets these criteria?”  I have worked with only a handful of people in my life who meet them.  If we set the bar so high, it is no wonder that there are too few mentors!
2) If you want someone to mentor you, look for someone with an established track record in mentorship.  Old dogs don’t learn new tricks. Don’t expect that your scintillating conversational skills, intellect, or groundbreaking research proposal are going to suddenly inspire that otherwise reclusive senior faculty member to decide to take you under his wing. 
3) As Dr. Chung writes, institutional support of mentorship is rare.  Such a lack of foresight will ultimately hurt these organizations. Consider this: If my current employer is telling me one thing, but my closest mentor is guiding me in the opposite direction, which direction do you think I will lean?  For institutions with a specific “culture” and history, this lack of investment contributes to inefficiency, worker dissatisfaction, and turnover. It is well established that a lack of promotion, advancement and recognition is one of the leading causes job dissatisfaction. Institutions need to invest in programs to mentor and develop their junior staff members. Sadly, it doesn’t take long the exodus of disenfranchised faculty members to take an organization from the black to the red… and then remnants of the faculty practice group is “realigned” with (read: purchased by) a hospital system with a better track record.
4) I have found something that I call mentorship (and which is perhaps more appropriately called “collegial support”) from those who are just a few years senior, or junior to myself. We are all comfortable in our skins.  We are not trying to compete with each other, and are not afraid to lend a hand when necessary.  We collaborate.  Call it “simpatico”. I have had near strangers help me with career advice, give me assistance on research projects, and recommend me for advancement.  In turn, I have done the same for junior colleagues.  Whatever you want to call this phenomenon, I have found it to be one of the single most rewarding experiences of my professional career.  As a shameless plug: get active with the YPS Forum!  This is what we are all about!
5) Mentorship used to be a way for people to be introduced to leadership roles.  But the world has changed, and is much more transparent. Nearly everyone has access to information, research and support nearly-instantaneously, and we frequently network with distant colleagues remotely to ask for assistance. So what is mentorship in the Internet age?  And what is the end goal of mentorship? Is it to give mentees the tools to “embark on an independent career”?  Medical students often have a well-established record of research, entrepreneurship, technical ability, and/or service qualifications even before they begin residency training.  Do these people need “mentors”?  Or do they need “colleagues”?
6) Ultimately, what is the easiest way to find a mentor?  Just say, “I need some help.” If you can make a cogent statement of 1) what you want to do, 2) what you can do for yourself, 3) what you can’t do for yourself, and 4) who you need to help you (and why they need to help you), I think you can get started. I have received extraordinary assistance from people well outside my own area of expertise after doing this.  It takes a lot of self-confidence and practice to be comfortable with this.  But it is certainly one of the best ways to grow your career, and leverage your own personal strengths for the good of your community.