Medical Student Perspectives: How to Find a Mentor
With all the training, challenges and responsibilities that come with becoming a physician, it is difficult to traverse this arduous path alone. A mentor can help serve as a guide, assist with choosing specialties, and facilitate the transition into one’s future career choice.
First Step: Know Thyself
The most important question you need to ask yourself is, “What do I want from a mentor?” Make a list of the qualities, specialties/professions, and areas that appeal to you, whether they are clinical, academic or research related. If you have clear goals, then these will greatly narrow down your search criteria and ultimately help direct you to a mentor who best suits your interests. Some questions you may wish to consider are:
• What are my interests?
• Can I see myself doing this?
• Am I interested in working in [insert practice setting, i.e., hospital, clinic, private practice, health care management, public policy, public health, academia doing research/teaching or a combination of the above]?
However, even if you cannot answer all of the aforementioned questions, the answers to the questions that you can answer will help narrow down your search criteria.
If you are undecided, a great way to test the waters is to shadow a physician in a specialty that has intrigued you and see whether it fits you. If it does, you already have the advantage of knowing the people in the department and if not, you can cross that specialty off your list and search for another one. Shadowing during the first and second years of medical school is a terrific way to get your foot in the door and gives you the ability to explore a particular career without committing yourself to a mentor.
Be picky and do your research. Ideally you want to choose a mentor who is supportive and well-connected in the field, as he or she may become a potential letter writer for you in the future when application season comes around. Mentors are an ideal source for letters of recommendation (LOR), because they have worked with you for some time and know you personally so that the letters they write tend to carry more weight than the perfunctory ones from your third-year rotations. Most programs prefer LOR writers to be MDs, so finding a physician mentor will be beneficial.
Second Step: Identify Potential Mentors
Do your homework. Pay attention to those professors whom you respect as well as those professions which intrigue you. You can also approach your advising dean, academic advisor or even the alumni office for advice on finding mentors. Your school may already have a mentoring program set up to help students navigate through the process. Ask third- or fourth-year students at your school who are matching in your specialty of interest to get their opinions about which physicians are good mentors. Referrals from friends and family can be another source of potential mentors.
Do not limit yourself to only choosing professors who have taught you or clinicians affiliated with your institution. If you cannot find any mentors within your institution who fulfill your criteria, talk to a faculty member, program director or an advisor to see if he or she can help you make some referrals. Finally, if you do not mind traveling, clinicians from other hospitals around your medical school may be great candidates as well.
Last but not least, you can look through the hospital directory for physicians related to your discipline of interest and contact them. However, exercise caution and do not send out too many emails at once, because you may place yourself in an uncomfortable predicament if perchance everyone you contacted responds positively. It is advisable to personally meet with your potential mentor before seriously committing to him or her.
Several professional societies also have mentoring databases that allow members to search for mentors within their membership, such as ACP’s Mentoring Database. Students interested in learning about internal medicine can access the ACP Mentoring Database for free after signing up for ACP membership (which is also free!). Apply for student membership online. The Mentoring Database is comprised of College members, including Program Directors, Clerkship Directors, Chairs of Medicine, practicing internists, and residents. Possible mentors can be narrowed down by specialty, type of practice, country of residence, state of residence, gender, ethnicity, as well as medical school location. Alternatively, ACP can help pair you with a mentor. Email your name, chapter and specific questions or areas of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, annual national conferences usually provide opportunities for students to network with physicians in the field as well as talk to various residency programs. ACP’s annual scientific meeting, Internal Medicine 2009, will offer a Medical Student Mentoring Breakfast as well as an Internal Medicine Residency Fair. You may register for Internal Medicine 2009 online.
Third Step: Contact Your Mentor
Send your prospective mentor an e-mail introducing yourself and stating your interests. Give a brief (1-2 sentences) but personal synopsis of what draws you to the field and set up a time to meet and talk about the opportunities for you to become more involved.
Do not forget to be persistent and follow up in a courteous manner. Remember that your mentors will most likely be busier than you are so it will be up to you to keep in touch. However, be careful to not overburden your mentor by demanding too much time or attention. Be patient and do not become discouraged if you do not find a mentor right away.
Great mentors are out there. Know yourself, be appreciative of their guidance and most importantly, be honest with your mentor. Good luck!
Wendy Ho, MS
North Atlantic Region Representative, Council of Student Members
Albany Medical College, Class of 2010
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