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Internal Medicine Interest Group of the Month: Harvard Medical School


Finding a Mentor
Whether you are looking for a mentor to serve as the faculty advisor for your internal medicine interest group (IMIG), or for a personal mentor to advise you about your research, or someone to shadow in the clinic, there are certain questions to keep in mind to make the process rewarding and meaningful: How do I find the right mentor? When should I go about finding a mentor? How many mentors should I have? The following suggestions will guide you as you ask these questions and make these decisions.

Do Your Homework
Before approaching a professor or clinician to serve as your mentor, make sure you read up on what this person does and what his or her interests are. Many students make the mistake of seeking out a mentor based upon seniority or title, but some of the most enthusiastic mentors can be junior faculty or new clinicians eager to interact with and teach students. It is more important to find a mentor whose research or public health interests match yours, rather than seeking out a mentor based upon his or her rank or prestige. In addition to scouring academic Web sites for biographical information, consider approaching advisors or other faculty members and inquiring whether they know of anyone who matches your interests. It may also be important to ask other professors and clinicians whether the mentor you have identified might be a good fit; faculty often have a strong sense as to who is eager to take on students or who may be too busy to assume a mentorship role.

Approach Your Mentor Early in the Year
Even though the beginning of the year can be a stressful, hectic time, reach out and connect to your mentor! Postponing the process until late in the fall will be difficult for you both; as the academic year progresses more and more responsibilities accumulate, making it difficult for you and your mentor to meet. A short meeting the week school begins can be a great launching point. Your mentor can be a source of support as you continue through the year, and it is nice to have someone with whom you can discuss your course work and stresses over the course of the year.

Consider the Type of Person You Approach
If you are looking for a clinician to shadow, the type of person you choose could really make or break your experience. I have several classmates who had been paired with young clinicians, and had been initially wary about the youthfulness of their mentors. However, these classmates have ultimately grown to love the experience of being mentored by a younger clinician. Finding someone who may be only a few years senior to you in training can be a terrific way to answer the important questions you have been wondering about: How can I balance work and family? Can I define my hours? How can I pay off my student loans? As much as younger clinicians might help you think about the transition from student to clinician, older mentors can be a reservoir of wisdom and inspiration. One of my friends draws great motivation from shadowing a 78-year-old nephrologist who, as my friend puts it, “knows absolutely everything.” From anatomy of the neck to the physiology of nerves, this clinician scholar inspires students with his depth of knowledge and his ability to use that knowledge to help his patients. When choosing a mentor, think about what types of questions you have and what interests you, and move forward from there.

Consider Connecting to a Variety of Mentors
One of the biggest mistakes a medical student can make is to only have one mentor. Once you find a good mentor with whom who have a strong working relationship, take the time to get to know at least one other mentor. This can seem challenging, especially when schedules become hectic, but it is important to have several mentors from whom you can seek advice and get an opinion. Approach a variety of potential mentors with diverse backgrounds and experiences so that when you have a challenging question (such as, “What should I do with the rest of my life?”), you hear lots of perspectives and can make the most informed decision.

Look for Diversity in Practice Style and Setting
Community-based clinics look a lot different than academic practices, which look a lot different than private practices. Think about expanding your horizons and getting a perspective on life in a community-based practice or in an underserved setting by finding a mentor who works in such a practice. One of the complaints I hear most often from fourth-year students is the lack of exposure they have had to practice styles outside of academia. Consider shadowing a few individuals in diverse practices, and if a particular practice environment seems interesting, then work on finding a mentor in that setting.

Define a Role for Your Mentor Early On
When your mentor is also your research advisor, it is important to frequently check in with him or her, even between projects. If you learn of other clinical or public health interests your mentor has, inquire as to whether you can help. If this person is more of an academic advisor, check in with this person periodically, and consider meeting with him or her every three to six months. You do not need to formally call your mentor your “mentor” but you can and should be clear about the fact that you want to get his or her feedback often. It can be difficult to find reasons to meet with your mentor to check in, so be up front that you want to frequently meet with him or her and receive feedback so that you have established a clear purpose for your visits.

Ultimately, finding a good mentor can be challenging and can take a while, but having a strong relationship with a supportive mentor can bring tremendous rewards. Do not get discouraged—it can take a few tries for you and your mentor to click—but, hopefully, you will emerge from the process energized and renewed!

Maya Babu
Council of Student Members Representative, New England Region
Harvard Medical School, 2010

Back to August 2007 Issue of IMpact

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