Establishing a strong and lasting mentor/mentee relationship


I. Finding a mentor


You are a 27-year-old first-year resident who is seeking mentorship. You are halfway through the year and are thinking about your goals and future. You have a general interest in hematology/oncology but have limited experience and would like to gain more experience with clinically relevant scholarship. However, you do not know anyone in the field and are not sure who to ask for guidance.

Stage 1: Seeking the right mentor

Dr. Jessica Zimmerberg-Helms, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Dr. Jessica Zimmerberg-Helms

Start first with your area of interest and then look broadly. In this case the resident is interested in heme/onc. The first place to look is on the heme/onc department website or in the faculty directory. It can be helpful to look at what the potential mentor has published recently and/or look at a version of their CV on the faculty directory or website. This can help determine how productive they are and help assess whether you share similar interests, and whether they have worked with many learners in the past.

It is also important to do some background work and ask around about potential mentors. Often resident colleagues and fellows have a good sense of current projects and which faculty work well with learners. Lastly, it is important to also look at non–heme/onc physicians as there may be internal medicine physicians or surgeons who are doing hematology or oncology research that more align with your interests.

After you have assessed whether you think this person would be a strong mentor for you, it is time to reach out. People are flattered to be asked and part of their promotion criteria is their ability to mentor. Do not assume that a potential mentor is too busy! Let him or her make that decision. Remember the worst a mentor can say is “no.” Even if they do not have time or the need for a mentee at the present time, they generally will offer some assistance or direction on who to ask.

Start with a straightforward, but pleasant email. Waiting up to 2 weeks for a response is reasonable. If after 2 weeks you have not received word, feel free to reach out again asking politely if he or she would be willing to work with you. Do not be afraid to ask bluntly for their guidance and mentorship and have a specific project or area of research that you would like their assistance with.

II. Optimizing the mentor/mentee relationship

Case continued

Success! Your email was received with interest by a hematologist who has done several projects, comes highly recommended by other residents, and worked with students and residents in the past. The project involves anticoagulation on the inpatient service. You are set to meet with her next month.

Stage 2: Establishing expectations and goals

Now comes the hard work in establishing an excellent mentor/mentee relationship. Before you meet with your mentor, brainstorm first. What do you want out of the relationship? A publication? Career advice? Attaining a fellowship position? You should feel empowered in knowing that you as the mentee are in the driver seat, but this relationship should be mutually beneficial. Consider basing the relationship and initial discussions on these key questions:

1. My goals

  • What are my goals? It is okay not to know but be ready to communicate some information to your mentor.
  • Remember to also ask your mentor what their goals are for you as well.

2. Outcome

  • What type of outcome are both you and your mentor looking for from the relationship?

3. Expectations

  • What mentorship expectations do you have?
  • What are your mentor’s expectations of you?

Once you feel you have a sense of what you are looking for out of the relationship, it is important to communicate this with the mentor to establish congruent expectations of one another. For example, think about asking your mentor if the two of you can establish a mentor/mentee contract. This is a written document that can be found online and establishes a mutual agreement of roles, responsibilities, and expectations of one another for the relationship. It can further help to open a line for honest and consistent feedback. This can also give you a formalized endpoint and agreed upon scope for the mentoring relationship. Having a check-in preestablished in a contract reduces any potentially awkward conversations about redefining the relationship down the road. (For example, what if our case resident decides to pursue GI? It could happen.)

Stage 3: Establishing a common goal

After you have determined the goals and expectations of the relationship together (remember, this is a relationship), it is time to start exploring possible projects and establishing goals for those projects. Having a quality improvement or research project will determine a common goal to work towards and help establish and define the relationship.

Dr. Patrick Rendon, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Dr. Patrick Rendon

Once you have delineated broadly what the project(s) should be, develop smaller SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals to move the project forward. These goals determine stopping points for evaluation and feedback, which further establish the relationship and keep the project(s) progressing. For example, one goal could be to write the first draft of the proposal for your quality improvement project within 3 weeks.

Stage 4: Continued communication

With any project it is important to stay on the same page as your mentor and be clear to establish “who is doing what by when.” Do not expect accountability to be the mentor’s job. Remember that you are in the driver’s seat and that you should propose how often you need to meet and what those meetings look like by developing an agenda. You can have an open discussion and allow your mentor to help determine a reasonable timeline. Remember, the more you communicate your goals, the better your mentor will be able to address them.

One pro tip is to always exceed your mentor’s expectations – if you think you need 2 weeks to complete a task, ask for 3-4 weeks. This gives you extra padding in case of unforeseen circumstances and makes you look like a “rockstar” if you hit a deadline 1-2 weeks earlier than planned.


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