Finding mentors during residency

By Kirstin Bass, MD, PhD
Published April 18, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Mentors are a valuable source of information and guidance to help you through residency, both short-term and in your career’s next steps.

  • Successful mentor-mentee relationships are built on sincerity and honesty, active listening and understanding of a mentee’s needs, and having authority to help with identified needs.

  • Most residents will need more than one mentor during residency. Mentors for building skills and knowledge, academic achievement or research development, career advice, and help with work-life balance are typically needed.

Ask most happy, successful clinicians how they got where they are, and they’ll usually say they worked hard but also received some help—perhaps a lot of it—along the way. Physician success stories usually have an important common thread: a mentor, or mentors, who provided invaluable guidance at key steps in their journey.

The value of clinical mentors is widely understood in medicine.[] Many residencies have formal mentoring programs, pairing up interns and residents with senior clinicians from the moment they start.

Successful mentorship benefits both parties: It's vital to career success for the mentee, and ushering mentees into successful careers is both satisfying and career-enhancing for mentors.

In fact, most residents will need more than one mentor—perhaps not at the beginning, but certainly as they progress. Most residents tap a variety of mentors to help them gain knowledge or clinical skills, with career planning, or with life planning (among other things). 

There’s no single perfect mentor, and you cannot expect one person to be everything to you.

What makes a successful mentor-mentee relationship?

Good mentors should:

  • Be sincere in their interactions with you

  • Actively listen to your questions and concerns

  • Understand your needs, and

  • Have an established position of authority in the field you need mentoring in.

So who do you turn to for mentorship?

For an intern needing mentoring on how to cope with the initial weeks to months of residency, a senior resident with an established position of authority can provide guidance. Similarly, for a resident with a family wanting to establish work-life balance, any clinician with the lifestyle you’re looking to emulate can be your authority.

But for career mentors? Look for people with established positions, as they’ll likely be the ones writing recommendations to further the next step(s) of your career.

Overall, look for a mentor who:

  • Has the skills or position to provide you with needed guidance in a particular area

  • Is willing to mentor you, and be sincere and honest during all interactions

  • Will listen to and understand your questions, and help you find answers appropriate to your situation, and

  • Can help you achieve the next steps in your career, whatever those may be.[]

How do you find mentors during residency?

The first step to finding a mentor is to start connecting with people in your institution.

Don’t go out of your way—just stay after rounds to ask an attending a question, or ask someone you respect for project advice.

Start with a specific question or request. Often, this allows for a relationship to grow organically. If it doesn’t, try going back to your potential mentor with another specific issue.

If the relationship doesn’t evolve on its own, think through whether this person is the right mentor for you. If you’re sure they are, perhaps ask them more formally. If you aren’t sure—and the relationship isn’t taking off—search out a new mentor.

Look for someone ahead of you in the field you’re going into that you admire or someone who’s gone through something you’re about to do. Ask them about their experience—then pay attention to their advice (and whether it works for you).

Also look for people outside of your field whom you admire. Most people need more than one mentor.

Look for a mentor who models the life you wish to lead, not just the job you want.

What this means for you

Finding a good mentor during residency is key to having a productive residency, and can help in the next steps of your career. Good mentors should be sincere and understanding of your needs. Try finding a mentor within your institution, preferably someone working in the field you plan to pursue. You may also want to consider mentors from outside your field.

Related: Residents as mentors: Should you take the opportunity?
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