Mentorship: How to provide it, how to obtain it

12 Apr 2021

By Ashley Meagher, MD, MPH, FACS

Mentorship is one of the most important facets of medicine.  We rely on mentors to guide us in medical school, as we choose a specialty. In residency, we are frequently assigned a faculty mentor as well as a “peer” mentor (a more senior resident) to help guide sub-specialty selection, navigate residency issues, or even advise on research projects.  Mentorship continues as we exit residency and take on fellowship or faculty positions.

 Most of us have experiences in which the mentorship relationship can best be described as “non-therapeutic”.  Mentorship and menteeship is a relationship that requires effort and commitment from both parties.  To maximize the relationship, it is best to start by laying some ground rules.

What do you/I hope to obtain from this relationship?

What time do you/I have to commit to this relationship?

It can be helpful to answer these questions during the introductory meeting, or even in an introductory email before meeting.  For the mentee, think critically about what you would like from your mentor.  It is common to have different mentors for different aspects of your life/career.  I have often heard mentoring relationships discussed as more of a “board of directors”, rather than a single mentor to guide every aspect.  This allows you to pick mentors according to their strengths.  You will learn a lot through diverse mentorship with this technique and find that your various mentors can provide well-balanced guidance on career choice, research efforts, leadership development, or (oddly enough) mentoring.  Mentors will push you, and sometimes believe in your abilities more than you do.

When agreeing to be a mentor, it is important that you are honest with yourself, and your mentee, about your ability to support them.  I find it helpful to schedule meetings, even if it is quarterly, and give goals for the meeting.  This keeps both parties accountable and provides a framework for the relationship.  While mentorship and sponsorship are different, mentors frequently become sponsors for their mentees.  Think critically about ways to boost your mentee along their path.  Research ways to help them succeed when they are having difficulties, or research alternatives if something in their path isn’t working.  I find that through doing this, I have learned from my mentees nearly as much as I’ve taught them.         

Interestingly, there is practically no formal curriculum on being a mentee or becoming a mentor.  However, these skills are not innate.  As junior faculty, I have found that asking for advice and guidance in my own mentoring has been very helpful.  Additionally, there are some great leadership development courses that have mentorship/menteeship built into the curriculum.  The Michigan Mentorship Academy provides a curriculum and publications for both mentor and mentee success.   I rely on senior partners to advise me if I’m struggling with a mentee or specific issue.  This type of “tiered mentoring” is helpful and can be formalized into a part of the mentorship relationship.  It can be used to train mentors and aid mentees at multiple levels. 

One of the hardest things to do is terminate a non-functional mentor-mentee relationship.  Recognize that not every relationship is destined to last an entire career.  Sometimes the goals of the mentor/mentee have changed, sometimes the goal is achieved, and sometimes the relationship just isn’t working.  When this happens, it’s ok to acknowledge it and walk away.  I would advocate maintaining a civil relationship, if possible.  But this is always depending on the circumstances.  Some people find that this happens more frequently with “matched” mentor-mentee dyads than with organically developed dyads.  When this happens try to remember that, typically, there is no one at “fault”.  Being in these relationships can be difficult and require work, just as other professional relationships.

I see myself as a product of a long line of amazing mentors, many of whom are members of AWS and AAST.  I hope that each of you will find valuable and fulfilling mentors and mentees that enhance your career.

Please join us on Monday, April 19th at 8-9pm Eastern Time for an AWS Tweetchat about mentorship in surgery, in partnership with the AAST!  This chat will focus on how to develop mentorships and sponsorships as a trainee, how to create a mentoring network outside of your home institution, and how to make the most of these mutually beneficial relationships in the surgical world! The chat will be moderated by Drs. Stepheny Berry (@Dr_Stepheny), Jennifer Hartwell (@traumamom4), Lillian Kao (@LillianKao1), Bryce Robinson (@BryceRobinsonMD). Questions will be posted directly from the @WomenSurgeons twitter account and you can also find them following the hashtags #AWSchat and #SurgMentorship. If you haven’t participated in a tweetchat with us before, check out this tutorial written by Dr. Heather Yeo (@heatheryeomd) to know more.

We will be discussing the following questions during our tweetchat: 

Q1: Our first question deals with the practical logistics of establishing surgical mentorships and sponsorships: How should students, residents, etc go about finding a mentor? Any examples from your journey that you would be willing to share? 

Q2: What are key things to look out for when looking for mentors early in one’s career? How do you ensure your mentor has your best interest in mind and goals are aligned or mutual? 

Q3: There has been a lot of interest in developing one’s “mentoring network”. Could you explain what this means to you and how to go about seeking mentorship for various aspects of one’s career, and outside of home institutions?

Q4: Can you discuss the differences between a mentor and sponsor? How do both play a role in guiding your career?

Q5: Do you have any suggestions for how to avoid common mentee missteps? Or, how to make the most out of a mentoring relationship as a trainee? 

Q6: What is the best piece of advice you have received or come across during your career about how to successfully navigate mentorships, or a valuable piece of advice from your mentors that has had a huge impact on your journey? Words of wisdom much appreciated, especially for newly matched residents who will embark on intern year very soon! 

Dr. Ashley Meagher is a Trauma and Acute Care Surgeon at IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana and is affiliated with Indiana University Health Medical Center. She is board certified in General Surgery and Surgical Critical Care.  She is also the Director of Research for the Acute Care Surgery Division. She has been honored to have numerous mentors through her career, many of whom are members of AWS and AAST. She’s been passionate about establishing formalized mentorship relationships for medical students and residents pursuing research in trauma and emergency general surgery outcomes. You can find her on twitter @Dr_AMeagher 


Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *