by: Dr. Angela Neville, MD and Medical Student Katherine Jeffress, MA, MPH
How have mentors positively impacted your career?
Mentors have probably most impacted my career by being examples – good examples. 🙂 I feel that my mentors have helped and continue to help shape my career (and sometimes personal) path.
Originally, my mentors helped me choose a career in medicine and subsequently in a surgical specialty. By finding people that I could identify with and learn from, I was able to begin molding myself to “be like them.” My career mentors were initially all men, because there were no women on my immediate teaching faculty. My junior chief year, my residency finally hired a woman who was wholeheartedly part of our residency. It was life changing to have a woman to aspire to be like. It was life changing to see male residents respect and feel that a woman could teach them something!! That being said, I feel that women can certainly have both men and/or women mentors.
Ultimately, my mentors continue to impact my career by being there and caring about me as a person. If I have a question about a career decision, I know that my mentors will “have my back” and advise me in a positive way.
What have you learned through your mentoring experience?
I have learned that we all have insecurities and vulnerabilities, but that we are all just trying to be the best we can be. This is true for both men and women. Even the most outwardly accomplished person has their struggles about something and needs to be given the space to ask that question or explore their self doubt.
The majority of the students / residents that have sought out my advice or opinion tend to be women, but I think that is because women tend to look outside of themselves and try and figure things out. I have perhaps been most touched when one of our male residents comes to me asking about how to handle a difficult emotional situation or what operation he should do. It reminds me that being open, approachable, and demonstrating sound judgment makes people feel comfortable asking for help when they need it. This is a huge part of being a good mentor.
What has surprised you about being a mentor?
Maybe, how important this role is to me. Sometimes, when I have thought about leaving academic medicine, the one thing that holds me back is the concept that I can be a role model of strength, competency, and compassion to both men and women and students and residents alike.
As I mentioned before, there was a single woman surgeon at my teaching institution. Since that time, obviously, more and more women have joined teaching faculties across the country, but things are far from equal and there are still many stereotypes about women in surgery. I can remember when one of my female fellows (when I was a resident) told me she would rather be operated on by a man… Really!?! Men can be good and women can be good, just as men can be crappy and women can be crappy. I am compelled to see that we are evaluated (both in our hospitals and in the community) on merit more than gender.
How do I get the most out of mentoring?
Keep your eyes open, find the right mentor(s), and learn something from everyone.
Every surgeon that I encountered during my training taught me something. Sometimes, it was by watching them interact with nursing staff or how they carried themselves in the OR during a crisis. Other times it was by seeing how they discussed a complication with a patient’s family member. When I saw something from that person that resonated with me and the surgeon I wished to become I tried to align myself with that person. This concept can work both professionally and personally. Conversely, I think there are also some “anti-mentors” out there — people who you really want NOT to be like!! Like I said, learn something from everyone.
What should a mentee look for in a mentor?
I would advise finding a mentor who you truly feel has your best interest at heart. Sometimes, this relationship takes a bit of time to develop, and you may need to put out a few feelers, but it is worth it in the end. Find a person who you trust so that you can be vulnerable without feeling uncomfortable or that your trust will be violated. Several mentors may be needed to fulfill different needs. For example, maybe you have really identified with a faculty member about how to achieve in the realm of research / academic medicine, but you seek a different direction in your personal life. Another mentor could be particularly useful here. The bottom line is that a good mentor will care about you.
Why do you believe mentoring is so important?
A career in medicine is not ‘normal’ in many ways. Doctors choose a different way of life. While many people out there have several careers in their lifetime, many of us chose medicine in our 20s and have not looked back. We went to school for years and accumulated significant debt. Maybe we delayed marriage or children for our career. Maybe we have neglected family and friends. More over, a surgical career can be exceptionally demanding and requires a constant giving of self.
I feel like mentoring is incredibly important because it helps normalize this unique career path and offer advice that we cannot seek from people outside of this realm. My parents to this day do not understand what happens when I am on-call. “You mean you are spending the night in the hospital?” Mentors can provide insight about all aspects of life as a surgeon. Just the other day, I had one of our most accomplished (and intimidating) orthopedic surgeons give me sage advice about how to balance a busy life in surgery with a young child at home (my first and only son is 16 months old). I was amazed that he wanted to take a moment to pass on his experience to me, and it was particularly valuable. He is certainly someone that I felt it worthwhile to listen to, and his words have made me reevaluate my current actions. Mentoring can often help one work through all sorts of on the job struggles (am I doing the correct operation, should I look for a new job, how many days will I need for maternity leave, etc).
What advice do you have for future mentors?
My biggest piece of advice is to NOT advise, but to allow the mentee the freedom to make the decision they want to make. People know what they want. They know what is important to them. For some, it is to be the next president of the ACS. For others, it is to be closer to their family and work shorter hours. Both of these options are OK!! I feel like good mentors ask the mentees the right questions so that the mentee can come to their own truth. Often it involves giving the mentee the confidence to make their own decisions!!
I can recall several students in my office in tears because faculty had told them they should really pick a certain specialty but they didn’t want to do that and were afraid of disappointing people. Or a resident in serious angst because somebody told them to rank a certain fellowship first, but they really didn’t want to go there. For the love of Pete!! It is their life. And we are more influential than we think. Those students or residents (and their family and friends) are the only ones that are going to have to live with their decision when they are long gone from our training institutions. How dare we put our personal biases on their life decisions?
I guess I am just saying, be careful when you are mentoring. Mentors can be very influential, and I think it is extremely important that we are guiding our mentees in a direction that they truly want to go and not in a way that simply will be pleasing to us.
What do you think are the characteristics that make a good mentee?
This is a really hard question for me because there are so many types of mentoring relationships. I feel I have had many transient interactions with students or residents that came and went, but hopefully in that moment, I was a good mentor. So for those interactions, being a good mentee meant having the courage to come forward and ask the important question for one’s self at that time.
In some of my more lasting mentoring relationships, often the mentees had some similar qualities to me and we were able to truly get to know one another. In this way, I knew what drove them both professionally and personally, so I was able to help guide decisions in the correct way. Thus, I am not sure there is a characteristic that makes one a “good mentee,” but feel that the relationship you have with your mentor should come naturally with the right person.
I guess my one plea is patience with the mentor. (For example, it has taken me longer than I expected to do this blog. :/) We are all insanely busy, so respect that when you approach a mentor for advice you need to make sure you try and give them the time and space to help you. I will always put my work down for a few minutes to help my mentees, but I may need to reschedule to really get down to the nitty gritty of the problem. I have always been incredibly grateful when my mentors have made time for me, but I try and make sure I make this exchange convenient for them.
At the end of the day mentoring helps develop relationships in surgery that can last a lifetime. These relationships are rewarding to the mentee through their successes and the mentor who can watch with a smile as their mentee achieves. Mentoring humbles us as we help people through crisis and comforts us when our time of need arises. For me, mentoring is often a friendship that develops with another in a different life phase, but once established can certainly outlive the confines of that original setting. A special thank you to those who have and continue to mentor me and to my mentees who continue to enrich my life. Thank you to my student, Katherine Jeffress, who asked me to do this post. And thank you for reading. Best wishes for a healthy, happy life.
Dr. Angela L. Neville, MD is a practicing surgeon in the Division of Trauma, Acute Care Surgery, and Surgical Critical Care at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. She is also the Interim Program Director, General Surgery Residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, and an Associate Clinical Professor of Surgery at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.