A Practical Guide to Establishing Mentors as a Virtual Medical Student

21 Apr 2021

By Shan S. Lansing

2020 was the year for virtual medical education. Preclinical students would jest that they were attending Zoom School of Medicine, and whole cohorts of new medical students were inducted with virtual white coat ceremonies. Though video platforms made it possible for clubs and interest group meetings to continue, the free pizza and casual networking was replaced with gentle encouragement to go ahead and turn your camera on, if you’re comfortable.

Beginning a career in medicine is daunting, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only served to add new challenges to the already formidable tasks involved with beginning medical school, developing a support network, and creating meaningful relationships with mentors. I have heard from many preclinical medical students that the transition to virtual events has made it challenging to network and connect with surgeons. With that in mind, here are a few practical tips for establishing relationships with mentors:

  1.     Be persistent: I get it. Reaching out to a potential mentor (via email or otherwise) and not receiving a response is discouraging. When this happened to me, I felt like the email I had sent was annoying to the surgeon. The truth is that the lack of response was less a reflection of me, and more likely a reflection of how busy that surgeon happened to be the day I sent the email. When seeking mentors, try not to be discouraged when someone does not have the time to commit to meeting with a student. Continue to reach out to other surgeons until someone replies.
  2.     Be specific: If you find yourself in the position of not receiving a response to the initial email, take a step back and analyze the message. Is it a long email? Make sure the email is brief and easy to read, and that the reason for the email is explicit. I generally avoided long introductions about myself (after all, I wanted to hear their experience and advice, I didn’t want them to listen to my story) – I am a medical student interested in pursuing a career in surgery. Then, be specific why you want to meet with them. Rather than asking to “talk about surgery,” explicitly state why you are looking for a mentor. Try asking the Program Director if they would speak with you about how to utilize pre-clinical and clinical years to be prepared for residency. Try asking a female surgeon with children if she would discuss the feasibility of being a mother and having a surgical practice. Surgeons will have an easier time accepting a mentee if they understand what they can offer the student.
  3.     Be flexible: Recognizing that surgeons often have busy schedules with limited time outside of the clinic and the operating room (OR), be flexible when coordinating a time to meet. Sometimes mentors would have designated administrative, research, or office time, which would make it convenient to schedule a meeting. When there are conflicts, it’s okay to be creative. In preclinical years, I would ask if I could shadow an OR or endoscopy day, knowing we would likely talk casually between cases. Bonus points – in addition to talking through problems with a mentor, there’s a great day in the OR!
  4.     Utilize membership in professional organizations to connect with surgeons: When beginning the search for mentors, or trying to initially connect with a surgeon, take a look at professional organization directories for a good starting place. As a student member of the Association of Women Surgeons, you can see which surgeons at your institution are also members. When reaching out to them, include in the email “I am a member of AWS, and I saw on the member directory that you are also a member and was hoping we could connect. I am seeking a mentor that can help me visualize the path to becoming a surgeon-scientist in surgical oncology. Would you have time to meet with me to discuss your path and experience in the field?” If you are not an AWS member, registration can be found here.
  5.     Find multiple mentors for various personal attributes: Sometimes we begin to feel like we need a mentor that checks all the boxes. I want someone who can guide me toward a career in colorectal surgery while balancing motherhood, and will help me overcome obstacles related to being from a rural area. That person might not exist near me – but that’s okay! It’s okay to have a colorectal surgery mentor, and a female surgeon mentor, and a rural/underserved mentor. There is validity to seeking mentors with similar experiences who have faced similar obstacles, but try not to limit the options by thinking a great mentor has to have faced all the same obstacles.
  6.     Appreciate informal mentors: Mentorship programs such as the URM Mentorship Program sponsored by AWS, LSS, and SBAS are fantastic, as are formal mentorship pairings made by medical schools. While even asking a surgeon explicitly to be your mentor has advantages, try to appreciate the informal advice that gets passed along. Sometimes on a clinical rotation a resident will give residency application advice, will share which surgeons in the department are known for having active research projects, and will encourage you to take on new challenging patient care tasks. These mentors, while perhaps less obviously mentors, play an important role in the growth toward becoming a physician and surgeon.

Much of this advice is applicable beyond the virtual world that COVID-19 has created. While we will go back to having some in-person events where relationships with mentors may casually blossom over small talk, it is unlikely that every mentor relationship will come from a networking event. That said, like anything in life that is worth doing, establishing relationships with mentors is worth working for.  

Shan Lansing is a fourth-year medical student at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, and she recently matched into the General Surgery program at Oregon Health and Science University. Originally from a small town in southern Oregon, she attended Oregon State University where she earned a dual Bachelors in Chemistry and Biohealth Sciences. She continued at Oregon State University for a Masters in Analytical Chemistry. Her advocacy interests include increasing access to surgical care in rural and isolated communities throughout the United States. Ultimately, Shan seeks to pursue a career in rural general surgery, aiming to provide compressive surgical care for an underserved community. In her free time, she enjoys running, cooking, and cross-stitching. You can find her on Twitter @ShanSLansing.


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.

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