By Heather Yeo
One of the most important factors in surgical training and a foundation along which much of our profession has grown is mentorship. Mentorship has many definitions, and a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece. The word Mentor was taken from the character of the same name in Homer’s Odyssey. Although it’s slightly a misnomer (as anyone who has worked with Dr. Murray Brennan knows), because Mentor himself was a bit of a fool, and it was actually the goddess Athena who took on the appearance of Mentor who guided the young Telemachus in his struggles.
To me, mentorship is a relationship where one person shares their experience and knowledge with another person and helps to guide their career. The focus is on the career development of the mentee. Mentors can help with clinical, educational, research or personal growth.
So how do you get started?
Finding a Mentor
Formal: Many surgery programs and professional societies have mechanisms that support mentorship (for example, through AWS, ACS, AAS), these are best if there are shared interests and not assigned blindly. It is good to apply for one of these programs-tell them what kind of mentorship would be helpful for you.
Informal: Look around you, who is doing work that interests you, who has a career that interests you. One of the best things about academic medicine is that there are mentors everywhere. You don’t have to only choose one mentor. You can have a research mentor, a personal mentor, a career mentor. Having more than one mentor gives you different perspectives and can be good because you don’t overburden one person.
Setting up rules to the relationship
Like any relationship, both the mentor and mentee must be committed. To have a good relationship it needs to be balanced, meaning if your mentor is teaching you, you should be willing to learn and to take their advice. If you promise to do something, do it, and in a timely manner. I find that when I am working with good mentees they communicate their timeline and get things done. I find I am a better mentee myself when I set timelines and expectations.
Talk about what each person is going to put into and get out of the relationship.
Sticking with or separating from a mentor
Not all mentor-mentee relationships work. It is important to try to fix them early. If you do not align with your mentor or mentee, it is important to communicate what you need and what you can give. Sometimes a relationship isn’t working, this then lead to a formal separation, maybe asking the current mentor for other potential mentors on different interests (if yours have evolved for example), or sometimes the relationship just slows down. Always be polite, and always think about how you can learn from your mentor-mentee relationship to improve on the next one. Even if you are no longer close with a particular mentor, you never know when that relationship may sprout again as a new project comes up or in a different environment.
Much of my success has been directly a result of supportive and generous mentorship, but I’ve also had mentor-mentee relationships that were not so good. In fact, I know I haven’t always been the best mentee. But every time I enter into a new mentor mentee relationship, I try to think about what I need and what I bring to the table and how to make this relationship even better than the next.
Some additional resources on surgical mentorship opportunities:
A great longer piece from some of the amazing mentors at AWS
Heather Yeo, MD, MHS, is Assistant Professor of Surgery and Assistant Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College and Assistant Attending Surgeon at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She is board-certified in general surgery, colon and rectal surgery and complex general surgical oncology. Dr. Yeo has a Master’s in Health Services Research and is focused on surgical outcomes and quality improvement in Gastrointestinal Cancer Surgery. Dr. Yeo became involved with AWS after receiving the 2013 AWS-Ethicon Fellowship Grant and is currently a co-chair of the AWS Communications Committee.
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.