Mentors are like hidden treasure — hard to find, but life changing

August 13, 2019 Jane Coutts

Suppose you scramble all the way up that mountain, and the guru sitting on top of the world has nothing to say? Turns out that happens more than you might think in mentoring — there’s a host of reasons why what can be an invaluable career-building relationship doesn’t work out.

For one thing, true mentors are hard to find, according to Martin J. Tobin in an article in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, who says role models and mentors are often confused. “Most physician trainees never have a true mentor—there are not enough to go around. They have role models and faculty advisors. Having a real mentor will always be a privilege of only a few.”

The difference, defined in a piece in Mayo Clinic Proceedings by Jyoti Bhagia and Joyce Tinsley, is that “Role modelling is not necessarily interactive; indeed a role model may not be aware that he or she is being observed. Role models may affect many persons, but mentors ordinarily have relationships with only a few.”

There is evidence to back the general consensus that mentoring helps students and physicians early in their medical careers. One 2018 study in BMJ Open reports an experiment where medical trainees who were mentored did much better on exams to become members of the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Physicians: 84 per cent of mentees passed the first exam, compared to 42.4 per cent of those without mentors.

In a 2016 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association physicians Vineet Chopra, Dana Edelson and Sanjay Saint say mentors help mentees develop critical thinking skills, and can offer advice on research ideas, scholarship and networking opportunities. “It is thus not surprising that mutually beneficial mentor-mentee relationships are a key predictor of academic success.”

The scarcity of people willing to act as mentors may be because they feel they do not have enough experience or time, according to an article by Hajar Kadivar, a senior fellow of the North American Primary Care Research Group.

“Mentees, however, need mentors with varied levels of experience,” Dr. Kadivar says. “More experienced mentors provide perspective and opportunities, while less experienced mentors, who have just completed the work that the mentee desires to accomplish, can provide more direct assistance. Often less experienced mentors, even someone who is simply one year more advanced than the mentee, can provide crucial and more up-to-date advice.”

Listing what these rare advisors do (or should do) for “mentees” is a popular pastime for researchers. Bhagia and Tinsley quote a 1995 study (not available online): “Three basic tasks of the mentor have been described: to inspire, to support, and to invest.” An inspirer encourages a student to realize their dream; a supporter eases stress and helps with orientation; the investor mentor pushes the student, to draw out capabilities.

Tobin lists seven roles for mentors (“an ideal that perhaps no mentor can fully attain,” he admits). They are:

  • Teacher;
  • Sponsor;
  • Advisor;
  • Agent;
  • Role model;
  • Coach;
  • Confidante.

Despite that broad range of roles, a good mentor “is careful to avoid spoon feeding, which stunts the development of independence.” They don’t solve problems, Tobin says, instead helping the mentee to craft a solution. Mentors must be prepared to point out weaknesses, guide their juniors through failure and toward understanding the steps to success.

Fortunately, Tobin, like many other authors, has tips for finding a good mentor, starting with this precise detail: “Fellows [his word for mentees] in their late twenties should seek mentors in their late 30s or 40s—a half-generation older.” Anyone younger, he warns, may be envious or feel animosity toward someone younger looking for help. Beyond that, he says, enthusiasm is the most important quality to look for in a mentor (and presumably, wouldn’t be present in someone feeling threatened by an up-and-comer).

Bhagia and Tinsley say ambitious, able students are most likely to get high-quality mentors, but to appeal to a mentor, you should be focused—serious about your career, with clear goals and looking for help in specific areas. They add, however, “There is probably no best mentoring personality or best way to mentor; it is more likely the fit between the partners that is important.”

So, before you climb that mountain, looking for “the one who knows all”, you’d be well advised get to know as much as you can about your quest: what are you looking for from a mentor, exactly? Have you thought through and accepted the work you must do to benefit from the opportunity this special kind of career ally can provide? Can you define where you think you need help, and accept what may be uncomfortable truths and challenges? Think about that, while you admire the view from halfway up the mountain, and then get on with the search for the mentor you need.

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This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule.  Feel passionate about physician-led innovation? Please connect with us at jouleinquiries@cma.ca.

About the author

Jane Coutts is an Ottawa-based writer and editor who specializes in healthcare issues. She worked as a journalist for 15 years, mainly at The Globe and Mail, where she was the health policy reporter for five years. Since she founded Coutts Communicates in 2002, Jane’s work has focused on making healthcare policy and research more readable and relevant. Jane also leads workshops plain-language writing.

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