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medical student mentorship

My last post got me thinking about how one’s needs out of a mentor depend on the situation.  In medical school, mentorship usually impacts:

1) choice of medical specialty
2) research experience
3) clinical know-how and insight
4) your introduction to others

Believe it or not–and others who have gone through this can attest to it as well–who you interact with and the mentorship you receive will greatly impact which field of medicine you go into. You will likely make your medicine vs. surgery decision on entirely on your own but then what? If you are a surgeon, how do you choose between general surgery (and specialties within, e.g. vascular, surgical oncology, endocrine surgery, etc.), orthopedic surgery, neurosurgery, otolaryngology, urology, etc. Similarly with the sub-specialties of internal medicine. Yes, you may have particular interests, but many will tell you that mentorship played a big role.

Research is huge in landing residency interviews. Research shows that you can work well with others in a team setting, you can think about and tackle complex problems in an organized way, and you are able to contribute to the field of medicine. Of course pretty much all medical students can do this but how do you demonstrate this to the rest of the world? Publications! Conference abstracts! Conference presentations! But how do you get publications, abstracts and presentations as a medical student? Someone has to give you the opportunities to work on them. It doesn’t come for free but the key is to find someone who will reward your hard work. There is nothing worse than really busting your butt for one abstract and then having to compete for a residency interview against someone else who did a little work for a nice faculty member that put that student on five papers. That kills me. I am completely against bogus authorships like that but it’s a fact of academics. However, the least we can ask for is that hard work lead to appropriate productivity.

In a medical school mentor, you also need someone who will tell you how it is in that field. Straight up. All of those dirty little details that you should not be interested in as a medical student (e.g. the benefits of the field like salary and life style). They will also give you the dirty little details on how to choose a residency program, about specific residency programs and the state of your field in general. Also, when you are on the wards, you want someone who will expose you to all of the cool patients and (if there any) procedures.

Finally, you need someone who will get your name out there. By that, I mean someone who will talk to others (e.g. the big shots in your department such as the department chair) about you, will give you opportunities to present at conferences (either national or internal–e.g. at grand rounds), and ultimately, write you a stellar letter for residency.

Before I continue, I will reiterate that the best we can ask for is to work out butts off and get these things in return. If you are working at less than 100%, I would not have a realistic expectation to get these things from a mentor. As much as a mentor should care about your career well being, no one will give 100% support to a student who is not giving 100%. Just as your mentor will serve as a representative for you, so to will you (and your work ethic) serve as a representative of that mentor. So, I would just keep that in mind.

Based on my experiences and those of friends who have gone through this over the years, if you are a medical student looking to work hard and seeking a mentor that is likely to give you the maximal benefit for your hard work, I would go to junior faculty members. I think they tend to be closest to your stage and have the most sympathy for (and memory of) your situation. Also, they will be the ones who have the most impetus to produce publications and give presentations, so any work you do will definitely go towards a tangible result.

The only drawback in my mind is in getting a letter of recommendation from a junior faculty member who may not be that well known in the field–especially if you are applying in a field where having letters from big shots is particularly important. But, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem. A letter from a junior faculty member who knows you very well and has much respect for you will go a long ways. Moreover, junior faculty members can also but in good words for you with big shots in your home department who you will work with on the wards and can then ask for a letter of recommendation.

So overall, I think the combination of sympathy and personal motivation for productivity in junior faculty members will give you the best chances of maximizing the returns on all of your hard work as well as making a long-term friend and mentor.

But again, that’s just my opinion…

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