Searching for Your Dumbledore: Finding a Mentor

Where would Harry be without Dumbledore? We all need mentors, and they can be critical throughout your career development. Whether you are an undergraduate thinking about applying to graduate or professional school, a medical student wading through residency options or a post-doc looking for faculty positions, the relationships you develop with your mentors can be invaluable. Mentors can give advice, provide encouragement or a reality check, offer insight from their experience, and expand your network by connecting you with their own friends and colleagues. The ideal mentoring relationship is one that evolves over time where the mentor takes a genuine interest in the success of the mentee. We all recognize that mentors are important. But how do you find them? And, once you have, how do you nurture the relationship so it can thrive?

Finding a mentor 

Identifying a good mentor can feel like a daunting task. Some schools assign mentors, which can be a great place to start. My school did this. Some of my classmates were assigned mentors who took them out for lunch regularly, serving as a great source of advice and support during medical school and beyond. I never even met mine. She did not reach out and I, feeling rather shy, did not send that first email. How, then, to go about finding an appropriate mentor? Before you begin searching, take a moment to consider what your needs are. Are you an undergraduate considering veterinary school? A medical student considering residency? Anyone needing advice on work/life balance? While you don’t necessarily need a burning question or major life transition to spur your search for a mentor, having a general goal in mind will keep you focused and help narrow your possibilities.
When searching for a mentor, a good place to start is by using the networks you already have. Even if your school does not have a formal mentoring system established, there are likely advisors – deans, school counselors, staff at your school’s career center – who would be happy to provide you with leads. Outside the more formal system, fellow students, especially those ahead of you, can be invaluable in pointing out good mentors. More advanced students remember just what it was like to be in your shoes. Not finding someone through the network you already have? Expand it! Get involved in related group activities. Looking for a mentor in radiology? Join your school’s radiology interest group. That will put you in touch with faculty who are interested in mentoring. No radiology interest group in your school? Start one! Potential mentors will appreciate your enthusiasm.
Do not worry about finding a single person that will meet all your anticipated mentoring needs. You are allowed multiple mentors – in fact, different perspectives can be invaluable. Also, while mentors should serve as role models and be someone you look up to, they need not be a carbon copy of where you want your career to head. My dream job is to be an academic psychiatrist; one of my best mentors is a basic research scientist. Similarly, your mentor does not need to match your personal demographics to give good advice. I have both male and female mentors from a range of backgrounds.

Hooking a mentor

Once you have a few potential mentors, reach out. If you someone can introduce you, that helps break the ice, but “cold” emailing can work as well. Let them know who recommended them – “Dr. A suggested I speak with you. . .” Introduce yourself and explain why you are seeking their advice. Keep it brief and to the point, and ask for a face-to-face meeting. It can be a nerve-wracking step to hit “send.” Faculty, though, are accustomed to being contacted by interested students, and if they don’t feel like they would be able to help you personally, they often know people who might be better suited.
At your first meeting, try to lay out what you are looking for in a mentor. It might be something simple, like “Would it be all right if I emailed you with further questions?” or “Could we set up another meeting after I’ve had time to. . .” There is no exact formula for establishing a mentor/mentee relationship. I have had some mentors that I have met with for a half an hour weekly for a few months, others whom I might see a few times a year. Ideally, the commitment will balance the level of guidance you need with the availability of your mentor, and this may change over time as the relationship evolves.

Keeping a mentor

Mentoring is a mutual relationship. Although there may be the classical image of a supplicant sitting reverentially at the feet of the guru on a mountaintop somewhere, reality is an engaging give-and-take. The best mentors are almost always busy people. Why? Because they are involved and committed to a number of different things – whether that’s running a lab, serving as dean or maintaining a busy private practice. This means you need to use your time together wisely. If you have a problem, try to have come up with a few solutions on your own before seeking advice. The more you can bring to the table, the more they have to respond to and the better their advice can be. “I don’t know what to do with my life” is less useful than, “I’m considering medical school or graduate school, but I’m torn and here’s why. . .”
Keep your expectations realistic. Dumbledore didn’t slay Voldemort himself, and in the end your mentor is unlikely to be able to solve your problems for you. However, your mentor may be able to provide just the perspective you need to find your own solution.
Recognize that different mentors have different strengths. One of my mentors gives excellent, concrete advice. When I was exploring different options for a thesis lab, he helped me look at my options, weigh my career goals, and articulate why a particular lab would be a good choice. However, when my problem is less concrete – simply feeling overwhelmed by clerkship, for example – I have a different mentor who will pour me a cup of tea and say simply, “Tell me about it.” She also gives great career advice, but the delivery is different. The best mentors know the limits of their ability to help and are willing to say, “That’s not my area of expertise, but Dr. B would be a great resource for you; let me send her an email.”
What if your mentor turns out to be more of a Snape than a Dumbledore? That may be an extreme case, but not all mentor/mentee relationships are idyllic and it can take some effort on both sides to make it work. If yours seems to be falling short, it’s worth taking some time for self-reflection. What are your expectations? Are they realistic? Did you specifically address them with your mentor? Your mentor may be unaware of something you were hoping to get out of the relationship. Try talking about it and see if adjustments can be made on both sides. In the end not everyone is cut out to be a Dumbledore. It takes real skill to be a mentor. The good news is that the mentor/mentee relationship is not binding. If your mentor cannot offer what you are looking for, expand your circle of mentors.
Remember that mentors are giving their time. Please say thank you. A quick email after a productive meeting lets your mentor know you appreciate their time. If a suggestion they made worked out well for you, let them know. Even years later, after your career moves on and you go your separate ways, it’s nice to keep in touch. I enjoy sending updates to my mentor from my master’s program. And, now, she sends students who are interested in MD-PhD programs my way. Which brings me to my last point. . .

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Paying it forward

Now it’s your turn! The best way to repay a mentor is to pay it forward. Wherever you are in your career, there is someone who can gain from your advice. Not only does it give you an opportunity to pay it forward, you’ll find you get a lot in return. While writing this article, I received an email from an undergraduate student I mentored two summers ago – she is applying to graduate programs and was hoping I would read her application essays. It is satisfying to know I have contributed, in a small way, to her growth, and I look forward to seeing her career develop.
Sometimes life seems filled with dark forests, three-headed dogs and a few too many muggles. Mentors can be vital to your career by helping guide your path through these and other adventures. Go out and find your Dumbledore.
Megan Riddle, PhD is an MD-PhD student in the Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program. She will graduate in May 2014 and is going into psychiatry.