The Importance of Mentorship for Oncology and Hematology Fellows

Josephine Feliciano, MD
Published: Thursday, Dec 15, 2011
What is mentorship? The term “mentor” originates with the mythological character Mentor, with whom Odysseus entrusted his son, Telemachus. Mentor was responsible for educating and instilling values in Telemachus when Odysseus departed for the Trojan War. Nowadays, mentorship is a partnership or relationship focused on education, inspiration, and support between a mentor and a mentee. This type of relationship forms part of the central structure of medical education, including hematology and oncology training. Mentorship can help drive your education, whether or not you choose to pursue a traditional academic career.

What Makes a Good Mentor?

Medical education is anything but a straight line. Different forks in the path may require guidance and counsel from individuals with unique perspectives. Thus, it is common, even ideal, for someone to identify multiple mentors as their career progresses. Though one can have multiple mentors, there are several tasks often required of a mentor or mentors. These include the establishment of trust, and the provision of logistical assistance, subjective advice, and feedback.1 Overarching these tasks is the ability and willingness to inspire, support, and to invest in a mentee.2

During my training as a resident and fellow, various physicians have acted as mentors to inspire, support, and invest in my career. As a medical student and resident, I established an important relationship with a pulmonologist with whom I met periodically for career advice and general counsel. He inspired me with both his actions and his words. I learned that medicine is a lifelong education (though the tests slowly go away, you are never done learning) and part of that education is to question the status quo, to never stop asking “Why?” It was his bedside manner with patients, however, that was most inspirational to me as a young physician. His example of placing a hand on patients’ shoulders while sitting down to listen to them, explaining their x-rays, and learning more about their life outside of the hospital was invaluable to me. Patients would open up completely to this physician and trust him immensely. He inspired me to simplify the complexities of medicine by putting the doctor-patient relationship above all else.

As a hematology/oncology fellow, 2 oncologists in particular were excellent mentors and supported me on an academic and personal level. As a new mother starting a fellowship, it was very difficult learning how to balance family life with a demanding academic schedule. Both physicians had developed successful academic careers, yet, as mothers and wives themselves, had navigated these same issues throughout their training. Their support and encouragement helped me learn to balance my time at work and at home, to be more efficient, and to understand that a successful academic career need not come at the expense of a happy family life. During my most challenging moments as a physician and as a mother, their support as empathetic mentors encouraged me to continue to work toward my goals.

I have had faculty mentors who, on a daily basis, helped me to build the foundation of my academic career. Common among them was their regular availability, constant logistical feedback, and tenacity with establishing goals and meeting them. They helped open doors for me, such as those that involved educational and research opportunities. They identified areas of my training that needed enhancement. They contacted and introduced me to colleagues, wrote letters of recommendation during my job hunt, and invited me to meetings. In short, the mentors in my medical career have demonstrated that they believe in me and are invested in my success.

Why Is It Important to Have a Mentor?

Medicine is not a career meant to be staked out alone. I would argue that it is difficult to be successful if you are not in a mentoring relationship. To avoid stasis and regression, we need examples to inspire us and we need the objective feedback that an invested mentor can provide. This continuous pursuit of improvement is vital in the field of medicine, where change is constant.

The mentorship relationship is surely not a one-way street. It is vital that you take the role of being the mentee just as seriously as finding the right mentor(s). You need to be open to criticism and understand that challenges provide opportunities for growth. Instead of viewing challenges as a nuisance, you should use these opportunities to prove to yourself that you are capable of more than you may have imagined. Furthermore, you as the mentee must be just as invested in the relationship as the mentor, by being available, working hard, and spending the time to improve yourself. You should also provide regular feedback to your mentor, because there is no cookie-cutter approach to the mentoring relationship.

How Do You Choose Your Mentors?

Most of the mentors in my life have been physicians with whom I got along well on a personal level. They were physicians who inspired me and after whom I hoped to pattern my own career. From a clinician’s standpoint, I chose people to emulate who I believed were excellent clinicians, had a wonderful bedside manner, and always placed the best interests of the patient above anything else.


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