Mentors may help in career development, personal matters, research activities, and professional growth.
“Happy New Year. Just checking in to see everything is OK.”
I received that text from a mentor early this year. We had not interacted for about a month, and I was happy to learn I had not been forgotten.
I had a busy schedule and deadlines, but we set up a Zoom meeting and discussed academia and research. We shared some frustrations with life during corona-virus disease 2019. Before the pandemic, I used to go to my mentor’s office with a cup of coffee and a list of things to discuss. Now we can only meet virtually, but I believe in the value of mentorship and my mentor feels the same. We are getting better with our roles: mentor and protégé.
Mentorship is vital in oncology. Mentors can be sources for advice and guidance. When you match in oncology fellowship, you are assigned a mentor by your fellowship program or a list of interested candidates will be available. Mentors may help in career development, personal matters, research activities, and professional growth. It is important to identify the mentor who best meets your current needs and future goals.
The benefits you will get as a protégé should outweigh what the mentor will get from you. You will need a list of goals to achieve over time and a mentor who will help you fulfill them. The ideal mentor is available when needed and will direct you to the appropriate person when he or she cannot help.
There are many reasons why a specific mentor may not be helpful for a fellow. Not all faculty members are interested in mentorship. Some are better suited for mentoring in a specific disease. A first-year fellow who has not settled on a field of interest may find that a mentor focused on research in a specific disease is not the best choice. Senior mentors may not be available because of commitment to other protégés. An overwhelmed mentor will not accommodate your needs.
The goals of having a mentor are dynamic. In the first year, a fellow will need guidance on how to transition from residency to oncology and how to navigate a new system while maintaining work-life balance. Later in training, fellows will need mentors who help in research activities, career and study planning, job searches, and professional growth. Setting goals and associating each with a potential mentor may be helpful. Some protégé-mentor relationships can be temporary to achieve a specific goal. The number of mentors each fellow may need is different. Many training programs may have a certain structure with various available mentors having different roles. While this structure may be helpful for some fellows, it will not be ideal for all.
Your senior cofellows can be your best mentors. You are dealing with a situation that they just went through, and they will tell you how best to deal with an obstacle or achieve a goal. They can guide you on best options for an available mentor and provide tips on approaching faculty members to seek mentorship.
If you cannot find your appropriate mentor in your institution, you can seek an outside mentor. They are available through various interest groups, committees, or professional organizations such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American Society of Hematology. Send an email. Ask for help. Building a professional relationship with an outside mentor may help in filling mentorship gaps in your institution.
Fellowship is busy. Clinical training, studying, and family commitments can be your most compelling priorities. Setting achievable goals that fit your work schedule and match your future mission should be your most important consideration. No other person can know what you are going through better than yourself. Some mentors may not have the same obligations you have, so their expectations may not align with what is possible for you. They will not know unless you speak up.
It is unfortunate that in rare instances you may encounter inappropriate behavior during mentorship. This includes harassment, bullying, discrimination, or research misconduct. It is important to know how to deal with such instances should they occur. Inappropriate behavior should not be accepted just because you are a trainee. Most people will support you and try to help resolve such rare incidents.
Fellowship programs try their best to assist trainees, but smaller fellowship programs may not have the infrastructure and tools to meet all their trainees’ needs. Identifying your goals and understanding what is possible within the fellowship institution is important and can help in mapping your road to success.
Regular meetings with your mentor can help you address problems as they arise. Together, you can discuss challenges and how to deal with them. You can argue, when necessary, and work to reach your goals. Even if you leave your institu-tion, your mentor will always be your colleague, a friend, and a person to provide advice when needed.
Fellowship experience is extremely rewarding for most trainees. Mentorship helps to make this experience better. The oncology community is supportive of trainees, and if you cannot find the right mentor the first time, try again.