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Resources for Hematology Fellows

The Key to Finding a Good Mentor

Congratulations on starting your fellowship. Whether you chose a new program or decided to stay at your home institution, it is important to get started on the right foot. Choosing the correct mentor is paramount to your future success in academic medicine. Do not put this important decision off until you’re done with your clinical training and in the thick of your fellowship research months. The key is starting early.

It’s hard to believe that just two short years ago, I was beginning my fellowship — eager to cure cancer, one patient at a time. I recall the day I finished residency and began an exciting fellowship program at a top-notch university with excellent opportunities for research. During that time, my mentor throughout residency had taken another job. Controlling my inner panic, I went to work looking for a new mentor. I learned several lessons from this process, and this article will present some advice for all those in the same position I found myself; I call it the top five to-do list.

  1. Start Early
    When starting your search, so many questions come to mind; for example, what is my priority in finding a mentor? As with most tasks then, I started by making a list. I wrote down the names of all the potential physicians who could serve as my mentor and divided the list into attributes such as fame, prestige, previous success of trainees, approachability, excellent patient care, translational research opportunities, and teaching ability. I prioritized physicians with careers that I want to mimic, people I respect, and those who are accessible. I then arranged meetings with them individually to meet face to face and discuss research interests. These meetings were helpful not only in building relationships with faculty in the department, but also to get started early on projects. For example, one potential mentor offered to collaborate on a review with me. Although this faculty member is not currently my mentor, I was able to learn from him and develop my writing. Figure out your timeline, and what you expect and want in your career and in your fellowship. Discuss these expectations with your potential mentors and listen to their advice.

  2. Discover Your Passion
    Work should be something you look forward to, as it is not likely to end when you go home. This is especially true in academia, where you will likely be spending weekends completing manuscripts, writing grants, and submitting abstracts. Work should be a part of who you are, not something you are obligated to do.

  3. Personality Is Important
    Not all personalities mesh. Find a person that you admire. Imagine your ideal career and work-life balance. Where do you see yourself several years from now, and who has the career that best fits that vision? Perhaps this is not one person, but several different people. That’s okay. If needed, you can have several different mentors including a life coach, research mentor, and clinical mentor. I wanted my mentor to be someone who was accessible, was organized, and who would push me to develop as a physician scientist. I also have a life coach and clinical mentor.

  4. Look Outside Your University/Network
    Keep in contact with old mentors or acquaintances. You never know when you will need them again down the road. Join the ASH Trainee Council, apply to ASH’s Clinical Research Training Institute (CRTI) or Translational Research Training in Hematology (TRTH) programs, and attend Trainee Day or any of the other trainee-specific events at the ASH annual meeting. For example, did you know that there is a Trainee Welcome Reception held the Friday evening before the start of the annual meeting? Trust me, you will meet a lot of colleagues just like you and you’d be amazed by the connections that can be made. These experiences provide a diverse array of skills and perspectives. Developing strong relationships takes time. Use national meetings for networking. If you read something interesting, send the author a note, and schedule a coffee break with them during the meeting. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that people are accessible and want to talk with you, even those who you think are too important or too well known.

  5. Ask Questions to Prior Mentees, and Ask People You Respect for Advice
    Track records are important; not only do most people love sharing their experience, but it also builds a foundation for relationships. Perhaps you found the most prestigious person at your institution but they are too busy to meet with you or don’t work well with fellows. Regular meetings are important for both building relationships and fostering a good learning environment. Fellows in your program are full of knowledge about how people mentor.

Lastly, no one is going to give you a free ride. If you want something, it is up to you to get it. Enjoy what you do, and prioritize time for mentorship. Good Luck!