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Pediatric VBC - Finding A Mentor

2020 ATS Pediatric Virtual Boot Camp: 

Tips for a Successful Fellowship


Finding a Mentor

How to Mentor 
Heather De Keyser, MD

How to Choose a Mentor 
Spencer Poore, MD


Finding A Mentor: Choosing A Mentor

As a new fellow this is likely the most important decision that you will make. It is hard to give advice that does not sound cliched but the most important thing that you can do when choosing a mentor is to reflect on your previous experiences to determine what qualities that you want in a mentor for your career. Personality, communication-styles, values, and expectations are all important and should be addressed early on. I think that it is important to meet with as many potential mentors as possible, early on in your fellowship, as these meetings can often introduce you to the new department and these brief connections can become a catalyst for future collaboration and involvement. The best pediatric pulmonology programs often encourage a culture of team mentorship and the mentorship that you receive will often take on different forms as you also develop coaches, sponsors, and connectors in addition to your traditional mentor. I also believe that learning from the evaluation of a poor mentee-mentor relationship in the past is one of the most invaluable tools in choosing a mentor in fellowship. You can already see the warning signs because you have been there before.

Benjamin L. Wisniewski, M.D.


Finding a Mentor
What are some tips to optimize your mentor-mentee relationship?
Every mentor-mentee relationship is a bit different, but there are a few simple things you can do to help maximize the time you spend with your mentor. First, think about what you want or need to accomplish from this mentored relationship – is this your primary academic mentor? Or someone to help you optimize a technique or skill? Or perhaps someone to provide career advice and guidance? For each of those interactions, your goals should be slightly different, and a different approach may be needed. Regardless of the goals, it’s also important to have an honest conversation with your mentor early on that sets expectations for your academic activities and for the structure and frequency of your meetings. For many, writing these expectations down – while perhaps a bit hokey – will help make sure both parties stay accountable. Face-to-face or phone meetings on a regular basis are important, and I always encourage trainees to try and block an hour or so with their primary mentor every week, even if that time isn’t always needed – it’s easier to cancel a meeting than to try and make one last-minute. For those meetings, its often helpful to write up a simple agenda or outline, even if it’s just for yourself. This is especially important for people like me who struggle with organization and/or for mentor-mentee pairs that have a significant friendship component (which is great, but runs the risk of meetings falling into “chewing the fat” instead of accomplishing goals!). In addition to those regular meetings, get a feel for how to engage your mentor for smaller, “in the moment” questions; some prefer texts or emails, or dropping by the office when needed, while others may ask you compile questions and schedule time to discuss them. Hopefully, this communication style will match your own! Finally, make it a point to get and give some feedback to/from your mentor on how the relationship is going – this is awkward at first, but regularly checking in will help make sure both you and your mentor’s relationship is strong and can evolve over time.

John Brewington, MD


How do you pick a mentor?
For some fellows and junior faculty, picking a mentor just occurs naturally through common interests and routine interactions. For most, though, finding the right mentor takes some work. Start by identifying possible mentors with a broad set of options – don’t limit yourself to people from your division, or to investigators that you already know. Also be sure to look at folks with varied backgrounds; clinicians are often intimidated by PhD researchers, but should not be (many PhD faculty relish the chance to work with clinicians!). Your program and/or division director may have a list of good mentors from past trainees, and you can always ask colleagues from other divisions for suggestions. If you know people who were mentored by these people, make sure to ask them about their experiences. Look for someone whose research makes sense for your goals, either through studying the same (or similar) disease process as your interest, or by using an approach that you think would adapt well to your questions. Once you’ve got a short list together, set up meetings with each potential mentor. Learn about their interests and active projects, and be confident to talk with them about yours – this is your opportunity to see if your questions are a good fit for their approach, and to gauge whether your personalities will fit well. If your research questions aren’t well fleshed out yet, don’t be afraid to admit that, and to ask for advice on how to pursue your goals. Once you’ve met with a few folks, you’ll probably have a general feeling for which person and/or project is the right fit. Everyone needs different things from a mentor, but in general look for someone who is engaged in education, interested in your ideas, and has a compatible personality (though remember, you aren’t looking for a best friend). The last bit of advice here is to remember to keep connections with other folks along the way – most people need different types of mentorship through their career, and will have numerous mentors at any given time. This means that even if you work primarily with one person, the other good mentors you’ve met along the way can still help you develop your own work and career!

John Brewington, MD

When you are thinking about research and mentors, make sure that you think about how this aligns with your passions and that the person can mentor you in the right way.  If you want to have a heavily research career, you need to start early in fellowship and establish this early – with a mentor who can guide you on a project that can start a career (it might change, but if your mentor can’t launch you into independence, it’s a relationship doomed to fail).  Can (and will) your mentor introduce you to a range of work, like doing peer review?  This is a crucial skill and applies to those in academic clinical practice as well.  Will you get credit where credit is due?  Look to prior mentees to see this – and if it’s a newer faculty member, ask openly about this, since both of you may be looking for an accomplishment on paper.

David Spielberg, MD


Finding a mentor for the physician-scientist track
What are the characteristics of a good mentor for those interested in becoming pediatric physician-scientists?  And how do you pick a scholarly project that’s right for you?
A good mentor cares about your success and about helping you achieve your ultimate career goal. If you are interested in a career as a physician-scientist, then it is important to choose the mentor that is a successful scientist. This mentor does not need to be a physician-scientist but does need to be a successful, independent, funded researcher. She/he can be a scientist outside of your division or department. If you are unsure of what you want your research focus to be, then three 2-4 week research rotations are important for several reasons: 1) you can find a project that you are passionate about; 2) you can see if you get along with the particular lab or clinical research team which is super important because you will spend 2-3 years with them; and 3) you can assess the accessibility of your mentor. An accessible mentor is essential since she/he will help you to design experiments, write manuscripts and write grants. This mentor will need to appreciate that you need to write manuscripts in order to succeed in research and will help guide you to write manuscripts on topics related to your research.  At the same time, your mentor will need to be funded and have a track record of successful funding. This track record of successful funding is important because it means she/he will help guide you to write successful grants and will appreciate the importance of good grantsmanship for success. Finally, the mentor should have a track record of successful mentees who go on to become independent investigators. On a personal note, if work/life balance is important to you, then you will be much happier if your mentor promotes and encourages work/life balance.

Mai Elmallah, MD


Finding a Mentor
Unfortunately, there’s no magic to finding a good mentor because a good mentor is really relative to the mentee (and the mentor).  I have always thought about the process similar to dating:  there has to be mutual interest in each other as well as a mutual interest in forging a path together going forward.  Having said that, since a lot of what goes into mentoring is based on experience, a good mentor will have had many years of being in a mentor/mentee relationship (i.e. a “junior” mentor, whom has been a mentee for many years, will often have more intimate knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in a mentor/mentee relationship, than a “senior” mentor, whom hasn’t been a mentor in many years). 

I believe that the mutual interest in each other and in each others’ projects becomes very apparent early on.   It’s important to remember that the first scholarly project or idea for a project is not necessarily the one that sticks.  Thus, honest communication will be important between mentor/mentee to determine if the first project is salvageable or if it’s time to pivot to a new one.  A discussion of how this will be handled is often optimal when held in the beginning of the relationship, but is not necessary as long as you are committed to discussing it if/when the need arises.  And, similar to dating, being honest with yourself of what’s working or not working in the relationship will keep your relationship strong and/or tell you when it’s time to move on.

As far as tips for optimizing that relationship, remember that mentors typically always have a number of balls that they’re juggling in the air.  Any time that you’re able to make it easier for your mentor to meet, whether it be a time and/or location, do it.  Any time that you’re able to assist in taking one of the balls that they’re juggling away or make it easier for them to juggle, do it.  And, of course, open, non-defensive communication as well as common courtesies of a smile, please, and thank you go a long way.  I think the other tip to remember, is that there is not usually a “one mentor fits all” mentor.  You probably will need to find different mentors for the different aspects of your fellowship/career:  Research, Clinical, Administrative, Professional and Life (aka. How to be a “normal” person mentor).

Edward Fong, MD