Recently, there has been increasing interest in the subject of mentoring with the publication of two Perspective pieces in the Bulletin.1,2 Anna Evans Phillips, MD, in the February 2017 edition and Geoffrey Lim, MD, in the May 2018 edition recalled their experiences with mentoring.1,2 Anna’s experiences during her residency and fellowship years inspired her to begin mentoring her own junior colleagues. As physicians, she pointed out our obligation the Hippocratic Oath holds us to regarding teaching our art to future generations of healers. Geoffrey added not only his thoughts and gratitude to his mentors as he completed his residency, but also enumerated a set of core qualities that he felt defined “healthy” mentorship. He went further in also listing the reciprocal qualities the ideal mentee should have. I would like to add my own perspective from the standpoint of someone who had the privilege of serving as a mentor to many younger physicians.
Mentor, in classic literature, is a character in Homer’s “Odyssey” and a close friend of Odysseus. When Odysseus left Ithaca to participate in the Trojan War, he entrusted the care of his kingdom as well as the education of his son, Telemachus, to Mentor. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary also defines a mentor as “a trusted counselor or guide.”
Many of us, regardless of our professions, have benefited from having had one or more mentors. Further- more, as we grew in our professional careers, we, in turn, served as mentors to our younger colleagues. I have been fortunate to have had several mentors who challenged me and allowed me to develop critical thinking as I mastered the art and science of diagnostic imaging. Each of my mentors shared similar traits. Each was an established faculty member who also was an excellent teacher. However, rather than spoon-feed their charges by providing all the answers to our questions, they employed the Socratic Method. They answered a question with another question. In many instances, they would ask what my resources were for solving the issue at hand. If it was obvious that I was on the wrong track, they would suggest one or more references from a textbook, or, more commonly the current or classic medical literature.
Another common trait that they employed was to always ask me what I thought about the issue. It didn’t matter whether I was right or wrong. They just wanted to be sure that I had an opinion. Once that was established, they guided me along my path so that I could find the answer. The purpose behind this technique, as well as the Socratic Method, is to develop critical thinking in the student and is based on the premise that the answer to their question(s) lies within themselves.
Each specialty in the practice of medicine is founded in one or usually more of the basic sciences – in diagnostic radiology, they are anatomy, pathology and physics. Trainees in each specialty should have mastered these basic fields prior to beginning their residencies. Throughout their residencies, the trainees will learn the finer points of the science of their chosen field. Much of that can be learned from reading textbooks and the medical literature. However, learning the art of the specialty generally comes from having a mentor.
Mentors, unlike coaches, form a long-term relationship with their charges, focusing on supporting the growth and development of the men- tee. Mentors are a source of wisdom and support. They are different from coaches, who typically operate in a relationship that is of finite duration. A coach’s job is to strengthen those behaviors that result in better performance as well as to correct those behaviors that contribute to poorer performance. A mentor is a personal advocate, in a private relationship, who helps you see the destination but will not give you a roadmap to reach it. A mentor will give positive reinforcement as well as honest criticism; s/he will offer encouragement but will not give you “how-to” advice.3
In regard to this last point, I remember an incident from my last year of pharmacy school. This was when pharmacists still did compounding. I was preparing a mixture of potassium permanganate and iodine that, when finished, was supposed to look purple. Each one of my attempts resulted in a brown liquid. In frustration, after the 10th attempt, I asked the professor to watch me make the compound. And like the other tries, the result was a clear brown liquid. “So what’s the problem?” he asked. “It’s supposed to be purple,” I replied, as I was getting ready to dump it down the drain. He smiled and suggested I put the mixing beaker on the shelf and work on a different preparation. I thought as I started making another prescription, “He’s a lot of help.” Five minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the liquid in the beaker was turning purple. It was only then that I realized the preparation needed to undergo a photochemical reaction to reach the desired color. The lesson was learned.
Mentors have several other responsibilities. First, they need to check their egos at the door. They should never be in competition with their mentees. Their greatest pleasure is to see their mentees not only succeed, but also to perhaps surpass them in academic accolades. Many years ago, one of my residents had a paper accepted for presentation at one of the annual meetings of the American Roentgen Ray Society. This was to be her first presentation in front of a large group. I assured her that she knew more about the subject than anyone else in the room, including me. I also told her that I was one of the moderators of that session. All of the presenters are asked to come a few minutes early and when she did so, I introduced her to all the musculoskeletal (MSK) illuminati who were in the audience. That made her all the more nervous. I told her to relax and again reminded her that she was the most knowledgeable person on the subject matter. Her presentation went well, and afterward, the late Dr. Harold Jacobson, the “Dean of MSK,” personally congratulated her and invited her to submit the paper to the journal, of which he was editor-in-chief. My mission was accomplished.
Mentors also should instill in their younger colleagues a sense of paying it forward. As I mentioned previously, I have had many mentors throughout my career. Most of them, unfortunately, are now deceased. The only way to repay them is to further their teaching ethos by paying it forward. As such, I have been a mentor to countless residents, fellows and junior colleagues, and I have been proud of their accomplishments as they grew professionally.
1. Phillips AE. Mentoring in medicine. ACMS Bulletin February 2017, pp50 – 51.
2. Lim G. Mentorship in medicine. ACMS Bulletin May 2018, pp168-169.
3. Reh FJ. A guide to understanding the role of a mentor. www.thebalance.com 2275318, August 2017