Early career physicians are mentors, mentees

An expert discusses how early career physicians can get involved in mentorship, the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and how to end a mentorship that isn't working.

Early career physicians can benefit from both sides of mentorship, according to Swati Shroff, MD, MS, FACP.

“As an early career physician, it's still important to have mentors to help you reach your goals, especially in academic medicine, because the promotion pathway isn't something we typically get a lot of education about in our residency training,” said Dr. Shroff, who is director of the Jefferson Women's Resident Clinic and associate clinical professor of medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Dr. Shroff talks a bit about her personal mentors. (Duration 1:56)

Then there's the other side: “Sometimes, though, early career physicians will find themselves in this new role, where trainees and other earlier career physicians are looking to them for mentorship,” she said.

Early career physicians may not feel comfortable with that at first, but they've probably already acted as mentors and teachers without even realizing it, Dr. Shroff pointed out. “Even as a resident, you're teaching medical students, and as a fellow, you have residents, and so you've probably been doing some kind of coaching and teaching all along,” she said. “Oftentimes there's some overlap of coaching and mentoring involved there, so some of those same skill sets may be coming into play.”

Dr. Shroff recently talked to ACP Internist about how early career physicians can get involved in mentorship, the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and how to end a mentorship that isn't working.

Q: What advantages do early career physicians have as mentors?

A: Early career physicians may sometimes think, “Oh, I'm not sure what I can offer. I feel like I'm still trying to learn what to do.” But sometimes that's their greatest strength. Because they're in that early career position, they can still remember, “Hey, what were the things that I wish I knew when I was at that stage?” Sometimes mentors who are further along in medicine don't remember those things anymore, or can't remember what it was like to be at the beginning of their career, or if they can, it was much different back then. Early career physicians can really speak to some of those challenges by asking themselves, “What do I wish I knew, and how can I impart that to the people that are just starting out, like I was a few years ago?”

Q: What advice would you give an early career physician who wants to get involved in mentoring?

A: It depends on the situation. If you have a passion, you're often going to take on the roles at your institution that kind of align with that passion, and then it's very likely that your name is going to come up [as a potential mentor]. But if you want to be more intentional about it, I'd definitely recommend asking your program's leadership if there are any established mentorship programs. Some places have programs where they set up one-to-one mentors, where people are assigned a mentor when they arrive. At other places, it's more organic. People will say, “Oh, if you're interested in that, you should meet X.” Doing things that you're interested in, that you're passionate about, is going to naturally help you find your way to the people who are also interested in those things. … Also, regional and national medical organizations like ACP and the Society of General Internal Medicine often have mentorship resources available that can be helpful, especially if there aren't people with similar interests at your home institution.

Q: How do informal and formal/assigned mentorship arrangements differ?

A: There are pros and cons. If your program has a formal assigned mentorship program, if they're random, one disadvantage is that you might not be paired with someone who has similar career interests, and you also might have differences in personal background that make it hard for you to relate to them. But on the flip side, it might connect you to someone you never would have thought to connect with who does have an interest in mentorship and can direct you to others who have the experience and interests you're looking for. Another advantage to a formal or assigned mentor is that you go in knowing that you already have someone you can look to for guidance when you may just be starting out at a new institution.

For informal relationships, it takes a little bit more leg work because you have to be the one who's asserting yourself and trying to talk to and meet with people, but you'll also have the advantage of directing those meetings toward people you know have similar interests. That being said, just because someone has similar interests doesn't mean they'll make a good mentor.

We also have to think about the fact that mentorship is often not just one person. You might have a team of mentors who are mentoring you in different capacities. For example, someone may be your clinical mentor versus your teaching mentor. It's OK to have multiple mentors, based on your needs.

Q: Does the same go for working with mentees?

A: Taking on multiple mentees is somewhat dependent on what kind of time and availability you have and also what kinds of needs they have. I've had people I've mentored who specifically had one project or one paper they wanted to write, versus others I've mentored more longitudinally. There can be different levels of commitment to a mentee, depending on what they're looking for, and so it's important to assess your bandwidth when taking on a mentorship role.

Q: How do you determine when a mentor/mentee relationship might have run its course, and how do you indicate that it's time to move on?

A: Sometimes it happens naturally in our world, at least during your training years, because you graduate, and then there's this natural break. It's also easier when the relationship involves a specific project, so once the project is completed or the publication is done, that's the end of that mini-relationship. Those situations are kind of straightforward. If it's more career-related or general mentorship, hopefully those are long-lasting relationships, although maybe over time the frequency of checking in and meeting decreases.

If the mentor or mentee doesn't find the relationship valuable anymore, or it's just not working, that's probably the trickiest situation to manage. You always want to try to end things on good terms, and if you made certain commitments or promises, try your best to complete those. Try not to burn any bridges, because medicine is a small world.

For mentees, I would remind them to show gratitude and say thank you, because it's always a commitment to be a mentor. You could say something like, “Thank you for your mentorship. I think my interests have shifted, and I'm looking for mentors with similar interests or opportunities in X, Y, or Z. I really appreciate all the time you've given me as a mentor, and would love to keep in touch.” And ideally, it's nice if you do then keep in touch, even if it's just a once-a-year email.

On the other hand, let's say you're a mentor, and you feel like your mentee is just not keeping up their end of the relationship. They're not meeting deadlines, or the work that they're turning in is just not up to par. I think it's OK as a mentor to say, “Listen, I'm noticing X, Y, and Z.” It's always nice to check in and say, “Are you OK?” Maybe there's something you're not aware of, especially if it's someone who had been doing well and then fell off. It's always good to do a mental check-in in case there's something going on in this person's life that they haven't shared. But if that's not the case, I think it's OK to call it out; be direct and say, “If these things don't change, I'm not sure I can continue mentoring you because it is a big commitment, and I need to know that you're committed as well.”

Q: What's the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and can the same person provide both?

A: Mentorship is typically a one-to-one relationship where, as I mentioned, it could be specific to a project or it might be a general mentor who's there to offer career advice. We tend to think of sponsorship a little bit differently, as trying to really advocate for someone by giving them opportunities that they wouldn't necessarily get otherwise. An example might be someone who gets a speaking opportunity, and they can't do it. They then ask their sponsee, “Hey, is this something you might be available to do?” It's really trying to give people specific opportunities to increase their visibility. It's often very concrete, tangible things that will help count toward promotion. A mentor can certainly be a sponsor, and vice versa. I would say that sponsors do tend to be more senior roles with access to certain opportunities that someone in their early career wouldn't necessarily have. …What both relationships have in common is that hopefully both the mentor/sponsor and the mentee/sponsee benefit. Both of these types of relationships definitely require a certain level of trust.