How I Mentor

Alison Loren, MD, MS
Fellowship Program Director in the Department of Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia

Any fellow entering a training program is faced with an overwhelming number of opportunities – laboratory research, clinical practice, teaching and education, policy, communications, palliative skills… the list goes on. And, let’s face it, most fellows are overachievers. They want to say yes to and take advantage of every one of these opportunities.

There’s nothing wrong with that attitude, but fellowship is the time to figure out what you love, and that means closing some doors. An ideal mentor – or, more likely, mentors – helps fellows progress along their career paths, providing support and guidance during their search as they identify what they want to do.

Unfortunately, there is no special training program for trainers. Much of what I have learned is from emulating the great mentors I was lucky enough to have throughout my career – and making some mistakes along the way!

Mentoring the Mentor

I became a fellowship program director early in my career, at a time when I was not that far removed from the training process myself. Over and over again, both as a program director and as a trainee, I saw fellows who lacked confidence – even if they were, by any standard, incredibly successful. Everyone doubts themselves, and wonders whether they can make it in academic medicine.

Along the same lines, I have seen very good doctors and researchers struggle with acting as a mentor. In many cases, people aren’t aware of what they could be doing to help their trainees – possibly because they were not well-mentored themselves.

So, as the fellowship program director, I spend most of my time helping fellows gain confidence and helping mentors be successful. My job is to put the bugs in their ear about what each person – mentor and fellow – can bring to the relationship. On the faculty side, that includes:

  • Meeting regularly with your mentee to discuss career goals and career planning in explicit ways; for instance, looking at the fellow’s timeline and planning out which grants to submit, and which research project to prioritize.
  • Advocating for your trainee. If your trainee wants to be an instructor at your institution next year, speak with the division chief. If he or she wants or needs to relocate, reach out to your colleagues to help pave the way. Or, if his or her spouse is relocating, be proactive and reach out to contacts in that area to explore available positions.
  • Being honest with your mentee. Eight times out of ten, everything is synchronous: trainees know what they want and faculty can help them realize those goals. When that’s not the case, though, your job is to listen and provide honest feedback – recognizing that you can’t force anyone to do anything he or she isn’t ready to do.

Know Thyself

The mentoring process is unique to each individual. There is no one-size-fits-all piece of advice, but, because such a large part of successful mentoring is helping your mentee learn about him- or herself, you first need to know yourself.

For example, as a mentor, you need to know what you can and cannot tolerate in your mentee’s work ethic. If someone can’t meet you halfway on that, it won’t be a valuable working relationship for either of you.

My interpersonal style is relatively casual, but I take my work seriously. If someone fails to do something I asked of them, I am not too relaxed about that. Discovering what is important to you may be learned through trial and error; for instance, after working on a project with less-than-stellar writers, I learned that writing is incredibly important to me.

My personal philosophy is that trainees and mentors should choose each other. “Arranged marriages,” In which fellows are paired with a mentor, can be successful, but I think the most successful relationships are those that evolve naturally from common interests and goals.

Of course, you also have to like each other, because you will – hopefully – be spending a fair amount of time together. Complementary work personalities are a must, in my opinion. “The Odd Couple” isn’t ideal in the mentor/mentee situation: if you know you’re an Oscar, don’t team up with a Felix.

Everything Happens for a Reason

It’s a cliché, but it’s true – particularly for a young medical trainee. Nothing is immutable. We are lucky to have many opportunities to change directions, to restructure, to re-route. Yes, doing so might be painful or difficult, but I’m a believer that everything happens for a reason.

This is true even in the mentor/mentee relationship. Early in my program directorship, I worked with one fellow who had her heart set on working with one particular mentor, even though their styles were completely opposite. They started a project and, as you might expect, it was a train wreck. Eventually, she became so unhappy that she found a new mentor who was much more appreciative of her skills and helped her become an outstanding clinician.

Now, with some more experience under my belt, I’d like to believe I could have helped avert that first disaster, but I wonder whether she would have found what made her happiest had she not had that first experience. Possibly, though I suspect the clash with her first mentor compelled her to reevaluate her goals and, ultimately, find a much more satisfying position.

As much as I believe in providing guidance and being proactive, I also believe that sometimes you have to let the trainee make his or her own decisions, even if you disagree. So, when a trainee does not want to take my advice, I still feel it is important to support them. Sometimes mentors can be wrong! I tell my fellows, “If I am wrong, and you end up finding the right thing for you, I’m absolutely thrilled. But if it turns out that my advice was right, my door is always open and we can figure out the next step together.”

Finding the Good in Everyone

The key to being a great mentor is finding something to love in every mentee. I culled this pearl of wisdom from my children’s preschool teacher – more proof that lessons can come from the most unexpected places.

My kids are all very different and, even when they were difficult, this teacher never spoke negatively about them – or any of the children in her classroom. She was able to find something unique and special that each child had to offer.

That’s a lesson that we can bring to the fellowship program – and in dealing with people, in general. Taking this approach benefits everyone in the mentor/mentee relationship: for the mentor, finding something to appreciate your mentee strengthens the relationship; fellows, in turn, feel listened to and supported as they grow and take risks.

As a fellowship program director, people assume that all I hear from fellows are complaints, but that’s an incorrect perception. I spend more time talking with my trainees about their passions, their interests, and what excites them about hematology. This is what I love most about being program director and being a mentor: watching my trainees become successful, and most of all, seeing their happiness and independence grow.