How do I find potential mentors or advocates?
Mentors will be meaningful to you long after you’ve graduated medical school. You may have to reach out to numerous people before you find some really great mentors – this is fine… It’s essentially a numbers game. A nice personalized approach email is a good way to initiate contact with potential mentors. When you’re able to sit down for a meeting with a potential mentor, remember to make the meeting about THEM. Make sure to ask questions about THEIR experiences, and see if you guys have chemistry together. If it goes well, you may request another meeting, or at the very least the person may be able to steer you towards other potential mentors. Developing a professional network is very important at this stage…Keep reaching out until you’ve built some strong mentor relationships.
Finding potential mentors or advocates may be challenging to some of you. You may be saying to yourself, “This sounds a lot like networking. I went to med school, not business school!” What may not be apparent at this stage is that some of the most valuable things you will learn in med school will happen OUTSIDE of the classroom from mentors. These mentors will most likely share with you some keen insights that will help your career immensely. They’re more important than you could even imagine at this stage of the game.
One thing you need to realize is that you will probably stay in touch with your mentors long-term. It is very likely that they will continue to be a part of your valued professional network, offering timely advice and possibly connecting you to professional opportunities.
Think back to college. Do you remember the stuff you learned in your freshman year (i.e. plant biology)? Didn’t think so… Did you cultivate a meaningful mentor? What is it that is valuable to you NOW? You will find that your investment in cultivating mentors will be meaningful to you well beyond medical school. Remember, medical school won’t last forever (even though sometimes it will feel like it does…).
Meeting new potential mentors…
For students who are starting medical school, you may consider meeting one new professional contact a week (not counting other students). You may need to reach out to three to five people to yield just one meeting. The key is to overcome your inner resistance (it’s not easy to reach out to new people) and go and make that contact. It’s all a numbers game. The more people you reach out to, the more likely you are to end up with a few really awesome mentors that will last you throughout your career.
You are perhaps saying to yourself, “OK, I’ll start reaching out to people, but where do I begin?” Most likely, the easiest way to begin is to reach out to those faculty who are practicing within a specialty that you are interested in. Another approach is to look for faculty who may be doing research or are involved in aspects of healthcare (e.g. health policy) that you are interested in. Think about what interests you and then find the people that are doing it. As you meet people, ask them for additional people that they would recommend that you contact. Then you reach out to those people, mentioning that you were referred by the person you had met with earlier. This is how you can begin to grow your network exponentially, one contact at a time.
To initiate contact, a typical method is to write an approach email. You should write something that is neither too long nor too short. A note that is between 150 and 250 words is a nice length. When addressing these emails, be sure to use proper formality and deference. After all, you are asking for their (valuable) time. Within the note, introduce yourself and how you came across their name. Perhaps it’s through a common acquaintance. Maybe you found them in your research on people in the organization with professional experience which you are interested in. Doing a little background research to show that you know a bit about them is a nice customizing touch to include in the note. Finally, respectfully request a short meeting where you can ask this person to share some of their perspective.
Not everyone you contact will return your email. Don’t worry – that is to be expected. Generally, this is because the person you are contacting is busy. For those who haven’t returned your note after about a week, feel free to send a follow up email. After that, it’s probably best to leave the person alone. Don’t take this personally.
So now, you are meeting with your contact. What should you say? You may consider preparing a short 2 minute story about your background starting from your past to your current career interests and (possibly) future goals. Be prepared with a couple of questions for your contact. The key is not to start by asking for advice about what you should do. The key is focus on the OTHER person. Ask questions about THEIR experience.
- How did they navigate career choices?
- What do they think of certain fields or topics?
You want to make it an enjoyable conversation for you and the other person. You are actually seeing if there is chemistry during this first meeting. If there is, all your questions can come later as the relationship is established.
The time to ask questions about YOU is towards the latter part of the meeting. As the other person offers advice, he or she becomes more invested in you. If there is chemistry, asking for advice increases the chance that he or she might turn into a mentor. You should also ask if he or she thinks there is anyone else that you should contact. They may be able to provide you with additional people to “interview” as a possible mentor. Once your meeting has concluded, thank your contact for meeting with you. It would be nice if you took the time to write a short and polite thank you email as a follow up after your meeting. Thank the person for spending time with you – always remember that time is one of the most valuable assets we have.
If there is chemistry, feel free to follow up with that person to request follow up meetings. You may have noticed that the word “chemistry” is used quite a bit in this article. The reality is, you are not going to hit it off with everyone… That’s just life. There will be people that you will feel a great affinity towards and there will be people you will be ambivalent about. You don’t really need to set up a follow up meeting with everyone that you meet.
What it all comes down to in the end is a numbers game. Whenever you are at a new place, overcome the inertia of just “doing your job” and take the time to meet people. Developing a professional network is a big part of your job, whether you realize it or not. It will make you a better doctor, and it will make you more effective. Your ability to cultivate mentors and develop your network will provide future opportunities and contribute to your career success.
- Tool: Network Inventory