Medical School Life

How a medical school mentor can shape your career

Beginning a career in medicine as a first-year medical student can be overwhelming. That makes having a roster of mentors who can help guide you along your journey to becoming a physician—and beyond—an invaluable asset.

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“I think medical school mentors should be mandatory,” said Avani Patel, a forthcoming graduate of the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in Jackson who is pursuing a master’s degree in health care administration before beginning residency. “Navigating medicine can be incredibly difficult and having someone who has been through it can provide really helpful guidance.”

The ways in which a mentor can provide that guidance can vary. Dr. Patel and an academic physician offered some insight on how a mentor can help a medical student thrive.

A Sherpa at every career stage

Patel, an AMA member, believes that your mentors should and will change. She has had mentors who were students, residents, attending physicians and high-ranking officials in organized medicine.

“M1 and M2 years, I looked for mentors who could really help me in terms of test taking and navigating courses,” Patel said. “So, I spoke to a lot of medical students early on. After that, I looked for mentors in the specialty I was interested in, because I came to medical school with a specific specialty in mind. When I connected with them, I soaked up as much advice as I possibly could while trying to take my own path.”

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Making connections

Your mentor isn’t going to have all the answers, but the odds are they know someone who can answer each question and concern a student has. Maya M. Hammoud, MD, is the associate chair for education and clerkship director of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Michigan Medical School.

“A good mentor can offer a student advice but also help them network when needed,” she said. If the student starts leaning toward a different field, the mentor can find someone in that field who is willing to guide them even if the student has a change of heart.

In terms of specialty choice, Dr. Hammoud says part of mentoring is “encouraging students to be honest with themselves and do an honest assessment of their potential, and help them focus their interest to match their passion, skills and talents.”

Objective analysis

When it came time for Patel to choose a specialty, she was torn between anesthesiology and child psychiatry; she had faculty mentors in both fields who didn’t steer her in any one direction.

“It sounds silly now, but I remember crying in the office of my attending for child psychiatry about my specialty choice,” Patel said. “She gave me some examples of why she felt I was a strong medical student and why I would be a very successful child psychiatrist. She told me that she would support me no matter what. She would write me a letter or recommendation for either specialty I chose. That took some of the pressure off.”

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Ultimately, Patel’s mentor left the ball in her court to make the decision. She decided to withdraw from the Match for a year. After completing a master’s degree, Patel will graduate from medical school with plans to pursue an integrated adult and child psychiatry residency program.

“A good mentor will help you weigh options,” she said. “It’s easy to be biased about your own specialty, but they need to really help you look at the overall picture to help you make the best possible decision for you.”