By Jonathan Amiel, MD, assistant dean for curricular affairs, Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons
During the winter of my first year of medical school, when I was just getting the hang of taking exams and keeping up with my coursework in between, my course director asked me what I was going to do that summer. I was thrown for a loop—I wanted to conduct clinical research, but I didn’t know in what area or with whom. At first, I focused on the subject—I wanted to go into psychiatry, but our psychiatry department had faculty studying many different aspects of the field. I needed help. My course director asked me a simple but important question—What do you hope to get out of your summer? I wanted to work with someone who was bright, energetic, and wanted to work with me. I wanted to work with someone who could become my mentor and to learn more about doing research and the latest questions in my field. I was lucky—my course director cared about what mattered to me and helped me find someone who was willing to teach me not only for that summer but also for years after.
At any level of training, finding one’s way through the tangle of an academic medical center is no easy feat. Most of us first try to orient ourselves to the lay of the land—Where are the places I will need to visit? What are the explicit and implicit rules around here? Who are the people who might help me? Mentors offer answers to these questions. They also offer direction and guidance. Sometimes, they even answer a question that you don’t yet have. But they should always care enough to be interested in your needs and priorities.
In the January issue of Academic Medicine, Straus and colleagues shed some light on why some mentoring relationships succeed while others fail. Through a series of interviews with faculty, they found that successful mentoring relationships are characterized by reciprocity, mutual respect, clear expectations, personal connection, and shared values, while failed relationships are characterized by poor communication, lack of commitment, personality differences, competition, conflicts of interest, and mentor inexperience.
As someone who has experienced both successful and failed mentoring relationships, I find the outcomes of the Straus study compelling. The best relationships have felt easy and exciting, while the ones that have failed or, even worse, are in the process of failing, have made me feel guilty and inadequate. The authors offer us an opportunity to reflect on the differences between those mentoring relationships that are productive, helpful, and supportive and those that disappoint both mentor and mentee. They offer guidance to faculty who are engaged in mentoring relationships and seek to improve their work and to institutional matchmakers who help mentees identify mentors or are developing mentoring programs for their faculty. The authors also leave us with important questions—How do mentoring relationships get better (or worse) over time? Are there interventions that can rescue failing mentoring pairs? What is the hidden curriculum of mentoring and how does it affect our institutional culture?