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Issue 128 Summer 2018

Endocrinologist > Summer 2018 > Opinion

Mentoring, and mentee: on being a mentee…

Saira Hameed | Opinion

A perennial highlight of this magazine is the series ‘An interview with…’ in which a giant of endocrinology is asked to reflect on their achievements and their career. One question that is invariably asked is ‘Who were your mentors?’ Each of these endocrinology greats will describe the enormous impact that their mentors had on them personally and professionally, often attributing many of the choices that they made to that mentor–mentee relationship.

These interviews vividly depict the way that this connection between mentor and mentee can be pivotal within the story of a career and the final path taken.

As a mentee, I have found that the changes in medical training have made this relationship even more vital. The loss of the firm-based apprenticeship model can engender a feeling of transience when training, the notion that you are not known by anyone in particular, because of the brevity of the contact and the rapid succession of placements.

‘In a world of assessments made using electronic tools and drop-down boxes, this personal investment from a mentor is profound and life-enhancing.’

A mentor therefore serves as a constant over many years, irrespective of where you are currently working. This relationship is frequently not formalised, but grows because the mentor generously, within an already crowded life, gives their time and attention to a junior colleague. In a world of assessments made using electronic tools and drop-down boxes, this personal investment from a mentor is profound and life-enhancing. The endocrine giants interviewed in The Endocrinologist often cite two or three mentors who have guided them over the decades, identifying where in their career a certain mentor had a very particular impact. This illustrates that there is no perfect mentor but that, for a mentee, timing and context are everything.

At certain career points, a mentee might identify someone whom they consider a better, more senior version of themselves and will look to the mentor for answers to the question ‘How can I get to where you are now?’ This is not about nepotism or jobs for the boys or girls, but about accessing ‘know how’ which the mentor has developed and refined over many years that is now generously shared with the mentee.

Other mentees will admire their mentor, but not aspire to that particular version of endocrine success. This relationship is therefore not about a road map, but draws on the aspects of the mentor’s experience and acumen that are universally relevant to diverse career paths and choices. One of the great strengths of this type of mentor is that their wisdom lives on in the mentee many years after the face-to-face contact ceases. This means that, when confronted with a career, research or clinical dilemma, a mentee will wonder ‘What would X [insert name of mentor] do?’ In considering this question, the answer to the problem declares itself.

Endocrinology is a broad church, comprising clinical work, research and teaching. Mentors are likely to have a particular strength in one of these areas – but locating all three in one individual mentor would be a rare find. This means that when choosing a mentor, we mentees have to be sure that we are asking the right things of the right people. For a rewarding relationship on both sides, the mentor and mentee must be speaking the same language.

Put simply, if you require clinical mentorship, seek out a clinician you admire. If you are looking for academic mentorship ask a researcher whose work or approach resonates with you. If it’s teaching mentorship, speak to the best teacher that you have had the privilege to be taught by.

As with all relationships, the mentor–mentee relationship requires a connection on both sides. It’s rare that there are ‘bad’ mentors or ‘bad’ mentees, and more probable that there is simply a lack of compatibility between the protagonists. For often intangible reasons, mentees will feel ‘a click’ with some potential mentors and not others, but endocrinology would be a dull place if we were all the same.

One common hitch in the relationship is when a mentor makes themselves, rather than the mentee, the focus of the relationship, trying to fit the mentee’s questions or choices into their own narrative. A good analogy might be a situation where the mentee says that their vision has deteriorated and they plan to go to the optician, only for the mentor, in response, to whip off their own glasses and say, ‘Give these a try, they have always worked brilliantly for me.’

‘When confronted with a career, research or clinical dilemma a mentee will wonder “What would X do?” In considering this question, the answer to the problem declares itself.’

A career in endocrinology affords us a diverse and endlessly absorbing professional life. The vastness of the subject matter and the rich and varied opportunities available to endocrinologists require planning and navigation, and having guidance can be hugely beneficial. The word ‘mentor’ in fact is derived from the character Mentor, a trusted and experienced guide and advisor in Homer’s Odyssey. Three millennia after Homer wrote his epic poem, mentors continue to play a deeply important role in the nurture, guidance and care of mentees, providing us with the maps and charts that allow us to navigate our own endocrine odyssey.

Saira Hameed, Consultant Endocrinologist, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, London

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