How Do I Find a Mentor in Medical School?
Updated: Feb 10
Insider advice is incredibly valuable
The value of mentoring is recognized in all fields. The literature in the fields of business, education, and medicine all support its value.
Although they’re at an advanced level in their career, even medical school faculty describe the need for mentors. Comments made by medical school faculty emphasize the value of an mentoring relationship:
“I had a difficult time learning the rules of the game.”
“Without a mentor…I had no idea really what to expect from academic medicine. I have been feeling my way through the tunnels because I don’t know where the roadblocks are. I just kind of deal with them when I get there.”
These comments mirror those we hear from applicants. It’s difficult to learn the rules of the game when they’re not written down.
“I didn’t know you could customize your personal statements for different programs.”
“I didn’t know I should have sent an e-mail thank you immediately after the interview, especially since I was planning to send a note later.”
It’s particularly difficult when you learn the rules of the game too late to make a difference.
“I didn’t know that matched applicants to neurosurgery in the NRMP data had reported, on average, nearly 20 abstracts, publications, or presentations. I’m in my fourth year now, and it’s probably too late.”
Importance of a mentor in the residency application process
The importance of the mentor in the residency selection process was highlighted in a study of emergency medicine residents. Researchers found that residents who reported “greater mentor effectiveness were more likely to match to their first or second choice.”
Of note, 1/3 of respondents indicated that they didn’t have a mentor during medical school. Osteopathic and IMG applicants were less likely to have mentors than their allopathic counterparts.
In a study of over 70 medical students mentored by radiation oncology faculty at a single institution, researchers assessed the impact of the mentorship program.
Mentees delivered 75 presentations at national conferences
And published a total of 53 manuscripts
Mentees were also noted to have received numerous medical school and national awards for their work and involvement.
The authors concluded that mentorship can have a positive effect on research productivity.
Although mentors are recognized as important for residency match success, many students report not having a mentor
Insider advice is invaluable. In a survey of third- and fourth-year medical students at UCSF, 96% of all participants rated mentors as important or very important.
Unfortunately, recognizing the value of a mentoring relationship is a far cry from developing such a relationship. Although 96% of the participants rated mentors as important, only 36% actually reported having a mentor.
How can medical students and residency applicants locate and develop relationships with mentors?
Some schools have developed formal or informal mentoring programs
Some medical schools recognize the importance of advising students and have responded with the development of mentoring and advising programs. These programs differ widely in structure and scope.
At some schools, highly organized programs have been developed. At other schools, the mentoring process is more informal, consisting of students being given a list of faculty members willing to serve as advisors, and then encouraged to cultivate relationships. As one student in a survey of UCSF students stated, “I create the relationship, and then I follow it. I sort of take the risk.”
While some students are able to create such relationships, it can be difficult, and some students blame themselves for not being assertive enough to find a mentor. “I just didn’t know how to go about setting myself up for a good thing to happen.” Other students maintain that the problem lies with the system, citing the short duration of courses and clerkships as impediments to developing relationships with faculty.
How some medical students have met and developed mentor relationships outside of formal programs
How have other students met potential mentors? In one study,
28% of students met their mentors during inpatient clerkships
19% through research activities
9% during outpatient clerkships
If you’re lucky, you’ll be assigned to an inpatient or outpatient clerkship in which you learn and excel, and through that process develop a relationship with your attending. If so, you may ask for advice with your career choices and application, or even seek a letter of recommendation from your attending.
What if you haven't met a potential mentor through your clerkships?
Many students won’t find a mentor through randomly assigned clerkships and courses. One option is to choose a particular elective or clerkship for the chance to work with a specific attending. A discussion with other students, upperclassmen, or residents in your chosen field should help identify those faculty members who are known to be excellent advisors.
If you’re not able to work with these individuals directly in a clinical setting, you may be able to contact them for opportunities to work on research projects or publications.
You can also arrange meetings with faculty members simply to seek advice. Many faculty are open to such conversations. That conversation may or may not lead to further meetings. In some cases, a faculty member may signal that they're open to further meetings ("please feel free to reach back out if you'd like to meet again"). If that's the case, you may be able to develop more of an ongoing relationship.
The bottom line: Mentoring relationships can be invaluable. Even though it can be difficult to identify potential mentors and then develop that relationship, that effort is worthwhile.
Dr. Rajani Katta is the creator of Medical School Interviewing 101, the course that teaches students how to ace their interviews. She is also the author of the best-selling book The Medical School Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty, and served as Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years.
Dr. Samir Desai is the author of The Medical School Interview and Multiple Mini Interview: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty. He has served on the medical school admissions and residency selection committees at the Baylor College of Medicine and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.