The four golden rules of effective menteeship
Authors: Vineet Chopra, Mary Dixon Woods, Sanjay Saint
Publication date: 15 Aug 2016
Vineet Chopra and colleagues search for the golden rules that outline best practice for mentees
Much has been written about mentoring, but the question of how to be a good mentee is, by comparison, neglected. This has created an unfortunate asymmetry, since effective mentorship cannot exist without menteeship. Given the importance of the topic and lack of guidance, we sought to identify the golden rules that constitute best practice for mentees.
We approached this task in three ways. First, we reflected on our own experiences as both mentees and mentors. Next, we contacted 11 MD or PhD mentors from different institutions in the US and asked for three suggestions on how mentees might derive most benefit from them. Finally, we synthesised the reflections and suggestions to identify four key recommendations for best practice.
Select the right mentor(s)
Making the right selection of mentor is crucial. It is rare to find a single person who can offer everything a mentee needs, and so a mentorship team, composed of content, clinical, or strategic mentors, provides a useful model. Indeed, team science has become vital for academic success, and reaching out to enhance your perspective across disciplines is a helpful strategy.
Finding suitable mentors, however, is not a matter of applying a simple calculus. Rather, it is a process of judgment and learning. Many mentors emphasise the need for congruence between your goals and the skills and knowledge that someone you admire can share with you.
Sometimes, you’ll be seeking a role model: someone who is the kind of person you’d like to be. But to advance your work you may also need someone with content expertise, or someone with influence in a field, who has a wide network of contacts.
Remember that somebody considered as being at the top of their field may not necessarily be a good mentor. The mentor’s personal attributes—for example, patience—and their values—for instance, altruism—are fundamental to a good mentor and mentee relationship. You should like, respect, and trust your mentor, and know that they have your best interests at heart.
It is important to avoid being exposed to “mentorship malpractice,” in which mentors take unfair advantage of mentees, potentially damaging their career irreparably. Identifying such problematic mentors is not easy, but speaking to current or prior mentees can be informative. Responsibilities lie on both sides, and you should also avoid exploitative mentee behaviours—for example, treating your mentor as a patron whose main purpose is to open doors, proofread your work, or act as an unpaid psychotherapist is unwise.
Be respectful of your mentor’s time and manage it wisely
Your mentor’s time is precious. Anyone who is qualified to be a mentor is likely to have many other mentees and commitments. The mentee who respects a mentor’s time and finds ways of using it productively is best placed to benefit from mentorship. You must therefore be proactive in scheduling appointments with your mentor—ideally, plan a regular slot.
Preparation is the key to using your mentor’s time effectively. Plan for meetings by setting out agendas and prioritising discussion points—for instance, clinical, research, administrative, or personal updates. Include a timeline to schedule each item so that both of you focus on what is most important.
As well as identifying issues, try to propose solutions to help your mentor decide which answer may be best. In the business world this is known as “managing your manager” or “managing up.” You should also help your mentor prepare for your meetings by requesting actions that they can do to help you in advance—for instance, asking “please review this scientific abstract so that we can discuss at our meeting.”
Communicate efficiently and effectively with your mentor
Every mentor we contacted said that effective communication was critical for a successful mentee and mentor relationship. Such communication requires substantial effort and preparation on the part of the mentee. Mentors can only be of assistance if they understand your goals and activities, are aware of any obstacles, and perceive how they might help you to overcome such barriers.
Your relationship with your mentor should begin with honest conversations regarding your goals and aspirations. It may be useful for the conversations to include a written plan of short and long term goals, which will help demonstrate whether you and your mentor share a vision of success. Clarify roles and expectations on both sides, to minimise conflict, tension, and disappointment.
During the course of menteeship, meetings should provide the setting for much of the action of mentorship to take place. You should establish a regular cadence of communication that includes goals and progress towards them—including, for example:
Discussion of new projects before project commitment
Updates on all journal and grant correspondence, both good and bad news
A summary of current projects’ status, including progress or problems.
During meetings pay attention to your “talking-to-listening ratio.” In most meetings your ratio should be less than one—that is, you should talk less than you listen.
Outside of meetings be mindful about the volume of correspondence you send to your mentor and how you structure it. Multiparagraph emails with vague questions buried in the text are not recommended. Rather, focused messages with a brief background that can be answered with a “Yes” or “No” are ideal. It is helpful to assume that your mentor will be answering your queries while or between doing other things and may be using a mobile device to respond.
Most mentors need adequate notice in order to assist you effectively. Plan to give your mentor enough notice for tasks, and check that your mentor is able to respond to your request. If you want mentors to review an abstract, a manuscript, or a grant application, check first regarding how long they will need. Panicked emails begging for a 24 hour response are unlikely to be well received.
Be engaged, energising, and collaborative
Mentors prefer people who are fun to work with, energetic, and wholly committed. Emotionally draining behaviours, such as complaining, pessimism, and “snarking” about others will not endear you to your mentor.
Mentees need to show that they are mature and genuinely open to learning, without making their mentors assume responsibility for their emotional wellbeing. Expressing negative emotions or defensive comebacks in response to advice or feedback may lead mentors to provide less useful guidance, or they may even consider exiting the relationship. Both outcomes would be detrimental to your growth.
Plan on being an energy donor, not an energy recipient, in your mentoring relationship. Help to drive projects forward, be proactive, and accept all comments as important learning opportunities, even if they appear harsh.
Remember that it is still early in your career and you are establishing a reputation. People gravitate towards an implicit point of reference, and so it is important that you acquire the standing of a “closer”: someone who follows through on tasks in a timely fashion. If you agree to do something understand that it is a firm commitment, and make sure you deliver on time and to a high standard.
Be generous and honest in giving others credit. By being engaged with your mentor, your colleagues, and the wider scientific community, you will quickly become invaluable not only to your mentor but also to your institution.
Effective menteeship is a learned skill that requires practice, patience, and trial and error. A highly effective mentee selects the right mentors, communicates clearly and efficiently, is engaged, prepared, and energising, finishes tasks ahead of schedule, and plays well with others. We hope these golden rules will help you succeed.
Competing interests: We have read and understood BMJ’s policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.
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Vineet Chopra assistant professor of medicine
Department of Internal Medicine, University of Michigan School of Medicine, Ann Arbor, MI, USA.
Mary Dixon Woods RAND professor of health services research Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
Sanjay Saint George Dock professor of medicine Department of Internal Medicine, University of Michigan School of Medicine, Ann Arbor, MI, USA.