For as long as I can remember, I have heard about the importance of having mentors. They impart well-earned wisdom to their mentees in all realms of life: career, research, and life in general. As a general surgery intern, I was assigned a senior resident mentor and advised to identify a surgical faculty mentor as well. The advice has served me well as an early-career faculty in a large academic department of surgery, it is easy to get lost in the fray. My strong mentorship team has kept me on track in all the ways that I need it the most.
Until recently, I only ever considered identifying surgical mentors. Given the stress of surgical training and the unique personalities of most surgeons, it seemed obvious that the people who would be best equipped to guide me through the early stages of my career would have a similar calling. I had a surgeon mentor in medical school who was pivotal in my decision to pursue surgical residency. I had a surgeon mentor in residency who helped cultivate my interest in vascular surgery, another who molded my desire to pursue academics, and yet another who encouraged my passion for research. As a junior faculty member, my mentorship team grew further – I established surgical mentors who routinely provide advice about clinical care, career goals, leadership skills, and work-life balance. My mentors are a diverse group of males and females, people of different races/ethnicities with varied backgrounds, and range from distinguished full professors to junior residents. However, until recently they all had one thing in common: every single one of them was a surgeon.
It was actually one of my surgical mentors who first advised me to seek out non-surgical mentorship. While I was making headway in establishing my clinical career, my research efforts had stagnated. I had applied for a number of grants without success and, despite my passion for health-services research, I was struggling to find a meaningful direction. My surgeon mentor recognized this, and also recognized that he could not help with these specific issues. He recommended that I seek out mentorship from outside of the Department of Surgery.
At first, I thought he was crazy – how could non-surgeons understand the work demands that surgeons struggle to balance on a daily basis? And at first, my bias seemed well-founded. I met with a few non-surgical research faculty who quickly dismissed the idea of mentoring me for fear of my lack of commitment. A 60-hour workweek is not a normal concept outside of the world of surgery, and the thought that an early career (as yet unfunded) surgeon would be able to commit enough time to accomplish anything meaningful seemed ludicrous. I can’t blame them. I wasn’t excited to work with someone who didn’t understand that my schedule could be unpredictable and that weekly lab meetings on Wednesdays in the middle of the day would be next to impossible to commit to, and they were not excited to have me.
All of that changed when I eventually met the right non-surgical mentor. Despite my frustrations after the prior failings, they had served the purpose of formulating my career interests more concretely, and I started to understand my shortcomings as a physician-scientist. When I first met with the woman who is now my non-surgical mentor, I knew right away that she could provide the guidance and specific support in the areas I was lacking. I was not an easy sell; after our first meeting, she advised me to meet with another researcher – a surgeon – telling me he would probably be a better fit given my career choice. However, I knew that her research interests aligned with mine, and I made it my mission to prove to her that I could be reliable, timely, and committed. I moved my OR schedule around as much as possible to allow me to attend those weekly lab meetings, at least for parts of them. I met and engaged with the rest of her research team, offering to help out with whatever I could. And when she gave me a shot at joining the team in the form of a review article, I committed to getting it done as thoroughly and efficiently as possible.
My efforts paid off. My non-surgical mentor is now officially my mentor on an NIH-funded grant, and she has launched my research career in a direction I never thought possible. It is easy to become complacent within the communities that we are familiar with, but having a mentor outside of that community has pushed me to attend other meetings, build relationships with other non-surgical physicians and researchers, and think about my approach to clinical questions in a different way. Having a non-surgical mentor has also proven helpful for navigating the world of surgery. She is completely disconnected from the surgical career that I have chosen, and thus can provide advice from an unbiased point of view. This has proven to be invaluable as I contemplated committee opportunities, meeting requests, and chapter invitations over the past year. As an experienced career researcher, she is able to quickly help me spot the meaningful opportunities over the time sinks and has helped me learn to ask myself hard questions before I over-commit.
I do not write this blog to suggest that non-surgical mentors are better than surgical mentors, or that everyone needs to have one. However, if you are like me and never contemplated the role that a non-surgical mentor might be able to play in your career, it is worth considering. One might say “it takes a village” to cultivate a well-rounded surgeon scientist. No single person can provide everything needed, or has the time to do so. Mentors come in many different forms and all of them are important in their own roles. I was – and still am – fortunate to be surrounded by an incredibly supportive group of people who look out for me, and who I count on to be my sounding boards, my shoulders to cry on, and my sponsors. Most of these people, at least for me, are surgeons. But my non-surgical mentor fills the gap that I was missing.