I Didn’t Need a Mentor. Did I?

 By Sarah Bryczkowski, MD

What is mentorship? According to the dictionary, a mentor is “an experienced and trusted advisor.” Mentor is synonymous with adviser, guide, guru, counselor, consultant, etc. As a verb, to mentor means to “advise or train (someone, especially a younger colleague).” A mentor is “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person,” synonymous with tutor, coach, counsel, lead, guide, pilot, shepherd, and show.

I would like to share my story of how mentorship helped me grow as a young female academic surgeon. I originally wrote this post in 2014 as I returned from two years of research back to clinical surgery duty. It has been slightly altered from how it originally appeared on my blog, in order to show appreciation for the new connections and mentors I have found song the way.  Before I do that, however, let me explain the two reasons why I thought I didn’t need a mentor.

First, I didn’t need a mentor because I am, and have always been, an independent girl. My parents instilled in me at a young age that if I wanted something, I had to be independent, work hard, and earn it. I babysat for spending money, became a cashier as soon as I had my worker’s permit, and took a second job as a recreation counselor during the summers of high school. My family didn’t have any money to pay for college, so it was my responsibility to earn a scholarship. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I made a game of it. I bet my mother that if I got straight A’s every semester of every year of high school, then she had to quit smoking. That is exactly what I did. Like most surgeons, I love a good challenge.

The second reason was because I thought a mentor would be too negative and judgmental. The only experience I had in college was with an awful guidance counselor who met with small groups of students during orientation week. When I asked about working during college, this woman (whose name I blocked out of my mind) told me, “There is no way you can keep up your grades and work during the semester.” Apparently she was unaware that some students had no choice but to have a job while in school.

That did not deter me; I went on to graduate magna cum laude while waitressing in Atlantic City. What that counselor didn’t realize was that just as I love a challenge, I thrive on doubt.

Once I got to medical school, I had a great time during orientation week with a pair of peer mentors (second year medical students). I’m pretty sure this was the point when I first realized the value of mentorship. It was so helpful to have people with ever-so-slightly more experience than I had, to help me learn what to expect in the next chapter of my life.

During the first two years of surgical residency, I did not have a mentor. By the end of second year, our residency program decided to assign residents faculty mentors to work with. Since I was going into the lab, I was exempt. Let me tell you, it was such a relief! I did not need a mentor. I did not need somebody to tell me what to do with my life. Plus, I had not decided what kind of fellowship I would like to do, so I did not think it would be helpful whatsoever.

Little did I realize that choosing to go into research meant automatic mentorship. There was no way around it. Mentorship involves seeking advice from somebody with more experience than you, and I needed all the help I could get.

I dove right into clinical and outcomes research with no idea what I was doing. When I finally accepted the fact that I didn’t know everything (and it was okay to ask for advice), I actually found a handful of mentors.

My chair, Dr. Anne Mosenthal, became my research mentor. I began working with additional attendings on a curriculum development project and found myself an educational research mentor from the emergency department, Dr. Sangeeta Lamba. At the meeting of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) and then the Western Trauma Association (WTA), I found a life mentor, Dr. David Livingston. In fact, as I became more comfortable working with the attendings, I started to realize just how many different people were available for advice.

After attending the Association for Academic Surgery (AAS) 2013 Fall Courses, I was paired with an informal mentor, Dr. Caprice Greenberg. She provided me with invaluable objective advice about my future career. It was then that I first realized that I wanted to pursue a career in academic surgery.

At the Academic Surgical Congress (ASC) in February of 2014, I found myself a mentor for women in surgery and social media, Dr. Amalia Cochran. After seeing her present about using Twitter at international conferences, I introduced myself. She is an amazing example of a young female academic surgeon who does it all: critical care and burn surgery, elegant blog writing, participating in both AAS and AWS, and speaking at national conferences.

At the same conference, I found a group of mentors from the AAS with an interest in health care social media; Drs. Niraj Gusani, Ben Nwomeh, Christian Jones, KMarie Reid Lombardo, Andrew Wright, Justin Dimick, Lillian Kao, Jason Levine, and James Suliburk. Through these new contacts, I “met” (via social media and conference calls), Dr. Michael Zenilman who, in my opinion, is a master of organization. Following our social media introduction, we later met at a tweet-up at the meeting of the American College of Surgeons and it was like meeting up with old friends. We have since been collaborating on the International General Surgery Journal Club on Twitter.

Through social media and conferences I met some additional peer mentors. Lauren Nosanov, MD (@laurenbnosanov), helped encourage me to be active in the AWS communications committee Twitter sub-committee. Luke Selby, MD (@LVSelbs) got me involved with the RAS-ACS Education committee.

Mentorship changed my life. First, it made me realize that I wanted to be an academic surgeon. I was invited to several AWS events with my mentor and friend, Amalia Cochran, where I met so many women doing amazing things. She introduced me to Dr. Mary Brandt who is a wonderful person and pediatric surgeon. For a long time, I had no idea what fellowship to pursue; however, through many rotations and the connections I have made through mentorship I have decided to pursue a fellowship in pediatric surgery. It will be a challenge, but at least I know I have a group of amazing people to turn to for help.

Second, mentorship gave me the confidence to overcome one of my biggest fears, public speaking. My first abstract was accepted to the outcomes plenary session at the Academic Surgical Congress (ASC). I was so excited about the acceptance that I completely overlooked the plenary part in the invitation. My research mentor, Dr. Mosenthal, congratulated me and said something like, “Wow! Congrats, that’s impressive, plenary session!” After Googling the definition of plenary, I nearly fainted. I was excited and overwhelmed at the same time. Then I got the map of the rooms for presenting… I went to the doctor and got a prescription for propranolol, just in case.

A couple of weeks before my abstract presentation, I had a meeting with my research mentor to review the presentation together. I told her how I was feeling a little bit nervous (which was the understatement of the century) and that I had the prescription for a beta-blocker, just in case. She looked at me with a surprised look on her face and said, “What for? That was great!” We had a long conversation about some of the negative effects of taking a beta-blocker before going on stage, like how it could bottom out your blood pressure, make you nauseous, or make your affect flat. To take it one step further, she assured me that the ASC was a resident-friendly place. She explained how it’s a meeting for young academic surgeons and the audience would be cheering me on, hoping to see me do well. She believed in me so much that I gained confidence in myself. While I still brought the prescription with me, I never took it.

I have since presented at four other national meetings, as well as grand rounds at my own institution, and several local presentations. With great thanks to my mentors, I have never had to take any beta-blockers.

Third, my social media mentors have encouraged me to write, publish, and take chances. They have helped me develop new ideas, edited projects with me, and offered to participate in a national presentation panel if my idea is accepted. I have learned that I love being part of a Twitter journal club, advancing physician use of social media, and outcomes and education research.

There are different styles of mentoring, just as there are different styles of teaching. I think it is important to find a mentor who you can relate with on some level, whether it is a common research interest, common interest in specialty, or common interest in work–life balance. Good mentors are usually very busy people, but somehow always seem to have the time to sit down for a few minutes and talk.

To make the most out of your mentoring relationship:

  • Be clear about what your needs are.
  • Set some goals early.
  • Ask for feedback, and be receptive to it.
  • Schedule regular meetings.

A few other tips:

  • Don’t limit yourself to one mentor. Different people are valuable in different ways.
  • Choose one mentor who works in a field you are considering.
  • Choose a mentor whose research you find interesting.
  • Choose a mentor who is happy, easygoing, and approachable.
  • Choose a mentor with a life outside of work (e.g., family, hobby) that interests you.
  • Find another mentor outside your own institution (e.g., become a member of a society, or when you are at a national meeting) for an objective view.
  • You may also want to choose a mentor who has experience with a task (e.g., negotiating a job, presenting an abstract).
  • Find a peer mentor to help you during challenging times (e.g., residency, research, fellowship, your first morbidity and mortality presentation).
  • Last but not least, find a social media mentor! Get on Twitter!

Mentorship is a good thing. My hope is that the next generation of physicians is more receptive to the idea than I was.

I have to give credit where credit is due. The wonderful women at the Association of Women Surgeons, as well as lectures that I attended at the AAS Fall Courses. inspired this post.

Bryczkowski SarahSarah Bryczkowski, MD, is a General Surgery Resident at Rutgers – New Jersey Medical School. Follow her on Twitter @SarahB_MD

2 thoughts on “I Didn’t Need a Mentor. Did I?

  1. One essential property of a true mentor is true empathy. “I know how you feel ..been there, done that and felt that.” Simply expressing technical details does not make a “mentor” a mentor. And what are the rewards for a true mentor? Sarah’s published story of her outcome and her mentors should be their reward. ..Maurice.

  2. A useful distinction is often made in the business world between a mentor and a sponsor. A mentor should be someone who understands your field but isn’t your direct superior, and preferably is outside your organization. This person should be the one to whom you tell everything about your successes and failures, personal challenges, whatever. The mentor can help guide your personal as well as professional growth, and provide guidance and empathy when problems arise. This is very distinct from a sponsor. A sponsor is a person higher up within your organization who functions as your champion–helps you with project management, gets you on committees, helps you advance. This is NOT the person to whom you reveal weaknesses. This person is key to your success, but isn’t necessarily a sympathetic ear. Understanding this distinction can be very helpful!

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