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How Both The Mentor And The Mentee Help Each Other Succeed

The best mentors are people with knowledge and experience, but also empathy and insight.

photo of man holding lightbulb in hand; photo on james goydos md 2021 post about mentoring
Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

Against all expectations, I have never had someone in my life who I would consider a “mentor.” As an undergraduate at UCLA my major was in a fledgling new division of Biology call “Microbiology,” focusing on cell function and genetics. This was the early 1980s when we didn’t know much about how cells worked or how our genes determined who we were beyond DNA being a double helix and an understanding of the fundamental laws of inheritance as outlined by Gregor Mendel working with pea plants. If ever one needed a mentor, it was when no real textbooks existed in your field and new discoveries were being made every month. Yet I didn’t seek a mentor, and no one stepped up to volunteer, so I learned it on my own.

Mentoring is not an important part of medical school as everyone is learning the same things and there is more than enough information that needs to be absorbed to keep everyone busy. Surgical Residency is also not a place where a solo mentor plays a large role as all the senior residents and all of the attending surgeons are expected to fill the role of “mentor.”

After my general surgical residency, I entered a Fellowship in Surgical Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh. Fellowships are definitely the place where most people find their mentor. You are much more focused one a single subject involving a much smaller number of students and teachers and it is hard to get a job in academia after graduation without the help of a well-connected mentor. However, I still didn’t find I needed or wanted the type of bond mentees have with their mentors, even though I worked with some of the greatest cancer surgeons of our time during my Fellowship.

When I graduated Fellowship, I took the position of Chief of Melanoma and Soft Tissue Oncology at the brand new Cancer Institute of New Jersey. Here, as a junior attending, I would certainly need a mentor and I did seek one out for the first few years. However, yet again I never found the right person and to this day I can’t say I have ever been a mentee.

What I have realized over my career is that the best mentors are not waiting around for some mentee to approach them. I believe that the “mentee makes the mentor” in that the right person can bring out latent mentoring qualities in people who never considered themselves mentors. A junior Fellow or faculty member needs to want mentorship; they have to want to go beyond the normal confines of their position by learning the ins and outs of the trade and to get wisdom instead of just knowledge. Mentees often don’t know what they want, they just know they are not happy with the pace or direction their careers are taking. The best mentors are people with knowledge and experience, but also empathy and insight. They have to be able to see potential in others and they have to want others to succeed, even if that means those others end up exceeding them in their own field. A receptive mentee will see these qualities in a potential mentor and, hopefully, once the potential mentee approaches the potential mentor, they both “click.” I’ve seen the most unlikely senior attending surgeons become outstanding mentors when the right mentee comes around. When this happens, you can see the changes in both, with the mentor gaining enthusiasm and the mentee excelling beyond what you thought they were capable of.

The final thing I have learned over the years is that not all mentor/mentee relationships work out and it is important for both parties to be continuously reevaluating the relationship. I have mentored dozens of junior faculty, and on three occasions I’ve handed a mentee off to a different mentor as I saw I didn’t have, or couldn’t give, the mentee what they needed to truly succeed. So, the final quality a mentor needs is self-awareness and a modicum of humility. The mentee is the important one and if they are not doing well, it is not only their fault. A good mentor knows their limitations and is not afraid to act in the best interests of the mentee when needed.

This article was previously posted on Dr. James Goydos’ website.

Dr. James Goydos is an expert in melanoma research and specialist in surgical oncology with an M.D. from Rutgers University. With over 20 years of experience as a Professor, Surgeon, and Clinical Trial Lead, he is a leading expert in his field.

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James Goydos, MD

James Goydos, MD

Dr. James Goydos — Professor, Surgeon, Clinical Trial Lead. Helping patients see that melanoma isn’t a death sentence.