12 Tips for Finding a Great Mentor

Below, I’ve compiled my best tips for obtaining effective mentorship. To start, I’ll mention my favorite tip, which has served me extremely well over the years… but if you want to skip to the list, just scroll down.

1) I NEVER ASK ANYONE TO BE MY MENTOR.

Yes… you read right. I never ask anyone to be my mentor. And I think you shouldn’t either.

Let me explain. Let’s imagine that you meet someone at an event, and the two of you have a great initial interaction. You flirt, you dance, and you talk for hours. At the end of the event, you exchange phone numbers. The next day, the person you met calls you and proceeds to ask you… to marry them. WHOA. Although this is a hyperbolic and far fetched illustration to prove my upcoming point, the concept stands: 

I’ve learned that I cannot expect someone to commit to a long term relationship with me without first having a connection that is developed over time.

The person that you want to mentor you (an attending, resident, CEO, faculty member, etc) probably has a lot on their plate already. If you ask them straight away to “mentor” you, they will likely get overwhelmed thinking about the large responsibility or potential time commitment. They also may not want to rack up another one-sided relationship, where they willingly give of their time for the sole purpose of making you better without getting anything in return. They didn’t sign up to be your pro-bono life-coach; they are just trying to do their job. 

In the short time since I have become a resident, many people have asked me to be their “mentor”. I will admit to you right now that when someone I don’t know asks me that outright, I immediately flinch. It’s not because I don’t like giving advice or talking to people (because I LOVE to do that!). However, when the “M-word” gets thrown around, I worry about the possibility of letting them down, or not being able to provide what they need. It feels like such a huge responsibility, and right away I feel weighed down. 

At the same time, so many medical students and other people in my life have told me that they consider me to be their mentor! We didn’t have any formal relationship, and they never asked me to mentor them. Instead, I enjoy talking with them and giving them advice, learning more about their career paths and staying in touch. I have formed relationships with these students, and “mentorship” doesn’t feel like a chore. Likewise, I have dozens of physicians and others alike that I turn to reliably for advice or assistance, often over dinner or drinks. I never had to ask these people to be formal mentors, but in truth they are. Over time, and through the development of an organic relationship, they have become committed to my growth trajectory without me ever having to ask them to. They have become my advocates, willing to speak on my behalf, write me letters of recommendation, and give me high-yield pearls for success in my field.

My main point: If you spend your time asking people to be your official mentor, you will limit your options and get a lot of “No”s. Even the people that say “yes” and “commit” to you may not actually end up being helpful or responsive. If you instead cultivate a connection with people that are steps ahead of you in life or your career, you create a mentor-mentee relationship that gives you exactly what you need.

Here are (the rest of) my best tips for cultivating the mentor-mentee relationships that will take you to the next level:

2. Decide who you want to reach out to. Knowing I wanted to specialize in dermatology for skin of color, I decided to reach out to specific experts in this field. I usually looked for people that had something in common with me (minorities, women, people that were interested in research areas similar to mine). Make a list of these people and find their email addresses or their secretaries’ email addresses. This is sometimes the hard part, because many professionals do not have their email addresses easily accessible online. Some suggestions include asking people in your network that know your mentor-to-be if they can send an introductory email, or meticulously stalking Google. Another way to identify mentors/contacts is by going to conferences in your desired field and talking to speakers/presenters. When you introduce yourself, always make sure to ask for a business card or their email address, and contact them as below.

3. Be honest to yourself about what you really want out of the relationship. Do you want a person that gives you occasional advice? Do you want to do research with this person? Do you want them to read over your manuscript and give you edits? Do you want an advocate in the workplace?

4. Come up with a simple “ask” to start. I always started by sending a brief email (3-4 lines max, with a high “white-space to text ratio” so they could read my email in a few seconds on their phone). When you first meet with someone you desire as a mentor, ask for something that does not require ongoing commitment. My favorite is asking them for a brief meeting to talk about their journey to medicine/law/their field (people LOVE to talk about themselves). My go-to line was: “I am writing to you because I wanted to introduce myself, as well as learn more about your journey to the field of dermatology. Please let me know if you have any availability for a brief in-person or phone meeting in the near future.” You can attach your CV if you desire. If you create a situation where they actually enjoy their initial interaction with you, you are laying the foundation for a lasting relationship in the future.

5. Do the follow up! The most frustrating thing for a mentor is someone who doesn’t listen to their advice or take advantage of the opportunities offered. This DOES NOT MEAN that you have to take on every research project they offer you, or do things you don’t care about. Just make sure it is clear to your potential mentor that you are committed to making the most of the information and resources you gain as a result of their counsel and time.

6. Be realistic with your expectations. As I mentioned before, people that are asked to become mentors tend to be busy and in high demand. Try not to ask for an unrealistic frequency of recurrent interactions, such as weekly coffee to discuss your progress through medical school (sounds crazy? I know someone who asked an attending for this). Always acknowledge that you understand how busy they are, and that you want to work with their schedule. 

7. BE ON TIME! If you scheduled to speak to someone on the phone at 3:00pm… wait by the phone from 2:55 and CALL AT 3:00 pm ON THE DOT. There is nothing more annoying than clearing your schedule for someone who disrespects you by being late! Being late is the easiest way to jeopardize the longevity of your relationship with this mentor, and causes the worst first impression. If they are a few minutes late, be gracious and move on with the meeting, but YOU CANNOT BE LATE. Remember, YOU are the one that reached out to THEM.

8. Maintain the relationship. Understand that the bulk of the responsibility for maintaining the relationship will be on you because you need them more than they need you. My favorite ways to do this include sending “check-in” emails every 3-6 months telling them about the ways in which I used their advice, major life updates, or sending articles that may interest the person. Keep a running spreadsheet of who you talk to and when, and any major advice they gave you or major personal details they gave about themselves, which will help you when you follow up.

I wrote about this in an earlier post, but I’m going to quote myself here, because I dropped some gems, if I should say so myself.

One meeting is ONLY to initiate a relationship! You have to follow-up in order for it to grow! You can do this in a few ways: First, send a follow-up email the day after your meeting or conversation thanking the person for their time. Second, at 3-6 month intervals, send additional short follow up emails listing any major accomplishments since you last spoke (awards/honors, publications) and thanking them for their advice and ongoing role in your success. Wait another 3-6 months and repeat (or go with the flow, from this point one of them may take a personal interest in you and even initiate conversations more frequently). Pro-Tip #1: If you want to get fancy, tell them how you benefited from SPECIFIC advice they gave you during the last conversation. For example, if someone told you during that initial call “It’s important to learn how to say ‘No’ early-on in life so you don’t over-commit”, tell them about a time since you last spoke that saying “No” to someone allowed you to have time to study or spend time with family etc. This shows that not only did you pay attention to them, but they also had a positive impact on your life! Nothing feels better than knowing you changed someone’s life for the better. This is how you build rapport! Pro-Tip #2: If you want to get REALLY fancy here, throw in a “Hope Bingo is well!’ towards the end of the email to show you paid attention to the personal things they told you as well.

The Ultimate Guide for Matching Into Competitive Specialties, Part One.

9. Have an understanding of what is important to that person. If they have any needs that you could help with, offer your assistance or expertise. Can you help them with research? Have you seen a YouTube video that might interest them? Do you have the contact information for another person they want to collaborate with? You increase your significance exponentially when you can add value to their life. A relationship is a two-way street! 

10. Consider whether or not it’s actually necessary to make the relationship “official”. I do not have a SINGLE formal “mentor” in medicine, but I have DOZENS of people who mentor me and advocate for me. I think that leaving out the title actually gives me greater access to them because they don’t feel like I am constantly trying to take from them, or weigh down their schedule. However, if you desire something more formal, that’s ok too. Just wait to ask until after you have formed a relationship (met more than 1 or 2 times), and be crystal clear with your expectations. Mentors get overwhelmed when they don’t know what their mentee needs out of the relationship. No one wants to give you a blank check to their schedule. Do you want a phone call once a semester to make sure you’re on track? Do you want to talk for 15-20 minutes every month? Are phone calls ok or do you intend to meet them at their office? Being clear about your expectations will allow the potential mentor to know what they are committing to, and give them an opportunity to tell you no if they cannot live up to your expectations at this time.

11. Don’t Give Up. If you do ALL OF THIS and the person isn’t actually helpful, or they ghost you on the regular, DON’T LOSE HOPE. Not everyone is for you. Take all these steps and repeat with someone else. You’ll eventually find a mentor-mentee relationship that clicks.

12. Pay it forward. Be willing to mentor people who are trying to get to where you are in life. Circle of life, people. Circle of life.

I hope you enjoyed those tips! Until next time!

For more mentorship/networking tips, check out my Ultimate Guide for Matching Into Competitive Specialties, Networking section.

Dr. Oye