Mentoring In Medicine and In Life

November 2, 2010
Jennifer Frank, MD

My best friend observes that some friends are for a reason, some are for a season, and some are for a lifetime. I think this holds true for mentoring relationships as well. Everyone can benefit from a mentor, but perhaps women in medicine, particularly those balancing marriage and motherhood as well, have a special need to be mentored by both men and women in and out of medicine.

I recently received an award in our department and was asked to give a lecture as part of the honor. I put together a 20-minute pseudo-summary of my academic journey to date. As I reflected on both my successes and failures over the last decade or so, I realized how blessed I’ve been to have a series of mentors who have guided and helped shape my future and decisions.

My best friend observes that some friends are for a reason, some are for a season, and some are for a lifetime. I think this holds true for mentoring relationships as well. Everyone can benefit from a mentor, but perhaps women in medicine, particularly those balancing marriage and motherhood as well, have a special need to be mentored by both men and women in and out of medicine.

Many people have mentored me for a reason - for a specific project, paper, or endeavor. They were generous with their time and energy during a period when I needed advice or direction. Some were very senior to me - department chairs, for example. Some were just a few steps beyond my own on the professional path. Many times, my mentor recognized my need for mentoring before I did and sought to establish our relationship.

I’ve also enjoyed mentors for a season - men and women who were colleagues and who provided support, advice, and insight during the time we were fortunate enough to work together. In the military, mentoring - both formally and informally - is crucial to professional success. Recognizing this, many senior officers took me under the proverbial wing to help fashion a career for me, encouraging me to leave many opportunities open and not shut doors prematurely.

Finally, I’ve been blessed with mentoring relationships that I suspect will last a lifetime. These tend to be more focused on the entirety of who I am - a doctor and mother and wife - and help me through crises of who I am and what I should be doing. They serve as my heart’s mirror, reflecting back the values I hold and the things that are important to me during periods of time when my own vision is obscured.

A few mentoring relationships stand out for me as unique and at points unexpected. The first is my best friend - also a doctor, wife, and mother - who offers endless counsel and support for juggling these three roles with energy, grace, and humor. On some days, just knowing that someone out there is trying to do the same thing I am fills me with new confidence and resolve.

The second is a former boss with whom I initially had a very rocky relationship. My expectations of her as sympathetic to me as a fellow wife, mother, and doctor were not realized and I was bitterly disappointed that she would not serve as the mentor I hoped for. Eventually though, we forged a positive relationship and she mentored me in other ways.

And finally there are the mentoring relationships in which I am someone else’s mentor. It’s sobering to realize that you’ve been doing something long enough - either as a doctor, wife, or mother - that someone else would seek you out for advice, direction, support, and wisdom.