The Power of Mentorship

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Commentary May 2012  

Tex Med. 2012;108(5):61-61. 

By Joshua Liao 

Editor's Note: Joshua Liao, a current fourth-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine, will begin his internal medicine residency in July at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston.  

My residency application process was demanding. It required careful consideration of each program's features, strengths, and weaknesses. It involved sustained measures of energy and resources, and it produced uncommon degrees of personal reflection. Most importantly, it allowed me to undertake those important tasks with appreciation for my mentors, physicians who have been indispensible influences over the last four years. 

Mentorship is not a new concept within medicine. It dates back to Osler and Cushing1 and is clearly shown to promote many facets of personal and professional growth.2 When asked about motivations for career paths, students often cite mentors as important factors, and mentors in turn enjoy staying current on information and skills and developing the next generation of physician-leaders.1 There is overwhelming evidence that mentorship can be immensely positive for both mentors and mentees.  

The power of effective mentorship was never more apparent than during my residency interviews. When interviewers asked about my research, I answered confidently behind the guidance I received from Drs. Danny Chu and Rajagopal Sekhar, mentors who taught me how to think critically, frame appropriate questions, and analyze data. When interviewers complimented my letters of recommendation, I remembered clinical mentors Dr. Richard Hamill and what must have been immensely gracious evaluations. When program directors pulled me aside to highlight the great support I had from Baylor, I immediately thought of the faculty who enthusiastically advocated on my behalf. Each time I answered questions about career goals, I was keenly aware of where and how my mentors helped me discover them, and I thoroughly enjoyed sharing from those profoundly impactful relationships.  

In truth, my mentorship experiences began long before residency applications and went far beyond career planning. Upon matriculation to Baylor, I was paired with an official mentor, an anesthesiologist whose job was to follow my growth over time. We met regularly, and our conversations often became discussions about my personal desires and fears. We spoke about my family and how it affected my various perspectives. I shared life goals and how I envisioned my training fitting alongside them. In turn, she shared candidly from her experiences and connected me with colleagues who served as models of different life choices. Over almost four years, she walked with me through crucial seasons of excitement, grief, and uncertainty. And though my career interests did not ultimately match her expertise, our relationship remains extremely important to my medical school experience.  

I cannot overstate how valuable it has been to have someone there in a protected, longitudinal way – someone who openly offered her advice and presence; someone who at different times served as a guide along my journey, a supporter of my efforts, and a counselor with the firm words I needed to hear.  

Looking back, that personal connection has been the unifying factor in my most gratifying mentorship experiences. Whether we forged it through afternoons huddled in offices chattering excitedly about common interests, brunches sharing honestly about fears and expectations, discussions over coffee about health system reform, or trips to national conferences, my most valued mentors and I have shared important commonalities. Most were faculty, but several were medical residents. Many of my mentors gave explicit advice, while others, like Drs. Fahim Farhat, John Coverdale, and Daniel Musher, taught me powerfully through consistent modeling and commitment to their values.  

Regardless of form, I identified elements of myself and the person or physician I wanted to become in each mentor. Through each, I learned crucial ways to think about medicine and life, and my place within them. 

These relationships have already affected my approach to medicine. In response to the time and resources my mentors shared, I have tried my best to model the same behaviors with younger students. I meet regularly with several, discussing everything from residency planning to relationship difficulties to research pursuits to work-induced anxiety. When appropriate, I connect them with helpful experiences and resources. I worked with Baylor leadership to improve mentorship and recently spearheaded the first-ever Curriculum Vitae and Personal Statement Residency Planning Workshop to better prepare third-year students for their residencies.  

In all of this, I realized how elusive effective mentorship can be (anecdotal experience well described in medical literature3). There is great room for improvement. But as important programmatic and curricular changes continue, the organic nature of mentorship clearly demands intentional effort from both students and mentors. 

As such, my parting charge to my peers is simple: Pursue mentorship diligently. The best relationships almost never fall neatly into our laps; they must be sought out. Even with effort, we may make several attempts before we find lasting mentors with whom we resonate. No one mentor can, or should, guide every aspect of our lives, so seeking mentorship from multiple people is frequently beneficial. With initiative, humility, and curiosity, the vast majority of us can find personal connections with incredible mentors who often become lifelong advisors and friends. 

On the other hand, I hope physician-mentors increasingly understand how instrumental they can be in students' lives. There are several incentives in mentorship, but hopefully none more fulfilling than knowing that even the smallest gestures can ripple powerfully through our experiences, that the time spent calming our fears, asking about our family, inviting us into research, and supporting our residency candidacy goes a long way in stirring our desires for medicine. 

Mentorship helped me synthesize my experiences, take inventory of my goals, grow in new ways, and remain true to myself as I enter into residency. So even in a season traditionally marked by anxiety about the future, the thought of my mentors has filled me with a profound sense of gratitude and humility. And at the end of four years, that is crucial because this experience has been more than a rigorous evaluation of where I am going and what it offers. It has been an invaluable reflection of the man and physician I am becoming and the mentors who have helped shape me. 


  1. Coates WC. Being a mentor: what's in it for me? Acad Emerg Med. 2012;19(1):92-97. 
  2. Sambunjak D, Straus SE, Marusic A. Mentoring in academic medicine: a systematic review. JAMA. 2006;296(9):1103-1115. 
  3. Frei E, Stamm M, Buddeberg-Fischer B. Mentoring programs for medical students – a review of the PubMed Literature 2000-2008. BMC Med Educ. 2010;10:32. 

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