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Leadership Lesson: Mentors and Protégés: What Protégés Bring to the Equation

By Mary Blitzer Field, M. Phil.

If you have ever stopped short of approaching potential mentors because of specific conflicts you anticipated in forming relationships with them, you are not alone.

During the 2004-2005 academic year, the Advance faculty professional development program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine organized five focus groups to explore assistant professors' experiences with mentoring. Several participants in these groups reported that they were reluctant to approach their senior colleagues for mentoring. Given the competitive nature of academic medicine, they wondered what would motivate their senior colleagues to serve as their mentors.

As one participant remarked, "From the mentor's point of view, it's like you're asking them to create their own obsolescence."

The good news is that many other participants reported that they had succeeded in establishing productive mentoring relationships. How did they do it? They actively sought relationships in which both mentor and protégé would win. In negotiating these relationships, they made sure to do the following:

  • They found an alignment of interests;
  • They thought about what they could bring to the mentor-protégé equation; and
  • They were up front in discussions about who got credit for publications and grants.

"You want someone who's senior," stated one participant. "But the more senior and well established you are, the busier you are."

Lack of time was not the only potential source of conflict cited by some participants. So too was the premium placed on achieving a reputation as the pre-eminent scholar in a given area of biomedical expertise.

"You've got to be a very generous person to say I want you to be PI on this grant. I want you to be first author on that paper. If you think about it from the mentor's point of view, there's almost a disincentive to really be invested [in mentoring]. It's like you're asking them to subvert their own career to help you."

The nervous laughter accompanying his remark spoke volumes about the unease he felt when he considered approaching his senior colleagues for guidance.

Look for an alignment of interests.

Despite the reservations some participants expressed, others reported that they were able to establish relationships that helped both mentor and protégé to advance their professional agendas. In fact, many participants acknowledged that well before they came on board at Penn, such relationships had already been established for them. When top scholars in their field chaired hiring committees that recruited them, new faculty and senior scholars "walked into" mentoring relationships that enhanced each other's scholarship.

Even so, once at Penn, many faculty recognized the importance of supplementing guidance from their "official" mentors by building a network of additional mentors. Several participants felt that approaching their senior colleagues required a deliberate effort in which they needed to remember what they could offer potential mentors. That way, they were able to view potential mentoring relationships as opportunities to exchange ideas or expertise rather than as sources of conflict.

Think what you bring to the equation.

As one focus group participant put it, "There has to be a balance, a trade-off. If you're in a relationship, you have to support the relationship." She lauded her mentor for "literally reading every word I write" in grants and papers. But the relationship worked both ways: As a clinician, she provided a patient base for her mentor who was a basic scientist.

The experiences of focus group participants suggest that even the busiest of senior colleagues will value your contributions. In fact, the busiest faculty are likely to be the most eager to work with you, for they also tend to be the most entrepreneurial faculty. As such, they tend to attract more projects than they can manage single-handedly. If you have something to offer, they are likely to want to take you on.

Odds are you have a particular kind of expertise that you can bring to a mentoring relationship—and remembering what you bring to the equation can build your confidence in approaching senior colleagues for guidance. Perhaps you are the only faculty member in your school with expertise in a certain lab technique, or perhaps you have a particular strength in study design and statistical analysis.

The bottom line: Focus group comments suggest that successful faculty in academic medicine are on the alert for opportunities to shape interactions with their colleagues into win/win situations.

This strategy applies equally to mentors and to protégés. As one participant said about her mentor, "I think he cultivated me, and I think ultimately he knew that over time, it would be a good two-way street, and I think that feeds on itself."

Is positioning yourself in mutually enhancing relationships enough? Should you take an additional step and talk about who gets credit for what?

Talk about who gets credit for what.

"Spelling out in exquisite detail who gets credit for what can be off-putting," stated one participant. "It's just not done in this environment." He felt that a tacit understanding was sufficient. On a similar note, another participant commented, "Optimally, I think it's an ongoing conversation. But if you think that's going to be problematic, then you just do it. And, you know, you start to publish articles and work in areas, you start to submit grants that are complementary to the larger whole, the mentor's area."

Yet the majority of participants believed that protégés should initiate discussions of roles on grants and papers if mentors did not do so. True, given the imbalance of power and rank, initiating such discussions with senior colleagues could feel awkward.

Nevertheless, participants felt that these discussions were worthwhile in protecting both parties' interests. They recommended couching requests for credit in terms of what protégés needed at this point in their careers, rather than as demands, for example: "I'll be coming up for review in a couple of years, and I'm hoping that my role on this project will lead to a first-authored paper."

Must there always be a quid pro quo?

This approach to establishing mentoring relationships does not mean that you must always offer something tangible and negotiable in exchange for a senior colleague's guidance. In fact, if you have ever mentored a resident, fellow, or student, then you have probably enjoyed the intangible benefits of mentoring.

One focus group participant recalled his experience when he was on the other side of the equation, serving as a mentor rather than receiving mentoring. "It's a kick to watch the light bulbs go off. It's a kick to watch the students publish their first papers and watch their writing progress and to see them be excited about things that you're excited about. It validates your sense of yourself." Remembering what you receive from mentoring your own junior colleagues can provide you with greater confidence in approaching your senior colleagues for guidance.

Position yourself for a mutually rewarding mentor relationship.

Take advantage of informal opportunities to discuss your work. Interactions over specific projects may reveal ways in which you can work with a senior faculty member to extend the reach of his or her line of investigation. Research shows that success in any profession is associated with the depth and complexity of one's network of colleagues. These informal interactions are important access nodes in an evolving network!

Connect with faculty outside your division, department, and institution. Interactions at meetings, through collaborative writing projects, addressing challenging clinical cases or research problems are all opportunities for mentoring. Relationships with faculty outside the institution often make it possible for both parties to extend their reputations into the larger scholarly community. Networks are built through mutual associations!

Faculty Vitae

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