At the 2014 ASCP Annual Meeting in Tampa, Fla., Jennifer Hunt, MD, MEd, FASCP, chair of the Department of Pathology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, had the opportunity to discuss with curious audience members the influence her mentor has had on her since she started her career. What made the experience even more special was that her mentor, Virginia LiVolsi, MD, MASCP, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Penn Medicine, sat right next to her and provided her own view of their mentoring relationship.
The session, which also featured an interview with special guest Barbara Pierce Bush, was out of the norm for a scientific meeting, but the topic is an engaging one, and crucial for pathology and laboratory professionals as they advance in their careers. Here, Dr. Hunt talks to Molly Strzelecki, senior editor for ASCP’s Critical Values, about her experience as both a mentor and a mentee, as well as how pathology and laboratory professionals can develop such relationships for themselves.
Molly Strzelecki (MS): When did you start mentoring others, and what are some characteristics a good mentor should have?
Jennifer Hunt (JH): As a mentor, I think it started rather early on, mentoring people who were junior to me—for example, when I was a chief resident and talking to first-year residents, or talking to junior faculty members and working with fellows. No matter where you are in your career, you’re probably a mentor to someone, whether you know it or not. Sometimes people don’t see the role as a mentor; they see the role as a friend. But if there are generational differences or differences in your status, then you’re probably mentoring as well as being a friend.
The mentor role varies based on the relationship, and what you’re mentoring the person for. I think it’s important to remember that no one mentor will be everything to you, as a mentee. You can’t have just one person and have them teach you everything. More than likely you’ll need multiple mentors at any given time in your career. And that mentor needs to recognize his or her limitations, and be able to send that mentee off to other people rather than trying to be everything to one person.
Great mentors share willingly—not just their opinions, but their opportunities, their professional interests, and the culture of their profession. They connect people. Dr. LiVolsi is the best person at that I have ever known—at meetings she would introduce me to everybody. And that becomes very important. Mentors are generous with their time, even though they are busy, and they’re wise in the areas you need them to be.
Good mentors don’t need credit for what they do. The credit is appreciated, and the mentee needs to recognize what mentors have done for them, but that’s not why mentors do what they do. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. Often, my best mentors have done things that I never knew about, and I may still not know the extent. I am sure that so many of the opportunities that have come my way in life are because Dr. LiVolsi recommended me or suggested my name.
MS: Is it better to let mentorship evolve naturally, or seek it out specifically?
JH: It’s a combination of both. My relationship with Dr. LiVolsi was a very natural evolution, but I’ve had other mentors I approached about being my mentor for something specific. For example, in one of my jobs I wanted to learn lean process improvement, and to explore Six Sigma. So I went to someone in the institution who was pretty senior, and not a physician, and was in charge of those elements, and asked for his help. And he became a mentor not just for those subjects, but for many things.
I think seeking people out in situations like that is very practical and reasonable. And it’s not as awkward as it can sometimes be to seek out a general mentor—you’re approaching a person with a specific skill set and a specific goal in mind. It’s good for both people in the potential mentorship to understand what you’re looking for, or what the skill set is you’re trying to gain, or what the area is you need help with, and to start off with a narrow focus rather than a broad one. It’s easier for you to ask for that, and it’s easier for the other person to say yes when there are well understood limits to the relationship.
Getting to know each other is part of the process, too, whether the mentorship evolves naturally or is asked for specifically. It can be a little clunky, getting to know your mentee and vice versa. It is usually a little bit social, not all professional, and involves figuring out what makes people tick.
MS: Once you’ve found a mentor, how can you make sure you are getting the most out of the mentoring relationship?
JH: Good mentees ask the right questions. One of the things I often see as a problem for mentees is they ask “yes or no” questions, when what they really want is someone to think through an issue with them, and talk through the pros and cons. You don’t want a one-word answer or guidance, because you, as the mentee, may decide differently, which could put you at odds with your mentor. Ask questions that are more open-ended or opinion-based and thought provoking. Not, “Should I write this paper?” Rather, “What would be the benefit to my career if I write this paper?”
Good mentees don’t wait until it is too late for meaningful assistance—they reach out early and they don’t wait until decisions are made and paths are created, when things are harder to turn around. They ask early and touch base and connect while they’re going through things.
Good mentees don’t demand too much. There is a fine line between touching base frequently and bothering your mentor. And I think good mentees follow through and take advantage of opportunities that their mentors create for them. I’ve encountered people for whom you’d find an opportunity, and in response they’d tell me they were too busy. That’s not a good answer. I am “too busy,” too, most of the time but if I find time to present a career enhancing opportunity for a junior faculty member, let us say, the least that person can do is express some interest and enthusiasm even if that person does not feel that way.
MS: How does mentoring benefit pathology and laboratory medicine overall?
JH: If you’re talking about clinical mentoring, we transfer a lot of our knowledge and experience to others through mentoring relationships. We share cases—pathologists are never shy about sharing cases with each other, ever, and I don’t know a lot of surgeons who call each other into the operating room to ask a colleague for help. They tend to be more independent. But in pathology, we share cases; it’s part of the culture. And that’s mentoring. You share a case, you hear people’s opinions, you gather from them, and it’s in many ways mentoring, even though it’s also education.
And it never stops. I still show cases to people. Sharing is part of the process of working through it intellectually—we’re in an extremely collaborative profession. And it also makes for really excellent patient care that way, because we know we have many people to tap into for the best diagnosis.
-Ms. Strzelecki is Senior Editor of Critical Values.
–This interview originally appeared in the digital July issue of Critical Values.