There is little doubt that mentorship is incredibly beneficial to both the mentor and mentee. 1 2 3

However, in order to succeed, the relationship between mentor and mentee must be effective. Both mentor and mentee must be invested in the relationship as a meaningful process, and believe that they can both contribute and benefit from it. 4

In addition, academic departments need to recognize and acknowledge the benefits of mentoring and ensure that there is adequate support in place. This can range from having formal structured mentorship programs to having informal programs within a supportive culture. It seems intuitive that successful mentoring relationships, although not dependent entirely on an existing mentoring culture, can definitely benefit from it.

The roles and expectations for both mentor and mentee need to be clear. The mentor role may include teaching and advising, as well as providing support and encouragement to the mentee. The mentee’s role will include setting clear goals and objectives, accepting responsibility for career development, and being receptive to feedback.

Topics for discussion will be varied and can include anything from career planning and promotion issues to research and scholarly productivity, time management, and work-life balance. Planning meetings takes some time and thought.

In this article, we have identified some tips that we feel will help mentors and mentees frame their relationship and enhance the likelihood that it will be successful.

Editorial Note: Drs Anna Karwowska and Eric Benchimol contributed this guest post. The Productive Physician is grateful for their willingness to share their expertise in this area. Connect with Dr Benchimol on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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The Relationship

The rules of engagement need to be clear

The mentee and mentor need to be clear around their responsibilities to each other and to the mentoring relationship.

Both parties need to understand that the mentoring relationship takes thought, time and commitment. Whether simply discussed or formally outlined in a mentoring reference guide, having these expectations explicitly stated will help set the tone for the relationship.

Mentoring: Dr Anna Karwowska
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The expectations should include:

Mentee Responsibilities

  • Ensure confidentiality
  • Make and keep appointments
  • Set clear goals / objectives
  • Define needs and identify barriers to accomplishing goals
  • Actively engage in seeking assistance
  • Be receptive to feedback
  • Accept responsibility for career development
  • Be respectful and appreciative
  • Provide constructive feedback to the mentor about the relationship

Mentoring: Dr Eric Benchimol
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Mentor Responsibilities

  • Listen
  • Create a safe environment
  • Ensure confidentiality
  • Be respectful, approachable and non-judgmental
  • Be a sounding board for frustrations
  • Provide encouragement
  • Provide constructive feedback
  • Advocate for mentee when needed (time, resources)
  • Provide coaching in leadership skills
  • Assist in focusing goals
  • Assist with identifying strategies to develop/improve skills in a particular area
  • Provide networking opportunities
  • Assist with the navigation of bureaucracies in the Department, Faculty, Region

The mentee needs to set clear and realistic goals

As a mentee, you should ask yourself the list of important questions below. You don’t need to have the answers – in fact you probably won’t have the answers to many of the questions. However, asking them will give you structure within which you can frame your mentoring needs.

  • What do you, the mentee, want out of the mentor-mentee relationship?
  • What are your academic and clinical job descriptions?
  • What are your short term, intermediate and long term goals? (3-5 year plan)
  • What infrastructure do you have, and what do you need?
  • What is your anticipated career timeline?
    Mentoring: The mentee needs to set clear and realistic goals
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  • If promotion is planned, have you reviewed Academic Promotions policy and promotion requirements with your mentor?
  • What is the quality of your CV?
  • Have you created and reviewed your academic portfolio and teaching dossier with your mentor?
  • What academic accomplishments have occurred since your last meeting with your mentor?
  • What additional skills might you need to acquire to achieve your goals?
  • Can your mentor facilitate/provide guidance to expert resources?
  • What are the opportunities to develop and access a network regionally, nationally and internationally?
  • What advocacy do you need from your mentor in the fields of resource requirements, either personally or professionally?
  • Are there individuals in your department/division/field of practice that could be role models for you?
  • How are your time management skills?
  • What is your ideal professional-personal life balance?
  • Are you delegating what you can in order to improve your productivity and avoid burning out?
  • What do you value most?
  • What is your overall happiness/satisfaction? What can be done to improve it?
  • Do you effectively balance clinical, research, administrative and teaching responsibilities?
  • What tasks should you take on (or drop) to further your career goals?
  • What tasks should you take on (or drop) to further your “enjoyment” or satisfaction with your job and personal life?
  • Have you developed a research portfolio?
  • How can you improve your teaching skills?
  • Have you accessed and made use of career development opportunities?
  • Have you gained recognition for your accomplishments?

The Mentorship Meeting

Meetings should be regular and booked ahead

Mentors and mentees should book meetings well in advance, and respect each other’s time. Consider planning meetings away from regular clinics and offices to avoid interruptions. As each meeting comes to an end, the mentee and mentor should look forward to the next meeting.

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Ideally, planning ahead in this way, and purposefully booking meetings at a mutually agreeable time makes it more likely that the meetings will occur.

It is important to allow adequate time for the meeting respecting both the time commitments of the mentor, but also the needs of the mentee. Both should have a good idea of what needs to be accomplished between meetings and what may be discussed at the next meeting.

The mentee needs to come prepared to each meeting

Coming prepared to each meeting ensures that the time of the mentor and mentee will be used most effectively and efficiently. Coming prepared means knowing what you want to talk about, and what you need from your mentor.

The mentor should be flexible enough to play the role you need. They could be passive or active in being a sounding board or providing advice, but the expectations should be clear.

Consider a slide-set or summary documents. These could be provided to the mentor before the meeting, presented during the meeting, or both. Summary documents will allow the mentor to review goals, and understand mentee’s progress, successes, failures, and barriers encountered since the last meeting.

The list of topics to discuss at a mentorship meeting can be long, and it is important to prioritize, keep track of what needs follow up, and monitor new issues that should be addressed.

Straus and Sackett developed a great mentorship checklist that can guide the discussion. These authors found that checklists are helpful in reminding mentors to review all aspects of their mentee’s academic life including helping them reflect on the balance between their work and personal life. The mentor and mentee can reflect on strategies to improve balance within the lists on an as-needed basis.

Mentorship Checklists

Mentorship Checklist
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Adapted from “Mentorship in Academic Medicine”. Sharon E Straus, David L. Sackett; Wiley Blackwell 2014 (Chapter 3 and Chapter 4.1) 5

  1. check in/ assess for any urgent issues
  2. review
    1. administration
    2. clinical (inpatient, outpatient, on call)
    3. research
    4. teaching
    5. work-life balance
    6. career guidance
  3. assist/advise: give advice and set specific goals (including timelines)
  4. consider opportunities/collaboration
  5. advocate (identify areas of need)
  6. wrap up: schedule next meeting; clarify expectations (“homework”) for mentee and mentor

Within the context of the checklist above, Straus and Sackett suggest that the mentee will need to set some priorities. Here are some questions they suggest to guide the process:

  • What are you currently doing that you want to quit?
  • What have you been asked to do that you should or want to decline?
  • What are not doing that you should or want to start doing?
  • What are you currently doing that you want to continue doing?

Editorial Note: Another strategy to decide which parts of your work to prioritise is to write a personal mission statement. You will clarify your values and your statement will act as a guide to decision-making. 

Download a copy of this post. You can use it for reference when planning your next mentoring meeting.
You’ll also receive updates from this site with productivity tips and suggested readings.
Go to the full page to download a copy of this post. You can use it for reference when planning your next mentoring meeting. You’ll also receive updates from this site with productivity tips and suggested readings.

Between Meetings

Using your mentor to say no

This is arguably one of the most valuable things that a mentor can coach a mentee to do.

Saying No
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Academic physicians are frequently pulled in multiple directions. They are regularly asked to sit on committees, go to meetings, give presentations, collaborate on projects, and teach trainees. It is a fine art to be able to balance your goals with the needs of patients, administration, students, and other health care providers, while maintaining your academic productivity.

It is vital to learn to feel empowered to (politely) decline offers from well-meaning colleagues and leaders in our institutions when these offers don’t fit with our own vision for our career. The mentee needs to be very aware of the implications of any decision they make. Time is, after all, finite.

We suggest that mentees should use their mentors to learn how to evaluate what is important and useful. This way, the mentee can decline what is interesting but not valuable to the mentee’s goals.

Junior mentees should discuss all offers, requests and opportunities with their mentor (via email or a quick phone call) and ask whether s/he should accept or decline. If the mentee feels too intimidated to say no to a superior who requests they participate in an activity, s/he may consider using the phrase:

“While I greatly appreciate the offer and I’m very interested in participating, I ran this by my mentor who suggested that I decline.”

This places the onus on the mentor, who is usually senior enough to resist the pressures of the superior making the request.

The mentor should advocate for the mentee and help protect her/his time to ensure her/his success.

Expanding your network and collaborations

The era of the independent academic physician, working in isolation of others to see patients and conduct academic activities is long passed. We need collaborative colleagues and multidisciplinary teams to succeed.

One of the roles of the mentor is to expand the professional network of the mentee. The mentor should be expected to make introductions to potential collaborators outside of the mentee’s network, which is typically limited when s/he is at a junior phase in his/her career. It is possible that a single mentor may not have the ability to introduce the mentee to people outside of their own discipline. In that case, a multi-disciplinary mentorship committee may be useful.

Similarly, non-researcher academic clinicians benefit from expansion of their professional network. Scientific and medical conferences represent an excellent opportunity to expand the mentee’s network through introductions by the mentor. However, even email introductions can sometimes bear fruitful collaborations.

Part of expanding your professional network is becoming known as an expert in the field through presentations at medical and scientific conferences. An established mentor may be willing to pass on some invitations to speak at local or national conferences to junior colleagues or mentees in the same field. The mentee should express his/her willingness to accept such opportunities if they arise.

When It’s Over: How to end the mentorship relationship

All mentoring relationships will change over time, and many/most will evolve to the point where it is time for the mentee to move on to a different mentor. The expectation from the outset should be that the mentoring relationship will be finite, and will evolve into more of a relationship between colleagues. Commonly, the mentor/mentee may feel that another pairing may be more beneficial in terms of a better “fit” of expertise.

Separation can be initiated by either or both mentor/mentee and the change can happen at any time in the relationship. The mentor/mentee should be able to discuss this directly, and it could be reasonable for mentees to ask the mentor to stay on as an informal mentor.

When It’s REALLY Over: The toxic relationship

Failed mentoring relationships occur when there is a mismatch between mentor and mentee. This can happen for many reasons: personality mismatch, lack of commitment, lack of availability, or conflict of interest (either real or perceived). Although this will be difficult, these relationships must be ended.

In addition, although the overarching principle remains that the mentor-mentee relationship is confidential, there may be times when the wellness of either party is placed at risk. Potential situations that break professional boundaries may include:

  • Any unprofessional conduct
  • Any perception of harassment
  • Any concern for personal safety of the mentor or mentee (for example due to mental health issues)
  • Any concern for patient safety

Both the mentor and mentee should feel empowered to seek guidance and/or intervention from trusted colleagues and/or their leadership.

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You’ll also receive a copy of this post as a pdf to refer to when you are next having a mentoring meeting.
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Special note: Mentoring for women in academic medicine

There remains a big gender gap in the ranks of academic medicine. 6

Good mentorship is one way in which women can be supported in reaching their academic goals. Mentoring around work-life balance is often one of the first things that comes to mind, as many women juggle the role of caregiver with their role as academic physician.

However, women may face other challenges that their male counterparts may never encounter. Women may be perceived as less productive due to parental leaves, may be offered fewer opportunities for leadership positions, and may be more poorly compensated compared to their male peers.

Mentoring in the (post) #MeToo Era
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Strong mentorship (from women mentors primarily, but also from men!) can facilitate women being able to advocate for themselves in these areas.

Mentoring in the (post) #MeToo Era

Recent literature has raised the issue of mentoring in the #MeToo era and the challenges this can bring. 7 8

There is concern that the #MeToo movement is “creating a culture of fear” among male academics. It is not acceptable that men refuse to mentor women and it is particularly important that both men and women should feel safe in the mentoring relationship.

A mentorship committee may be an acceptable way of mediating any real or perceived risk to both men and women, and may allow for a diverse group of mentors to provide unique perspectives to the mentee. However, even one-on-one mixed gender mentorship relationships can be highly successful, as long as professional and personal boundaries are not crossed.

While institutional guidelines are helpful in setting out the rules, respect between mentor and mentee are the key to a happy relationship.

Special note: Mentoring of the non-academic physician

While this article focused on the academic physician, the principles apply to mentoring of non-academic physicians as well.

The goals of physicians the world over are shared: excellent patient care, a comfortable financial situation, a fulfilling life, and good work-life balance. Senior physicians should impart their wisdom to junior physicians in order to help them understand the ways they have achieved these goals, and the pitfalls they learned about along the way.


Finding “the right mentor” can have a profound impact on many aspects of an academic physician’s career.

“The right mentor” will have very different meanings to almost everyone, may change with time, and may involve a mentorship committee. However, finding “the right mentor” is not enough – the mentee must make the most out of the relationship, and must be prepared for the regular meetings.

For any mentoring relationship to be successful, even when the personality mix is right, the mentor and mentee must both be invested in the belief that it is valuable. Successful mentoring takes time, commitment and planning. The bulk of the work will fall to the mentee, but then the bulk of the tangible rewards will also fall to the mentee.

It’s worth it!

Mentoring - It's Worth It!
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Do you have a mentor (or mentee)? Have you had good experiences in a mentoring relationship? What are some key strategies you employed? Let us know in the comments!

  1.  Straus, S. and Sackett, D. (2013). Mentorship in Academic Medicine. 1st ed. BMJ Books, pp.25-49.  []
  2.  Ludwig, S. and Stein, R. (2008). Anatomy of Mentoring. The Journal of Pediatrics, 152(2), pp.151-152.e1.  []
  3.  Ramani, S., Gruppen, L. and Kachur, E. (2006). Twelve tips for developing effective mentors. Medical Teacher, 28(5), pp.404-408.  []
  4. Sambunjak, D., Straus, S. and Marusic, A. (2009). A Systematic Review of Qualitative Research on the Meaning and Characteristics of Mentoring in Academic Medicine. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 25(1), pp.72-78.  []
  5. Straus, S. and Sackett, D. (2013). Mentorship in Academic Medicine. 1st ed. BMJ Books, pp.25-49.   []
  6. Pope, J. (2018). Mentoring women in medicine: a personal perspective. The Lancet, 391(10120), pp.520-521.  []
  7. Soklaridis, S., Zahn, C., Kuper, A., Gillis, D., Taylor, V. and Whitehead, C. (2018). Men’s Fear of Mentoring in the #MeToo Era — What’s at Stake for Academic Medicine?. New England Journal of Medicine, 379(23), pp.2270-2274.  []
  8. Holroyd-Leduc, J. and Straus, S. (2018). #MeToo and the medical profession. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 190(33), pp.E972-E973.  []
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