Social Media Posts 2 Untitled Page 4Irshad Chaudry, Ph.D., professor emeritus with the Division of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery within the Department of Surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has been a mentor to many but also remembers what it’s like to need help himself.

When he went to Australia in 1966 to earn his Ph.D. in biochemistry, he had a hard time understanding the Aussie accent and expressions used.

“I couldn’t understand half the things they were saying,” Chaudry says.

However, he had a mentor who told him to not worry, to take his time, and that he would understand everything soon. Chaudry’s mentor invited him to his home for dinner, and spoke very slowly. Chaudry eventually began to understand the unfamiliar way of speaking.

“He went over and above what is required of a mentor,” Chaudry says. “His assurance carried a lot of weight.”

Chaudry and his Australian mentor, who is now in his 90s, are still in contact.

On this National Mentoring Day, we spoke with Chaudry – who recently became the first recipient of the Mentoring Award presented by the Shock Society and who has mentored over 100 individuals since 1973 – about what students, residents, fellows, and junior faculty should look for in a mentor and how they can find one. But why is a mentor important?

A mentor is an experienced and helpful individual who is respected in their role who provides career and personal guidance to an individual. This relationship could be between a resident and a professor, or a junior faculty member and a senior faculty member, for example.

Chaudry says a mentor can have a big impact by connecting you with others in your field and recommending you for career advancements. They may also conduct research and co-author papers with you. Chaudry says the benefits of having a mentor reach from the professional to the personal, like his Australia story.

“A good mentor opens the door to a lot of things that would be difficult if not impossible without them,” Chaudry says.

Here are 6 tips on how to find and cultivate a successful mentoring relationship: 

1. Do your homework.

Spend time considering what you want to gain from a mentoring relationship. What skills do you want to grow in professionally or personally? Are you looking for a short term mentor who shares your areas of interest to discuss project or paper ideas with? You may want to find someone closer in age to you who can more easily relate to your career and life pain points. Or, you could look for someone whose overall career lines up with your own aspirations and who can give you career guidance. Think about who you already know and look up to, like a faculty member who is particularly patient and encouraging. You can also look at professional surgery organizations, like the American College of Surgeons or the Association of Women Surgeons, and research committee members. Look at their CVs and see who their previous mentees have been. Chaudry also says word-of-mouth is a great way to find out about a mentor – listen to learn who is well-regarded in their field and has a reputation for helping trainees.

2. Think outside the box.

A great place to start is to think of someone currently in a position you see yourself in or who works or does research in your same areas of interest. However, a connection other than your particular field can also make for a strong mentoring bond - for example, you may find someone who shares your same faith, hobbies, or life experiences who may not necessarily be the same type of doctor you aspire to be or even in the medical arena at all. Chaudry says people outside of science and medicine are “equally valid” as mentors to students and trainees and can shape a person’s life just as much as a doctor or scientist can – and sometimes more genuinely because there is no vested interest.

“I don’t think science and medicine have any boundaries,” Chaudry says. “Consider who is the most capable person you can find help from.”

3. Make a case for yourself.

Once you’ve identified who you want to be your mentor, approach them respectfully to ask them to be your mentor. Make a strong case about why they should consider giving their time to lead and guide you. Tell them about yourself and your interests and point to what you admire about them and their career. This individual is probably very busy, so have a proposal ready. Be clear about the goals you have for the mentorship and specify the skills you want to grow in. Doing the preparation and planning on the front-end can make it easier for them to say “yes.” Try to be flexible to when they are able to dedicate time to the relationship.

“I had a mentor who would answer any question I had – at 6:15 a.m. over a bagel,” Chaudry says. “This was his most relaxed time of the day.”

4. Be persistent.

Sometimes a mentoring relationship won’t work out – and that’s okay. A mentor may find themselves too busy after all to give enough time to you. Chaudry says don’t give up or feel discouraged – finding a mentor is important enough to try again. If your first choice doesn’t have the time to be a mentor, ask them to recommend someone else,

“Knowledge is very precious to gain and if there’s anything you need to do to gain it, you should do that,” Chaudry said.

5. Help them help you.

See your mentor as a member of your professional team that can help you in a variety of ways. You can walk through paper and project ideas with them and they can identify potential setbacks and help you think of alternative ways to approach an issue. Be open with what you are struggling with and remember – you’re probably not the first person to have the same questions you need to ask. Your mentor has probably encountered similar struggles in their own career.

“There are so many different ways to get something done, but what is the fastest way or the better way?” Chaudry says. “A good mentor trains you how to think and question.”

6. Show thanks and stay in touch.

Always make sure that your mentor feels valued for the time, expertise, and advice they are giving to you. Stay in touch with them over the years and give them updates on your career wins. It brings Chaudry satisfaction to not only see his mentees succeeding in their careers as academic leaders from afar, but to receive holiday cards and reconnect with them at conferences and meetings around the world.

“It is a pleasure to see that many of those individuals feel like a part of my family and do feel free to call and ask for advice even though some of them are chairs of departments,” Chaudry says

More resources:

The UAB Heersink School of Medicine has a few formal mentoring opportunities you can explore:

UAB Connect: a mentorship portal for UAB SOM students and residents from underrepresented backgrounds in medicine to find and connect with faculty mentors from similar backgrounds.

The Early Career Peer Mentoring Group: Designed to provide insight into the transition from trainee to faculty. Mentees receive help with logistics, academic and NIH expectations, advice on transitioning grant resources, coaching on how to navigate interpersonal relationships, and guidance on managing the stresses of an academic career.