Mentorship: What Do Students Want?

Mentorship is heavily discussed in academic settings, but what it means and how to find it can be daunting for budding veterinarians. There is a fear that asking for guidance equates to a lack of clinical competency, but there is also a deeply driven desire to provide the best care for our patients. This is the perfect place for quality mentorship to step in and bridge the gap. So, what do new graduates want when seeking mentorship?

By Rachel Dufour

Making the Most of Your Mentorship Program

You’re a brand-new veterinarian, fresh out of the clinics. Your white coat has nary a wrinkle on it, but it’s time to start the new job. With fresh scrubs, hot coffee, and a bubble of nerves, you step into that first postgraduation practice. What are you hoping for on your first day? What cases? What advice?

Mentorship is heavily discussed in academic settings, but what it means and how to find it can be daunting for budding veterinarians. There is a fear that asking for guidance equates to a lack of clinical competency, but there is also a deep desire to provide the best care for our patients. This is the perfect place for quality mentorship to step in and bridge the gap. Utilizing multilayered mentorships, practices can invest in talent, improve retention, and create healthier work environments.

So, what do new graduates want when seeking mentorship?

Mentorship or Internship?

To intern or not to intern, that is the question—for some of us. While those interested in specialty care have, in most cases, clear guidelines on the path to board certification, those seeking competency in general, emergency, urgent, and preventive medicine often wonder if they can receive enough mentoring at their first job. Would an internship be more beneficial?

For many, this comes down to money. Being able to start working in a practice right after graduation has a higher initial earning potential than going through an internship first. But to feel comfortable making the decision to skip an internship, you need to know that quality mentorship is available. While mentorship is inherently part of the internship, the quality of such guidance can vary, so many are now seeking that guidance through a first job.

In this era of veterinary medicine, there are multiple job opportunities available upon graduation. It’s a “buyer’s market.” Mentorship is a way for these opportunities to set themselves apart. If a job offer includes mentorship, it shows the potential applicant that the practice can and will support new hires. In some cases, mentorship is even built directly into the contract.

Mentorship takes many forms, and which form each new hire desires may vary based on confidence, long-term goals, and personality. In order to avoid confusion and strain on mentor–mentee relationships, these goals and needs are often best met if clearly defined. This avoids a new hire feeling like a burden or an existing employee feeling strapped with extra responsibilities for which they were not prepared.

Formal or Informal Mentorship?

In broad terms, there are two main forms of mentorship to consider: formal and informal.

Formal Mentorships

The structure of a formal mentorship helps outline clear expectations and goals, and sometimes includes written guidelines and regular meetings. When initiating the conversation about formal mentorship, it’s best to be direct and ask what the potential new hire wants. There are a few things to address:

  • What are the goals and expectations of mentorship?
  • On which skills will the mentorship focus: surgery, soft skills, business, etc.?
  • How often will the mentor conduct formal one-on-one check-ins with the mentee? Will these check-ins change in frequency as the mentee progresses through the program?
  • What form will the mentorship take: shadowing, guided surgeries, case rounds, a checklist of procedures to be completed, specialized workshops, continuing education, etc.?
  • How will compensation change—for both the mentee and mentor—during and after the mentorship program?
  • Who will be engaging in mentorship with the mentee: veterinarian, management, nurses, etc?
  • Will mentors be given special training to aid in mentorship, and is there oversight to ensure they are providing inclusive mentorship?
  • What protocols are in place if the mentor–mentee relationship is not successful or not reaching the desired outcomes?
  • How will the end of the formal mentorship be facilitated?

Mentor and mentee sitting at table

In some cases, there will be an established protocol for a company-wide mentorship program, but some flexibility should be built in to account for individual needs. Many of us have very specific veterinary goals in mind. These range from wanting some guidance during a few surgeries to learning about the business side of practice ownership.

There will come a time when the need for formal mentorship fades, hopefully signifying a successful mentorship. When this time comes, mentees might wish for a final meeting. This meeting is an opportunity not only to end the formal status of the mentorship but to pass on any final pearls of wisdom and keep the door open to any future, less formal mentorships.

While those interested in specialty care have, in most cases, clear guidelines on the path to board certification, those seeking competency in general, emergency, urgent, and preventive medicine often wonder if they can receive enough mentoring at their first job.

Informal Mentorships

One size does not fit all, and some people look for a more informal approach to mentorship. Informal mentorship might seem less awkward and easier to initiate, but this type of mentorship comes with its own unique challenges. Most of the questions above should also be at least considered in informal mentorship. These are less likely to be outlined in a contract or document but can still impact the quality of guidance provided. In cases of informal mentorship, the above questions can be discussed in an interview-style setting, and potential new hires can outline what they are seeking.

Informal mentorship allows for maximum flexibility in how the practice handles each person’s needs. Since this form of mentorship is less likely to be documented or written out, it is important to ensure that your staff mentor is (or mentors are) comfortable and ready to take on a mentorship role. Those wanting to be mentors should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Do I have the time to engage in mentorship in such a way that won’t drain or stress me or my staff?
  • Who on my staff will mentorship fall onto, and have they agreed to be part of the mentorship team?
  • Do potential mentors feel they currently possess the skill set to be an inclusive and effective mentor? If not, is the practice equipped or willing to provide training to help them obtain those skills?

New doctor performing an ultrasound

In this era of veterinary medicine, there are multiple job opportunities available upon graduation. Mentorship is a way for these opportunities to set themselves apart.

One of the last things a new graduate wants to feel like is a burden. It’s important for your team to be honest and open about what they are willing to offer a new graduate working alongside them. Informal mentorship can be incredibly beneficial to a mentee as they build a sense of autonomy while knowing confidently that there is room for consultation with a more experienced team member if they need it.

Initiating informal mentorship can be as simple as introducing yourself to the new hire and saying, “Hey, I am _____, if you need anything or have questions I am here to help,” or inviting them to watch a procedure or perform one with guidance. For those not wanting to bother someone or cause disruption, this can be incredibly welcoming. These conversations and introductions are often best made during the hiring process, as it sets a tone and understanding that the new hire will not be left without aid as they make that plunge into being a fully-fledged doctor.

In both forms of mentorship, it can be beneficial to see what each mentee needs or wants regarding guidance. That is to say, one mentee may feel super confident in performing alteration surgeries but might need guidance with endocrine disease or client communication. Being clear about what each party needs can help prevent feelings of micromanagement or a sense of lack of confidence in a new graduate’s skill or expertise.

These types of mentorship can also exist side by side. We can receive formal mentorship from a veterinarian and informal from a technician, or formal mentorship around procedures and informal around client communication. These relationships are mutually beneficial and can foster life-long community and connectedness.

What Else Might We Seek in Mentorship?

Wellbeing

Seminars and support groups for wellbeing have become more common in veterinary medicine. One significant tool for wellbeing that is often underutilized is mentorship. New graduates often emulate the behavior of those who have educated us. Does the owner of the practice take vacation days? Do others in the practice leave the job in the building, or do they take it home with them? Are there clear boundaries for when people are not at work? What happens when clients are abusive toward staff? When all people in the practice engage in healthy work boundaries, it’s an act of leading by example and cementing a culture of accepting those boundaries.

New hires who may be fresh out of school are used to environments where they are expected to work 60- to 80-hour weeks, pull long shifts, come in early, leave late, and give up most of their life outside of veterinary medicine. While some schools are aiming to change these expectations, it can be hard to shake that. Having a practice culture that supports healthier lifestyle choices in and out of work can help create better balance. At the end of the day, we all love veterinary medicine, but we also do not want it to be the entirety of our existence. We want a practice that celebrates that fact.

One of the last things a new graduate wants to feel like is a burden. It’s important for your team to be honest and open about what they are willing to offer a new graduate working alongside them.

Intersectionality and DEIB

Many students seeking mentorship also seek out those who might understand how their identities intersect with veterinary medicine. While a clinic might not have doctors with the identities of the new graduate or hire, it is still important for those engaging in mentorship to be trained and informed about inclusive mentorship. Having a form of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) training for all staff, as well as provisions and protections in your hospital manual, is a great start to building an inclusive and welcoming clinical practice.

Having these trainings and acknowledgments benefits and attracts new graduates. It can also extend into better client communication and retention of staff. Creating an open environment for topics surrounding intersectionality and DEIB creates a space where new hires feel comfortable vocalizing their concerns and needs.

While mentorship is something discussed constantly in school, especially in the final years, it is not until graduates face the veterinary world head-on, with letters after their name, that the true impact of mentorship in clinical practice is felt—or not felt. Clinics preparing themselves and their whole team for mentorship set not only new veterinarians up for success but also the whole practice. So, as you all go forward with mentorship development, know that everyone finishing their clinical years is more than ready to learn and grow. Can’t wait to see you out there!

Photo credits: PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Capuski/E+ via Getty Images

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