One of the greatest moments of third year is when you figure out (or confirm) what you want to do with your life. (I know this doesn’t happen for everyone, and I’ll address that topic in a future post.) Okay, so you know what you want to be when you grow up. What now? You need to find a mentor.
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If you’ve read my blog before, you probably know how strongly I feel about mentorship. (My very first post was on this very topic.) But what is the purpose of this particular mentor? A mentor is an experienced and trusted adviser. Right now you need someone within your specialty to help you choose letter-writers, decide which programs to apply to, and prepare for interviews. You need someone to bolster your confidence when you get anxious about this process. You also need someone who will tell you things you don't want to hear, so that you can match into the best possible program within your chosen specialty and not end up scrambling (or whatever they call it now).
So what should you look for in a mentor? I recommend choosing someone who has expressed confidence in you, whose career you admire, and whose personality is somewhat similar to yours. Also look for someone well-versed in resident selection in your specialty or someone who has been through residency fairly recently. It's probably better to find someone who is not on the resident selection committee at your program, so that you can speak more frankly and get less biased feedback on your rank list.
For this purpose, I find it more helpful to choose a mentor I truly enjoy spending time with and respect, rather than choosing someone based solely on reputation or connections. This may be less practical in extremely competitive specialties, but you can always have two mentors: one for support and advice, the other for his/her connections.
NB: If you can't find the perfect mentor, just find one that is good enough. Do not try to get by without a mentor.
Once you choose a mentor, set up regular meetings with him/her, starting as early as possible. Then make sure to follow your mentor's advice.
I met with my mentor a few times starting in January of my third year. I went over my current grades and Step 1 score, my Step 2 study plan, my fourth year schedule, etc. She gave me amazing advice, and I am so grateful that I followed it. For example, she told me I should do my month in STICU (shock/trauma intensive care unit) before I rotated on trauma surgery. At my program the trauma surgeons are very vocal; if they like you, you'll get a great letter of recommendation and have the chance to stay at our program. If they don't like you… it’s not ideal. As such, I was a little nervous about doing well on trauma, so I followed my mentor's advice and it worked amazingly. After a month in STICU, I knew how to insert lines and tubes, was much less intimidated by trauma patients, knew how to read chest films, etc. I did a great job, got a letter from our well-known and well-published trauma chair, and, perhaps most importantly, I had a fantastic time.