How to Break Up With Your Mentor
Halfway through my fellowship, the pressure mounts regarding which career track I will ultimately pursue. As someone who enjoys various subspecialties within this exciting field, I am reminded almost daily of the need to “pick a singular focus” if I am to pursue an academic career. Discussions among colleagues ultimately circle back towards the same conversation regarding mentorship. As you attend professional meetings and network with other hematologist oncologists, the question you are often asked is, “Who is your mentor?” This has become the unofficial way to gauge your academic interests, your expected career path, and even your likelihood of success in the field.
Mentorship—in medicine in general, and in academic medicine specifically—is critical to success. Studies have demonstrated that mentorship correlates with career pathway choice, academic advancement, and career satisfaction, noting that lack of adequate mentorship is a major obstacle to a fruitful academic career.1
Unfortunately, with the difficulty in finding mentors due to their limited numbers and busy schedules, often trainees are forced to pursue a project or work with a mentor more out of availability than alignment of mutual interests. Many articles focus on how to pick a mentor and on criteria for successful mentor-mentee relationships. However, there is a paucity of literature to guide you in navigating a mismatched or unsuccessful relationship.
Here are a few tips on how to break up with your mentor, without burning a professional bridge.
1. Be able to identify signs that the relationship is in trouble.
While the mentorship relationship is different for everyone, there are some common characteristics of effective mentors. Personal traits include altruism, honesty, and active listening. Professional traits include accessibility and having an established professional network that can provide the mentee with relevant opportunities. Successful mentors are also able to identify and support strengths and skills in their mentees and can help them navigate various obstacles in their career pathway.
On the flip side, an unsuccessful mentorship can stem from lack of commitment on the mentor’s part, with consistent unavailability. Significant personality and workstyle differences can lead to constant friction and poor communication. A younger faculty member can suffer from lack of experience or can perceive competition from the fellow, leading to limited opportunities, and lack of a professional network.2
2. Pause to consider whether this relationship can be salvaged.
Often, a mentor-mentee relationship can suffer due to failure to set ground rules and mutual expectations. When you first approach a mentor, you should consider your values, workstyle, and specific needs, and accordingly identify a vision for your career goals that your mentor can guide you through. If there are no specific established goals, time may be wasted on projects that do not serve your professional growth and can limit useful introductions and networking. Make sure that you revisit your goals and your progress at regular intervals with your mentor to ensure that you are on the right track.
A major barrier is usually limited accessibility of the mentor due to their high clinical, research, and/or teaching demands. As much as possible, a mentee needs to be flexible around their mentor’s time and schedule. A few strategies that could be utilized include holding regular mentor-mentee meetings, conducting progress reports, and promoting longitudinal relationships by participation in the mentor’s continuity clinics.3
Occasionally, differences arise due to incompatible personality and management styles. One strategy cited in the literature is “managing up.” This means that you as a mentee take ownership of the relationship, where you express your needs in a direct manner and take responsibility for setting and sticking to a goal schedule. Straightforward communication is key in addressing potential areas of conflict such as authorships on papers and project timelines.4
3. Once you have identified that it is time for the relationship to end and that it cannot be salvaged, do not drag it out.
If your mentorship is formal in nature, you may need to set up a meeting and have an honest and direct conversation. You may find that your mentor had also reached the same conclusion and that a parting of ways is most appropriate.
In certain informal mentorship situations, you can let the relationship fade away on its own if you have had little contact with your mentor over the past few months.
Occasionally, a mentee can outgrow their mentor as they move on to a different career phase or switch their career path. In such situations, an honest approach is best. Acknowledge the help you have received and discuss your future directions. A lot of mentors will be willing to introduce you to a new potential mentor whose background aligns more with your current goals.
4. Whenever possible, end a relationship on a positive note and do not burn bridges.
Mentorship is an altruistic, time-consuming process. Make sure to emphasize all that you have learned from your mentor and exhibit gratitude for the time and effort they have devoted to your growth. The academic community is a small community, especially in certain subspecialties. Occasionally, a relationship can be difficult and may threaten to end negatively. Diplomacy is key to extricate yourself politely without burning a bridge with someone you may potentially cross paths with in the future.
5. Behaviors consistent with abuse of power may require further help from a third party.
Medicine is a hierarchical environment and you may, unfortunately, occasionally encounter demonstrations of abuse of power. Troubling behaviors include theft of authorship or ideas, discrimination, bullying, and harassment. These instances may require further escalation to the department chair or someone else in the chain of command.5 Trust your instincts and seek help when you need it.
6. Do not be discouraged.
A negative experience with one mentor should not dissuade you from reaching out to other potential mentors. If there is a limited availability of mentorship in your desired focus in your own institution, do not hesitate to widen your search. Join committees where you can meet like-minded people. Explore opportunities in other institutions. Most professional meetings have networking events and mentoring opportunities. Consider a virtual mentoring program such as the one available through ASCO. (Learn more about the ASCO Virtual Mentoring Program.)
7. Remember to pay it forward.
As a hematologist/oncologist in training and an early-career physician, you will actively seek out mentorship. However, don’t forget that even at this stage in your career, you yourself can serve as a mentor for more junior trainees such as residents and students who can benefit from your assistance.
There is a push in many academic and training institutions now to implement formal mentoring programs that have clear goals, are highly visible to mentees, allow better pairing between mentor and mentee, and include ongoing evaluation.6 It is imperative that we raise awareness not only regarding what makes a successful relationship, but also on how to repair a mismatched relationship or exit one if warranted.
Dr. Abuali is a hematology/oncology PGY5 fellow at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and a member of the ASCO Trainee Council.
- Sambunjak D, Straus SE, Marusi A. JAMA. 2006;296:1103-15.
- Straus SE, Johnson MO, Marquez C, et al. Acad Med. 2013;88:82-9.
- Sambunjak D, Straus SE, Marusic A. J Gen Intern Med. 2010;25:72-8.
- Zerzan JT, Hess R, Schur E, et al. Acad Med. 2009;84:140-4.
- Straus SE, Sackett DL. Mentorship in Academic Medicine, First Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2014.
- Morzinski JA, Simpson DE, Bower DJ, et al. Acad Med. 1994;69:267-9.