A journey from mentee to mentor
Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald FMedSci, MRC Programme Leader at the MRC Cancer Unit, University of Cambridge and an Honorary Consultant in Gastroenterology and General Medicine at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, began her journey as one of the first participants in the Academy’s mentoring programme. Over the last fifteen years, she has been elected as a Fellow of the Academy, and now has mentees of her own through the same scheme. Here, she looks back on her experiences.
How did you feel, back in 2002, about being a mentee in the programme?
I heard about it through my MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship. At the time, I was working with Professor Dame Carol Black DBE FMedSci at the Royal College of Physicians for a report on women in medicine, so when I heard about the Academy programme, she seemed a clear choice to be my mentor.
When I was choosing a mentor, I wanted someone who would be easy to talk to, and who was in a leadership position. As I already knew Carol, it felt less daunting to approach her, compared to the other senior figures listed. Carol wasn’t working directly in my field, but that wasn’t a concern for me and I definitely think it can be a positive thing.
What was your experience of being mentored?
It's interesting now that I see it from the other side, as a mentor. Everyone I’ve mentored has very different expectations of mentoring; some come with an agenda, which is really constructive, and are very clear about the questions they want to ask, and with others, mentoring is an informal chat. I wonder if I would have got more out of it, if I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to get out of the relationship.
My mentoring relationship with Carol was (and is!) quite informal, but enormously helpful. I would pick up the phone and have a chat with Carol if something particular came up, which was often at unexpected moments. Mentoring regularly becomes an ongoing relationship, which matures and evolves over time. This helps, because the mentor will have known you for a while, and will know what is important to you when sharing their advice.
The fantastic thing about the mentoring relationship with Carol was the outside perspective that she gave, as she was from a different discipline, and a different institution. She was able to see things clearly that were difficult to see from close up.
How did you feel when you first became a mentor?
I really value the AMS programme, and it was nice to be able to contribute and give something back. The time commitment isn’t too onerous and in my experience, even just a little time with a mentor can be valuable and re-affirming.
Mentoring is a way for Academy Fellows to give back. The further you get along your career path, the more you realise the importance of the young people coming along behind you, and often academic clinicians (and women in particular) need a bit of confidence and reassurance that they’re doing the right thing.
People who aren’t keen on becoming a mentor often think it would be time consuming, but it hasn’t felt like that to me.
What has been your favourite thing about being a mentor?
It’s given me a chance to reflect on the issues that people face at different points in their career, things that are often covert and subtle but can be quite a big hindrance.
I’ve also enjoyed meeting some fantastic up-and-coming biomedical researchers, who are very talented and committed individuals who need nurturing, and it’s nice to play a small part in that.
The experience when you’re having a conversation and you see the penny drop is always a joy. It’s different from an academic supervision, and when you can see that moment of realisation in a mentee that empowers them to pursue something dear to them, it makes it hugely worthwhile.
Has your mentoring style changed over time?
One mentoring style isn’t right for everyone, as each mentee’s expectations differ, and of course personalities differ. As a doctor, we’re trained to assess pretty quickly what sort of person someone is when they come through the door, we’re used to trying to put ourselves in their shoes quite quickly. This works for mentoring too – you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.
Over time, I think that I have improved at being able to stand back and have a broader perspective, reimagining the issues presented and being empathetic. It becomes easier, the more you do it, to recognise patterns and give advice. The more you mentor, the more you feel that you get wiser; but that doesn’t mean knowing all the answers. I am sure that some mentees find me more helpful then others; and that’s fine – not everyone can be the best mentor for everyone all of the time.
Do you have any top tips for other mentors?
I’d like to encourage more people to do it, and I would say as well as putting something into it, that mentors get a lot out of it, too.
What I would say is, if you’re talking to someone as a mentor, it’s important to clear your mind and be wholly present in that time, even if it is just for a short time. Going for a coffee somewhere, away from your office can be helpful as it relaxes people and avoids intimidating them.
The most important thing a mentor can do is listen. Just talking and getting it off their chest is so valuable to the mentee and a big part of the experience.