Stepping into the inaugural American Society of Black Neurosurgeons (ASBN) dinner in 2022, surrounded by almost 30 Black neurosurgeons, residents and medical students, was an indescribable experience. In that room, I encountered past program neurosurgery department chairs and senior attendings, who welcomed me into the fold with open arms. The presence of such accomplished individuals who shared my background and experiences left an indelible impact on me.
Joining the ASBN shed light on a critical flaw in my approach to mentorship. To truly flourish and reach my full potential, I recognized the need to cultivate a diverse team of mentors around me. Effective mentorship entails a combination of peer mentors, career mentors, life mentors and sponsors. I had been burdening my primary mentor unfairly, expecting him to fulfill all these roles single-handedly. Yet, he had somehow managed to keep me afloat throughout my journey — a testament to his unwavering dedication to my success. It is somewhat humbling to admit that I failed to grasp this crucial aspect of mentorship earlier in life. My experience is not unique, particularly for individuals from underrepresented groups who may face similar challenges in finding the right support network.
With this revised approach to mentorship, I have begun to forge my own path in the field of neurosurgery. With that, I present a structured approach to finding mentors, assembling a personal board of advisors, each playing a unique role but sharing a common dedication to one’s success.
- Peer Mentors: These are individuals in a similar or adjacent career stage, such as co-residents, fellows, or junior faculty members. This group is the one you can reach out to bounce ideas, seek advice on resident politics, prepare for cases, avoid common residency pitfalls and become involved in research.
- Career Mentor: A career mentor is a seasoned faculty member who can guide and refine your professional trajectory. This mentor may be from within or outside your home institution. They assist in networking, identifying fellowship opportunities and setting and achieving mid- to long-term career goals through regular check-ins.
- Sponsor: A sponsor is someone who knows you well and works behind the scenes to advocate for your success. This person may not be someone you communicate with regularly, but they are individuals you meet along your journey, such as at conferences or sub-internships. Sponsors are familiar with your research work and career path. They are pivotal in advocating for you when you apply for awards, grants and advancements within neurosurgery.
- Life Mentor: Your life mentor ideally exists outside the confines of your direct medical community. This can be a spiritual advisor, life coach or an older family member. Their role is to help you navigate the challenges of residency and beyond while staying true to yourself. Having a life mentor reminds us that we are multifaceted human beings and to maintain balance and nurture our well-being beyond just being neurosurgeons.
By assembling a mentor team, you will have a comprehensive support system that empowers you to navigate the complexities of a career in neurosurgery while fostering personal growth and resilience. This also provides a rubric for you to engage in mentoring others, paying it forward to the next generation of neurosurgeons. Recognizing the importance of mentorship, it is crucial that, as neurosurgeons, we actively incorporate teachings on mentorship in our training programs and support mentorship organizations like the ASBN and Women in Neurosurgery so we can ensure the future success of a diverse cohort of resident trainees.
Editor’s Note: We hope you will share what you learn from our posts in the Making and Maintaining a Neurosurgeon series. We invite you to join the conversation on Twitter by following @Neurosurgery and using the hashtag #Neurosurgery.
David A. Paul, MD, MS
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center