• Mentoring from the Trenches: Why and How Neurosurgical Residents Can Be Career Mentors for Medical Students

    Authors: Hakeem Shakir, MD
    Daniel W. Sheehan, PhD,MD
    Jody Leonardo

    Mentoring relationships profoundly influence both the mentor and the mentee. As thousands of senior medical students travel across the country, immersed in the process of securing residency positions, they are likely to be asked during interviews, “Who are your mentors?” Within the realm of neurosurgery and perhaps beyond, residents may actually be more impactful mentors on impressionable medical students than attending physicians.

    Many medical students begin their careers with naivet? regarding their postgraduate lives as physicians. From selecting specialties to preparing for residency interviews and even for extracurricular-related activities, medical students often seek specific guidance on how to navigate the multiple prerequisites they face on the journey to becoming full-fledged physicians. In an effort to adequately prepare medical students, several medical schools throughout the country have implemented mentorship programs that pair a junior medical student or groups of students with an already established attending physician. The premise behind these mentorship programs is to expose medical students to role models/advisors who have already reached the milestones that the students will invariably encounter.

    Although the attending–medical student relationship is important, there exists an unavoidable divide between a fully trained attending physician and a generally younger medical student. Although Rose, Rukstalis, and Shuckit1 claim that a mentor with a longer tenure provides the greater mentoring advantage, the longer tenure may actually translate to a greater disconnect between the student and mentor. Neurosurgery attendingshave undeniably significant assets; however, due to generational and chronological barriers, the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship comes into question. The length of neurosurgery residency alone, with the possibility of an extra one to two years of fellowship, creates a near-decade gap in age between attendings and medical students. Additionally, the formal and hierarchical relationships between faculty and students, along with the many professional obligations of faculty mentors, could act as deterrents to an optimal mentorship. Cross-sectional descriptive studies have been utilized to study mentoring relationships, and discomfort was found to be a barrier.2

    The better mentors for medical students might be residents. Mentoring of medical students by residents most often occurs informally and organically, and mentors who are comfortable discussing extracurricular topics and do not have difficulty sharing their personal experiences and struggles are regarded as effective.3 From a career standpoint, residents are chronologically closer in age to medical students and also better equipped to mentor students with respect to current expectations of postgraduate life. Residents provide an excellent point-of-view both on the recent past and on the near future as postgraduates.

    The rapidly evolving medical landscape, along with an increase of regulations imposed by the American Council of Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) on residency programs throughout the country, gives credence to the idiom “Times have changed.” As a result, the residency experience of an attending physician even a mere ten years removed from training may differ dramatically from that of a current resident. Life in the 80-hour work week era coupled with the challenges physicians face with respect to meeting regulations as well as patient satisfaction demands may actually be better explained by a neurosurgery resident immersed in that culture from day one of internship.

    The mentor–mentee interaction may also be more mutually beneficial in a resident-student pairing. Mentoring is not a purely altruistic relationship—it is much more symbiotic than one might initially expect. For example, a researcher can accomplish more by involving bright young people on projects rather than working as a lone wolf. Furthermore, the mentor benefits from the reflected glory of the mentee who does well.4 As the medical student gains valuable insight from a resident, the resident is able to hone his or her leadership and communication skills. Increased involvement also offers residents a chance to “give back to the discipline which they may have selected.”5

    Taking all of these points into consideration, it can be stated that residents serve as stronger mentors than the generally older faculty based on the chronological advantage and often less informal relationship that they cultivate with medical students. Furthermore, residency programs should develop and embrace “residents as mentors” programs to cultivate future generations of physicians. The early involvement of residents as mentors will strengthen the field of neurosurgery from the bottom up and hopefully promote effective leadership.


    1. Rose GL, Rukstalis MR, Schuckit MA. Informal mentoring between faculty and medical students. Acad Med. 2005;80(4):344-348.
    2. Aagaard EM, Hauer KE. A cross-sectional descriptive study of mentoring relationships formed by medical students. J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18(4):298-302.
    3. Boyle P, Boice B. Systematic mentoring for new faculty teachers and graduate teaching assistants. Innovative Higher Education. 1998;22(3):157-179.
    4. Tobin MJ. Mentoring: seven roles and some specifics. 
      Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2004;170(2):114-117.
    5. 5 Hernandez JM. Mentoring medical students: 
      a resident’s perspective. Bull Am Coll Surg. 2009;94(5):27-29. n. 1998;22(3):157-179.

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