The knowledge students gain in medical school usually is imparted by classroom instruction—one teacher, many learners. But once students advance into fellowships, navigating the subtleties of oncology, choosing research opportunities, and making good career decisions often requires the more individually tailored communications found in good mentoring relationships.1

The presence of a mentor is well recognized in helping oncology fellows to become involved in research.1 But mentors also guide fellows in career-related decisions, clinical work, patient care, and other areas where they may need a bit of help.2 “Because the field of oncology is so complex, it’s hard to do it on your own without any advice,” said Dawn Hershman, MD, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City, and a member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)’s Leadership Development Program.

“The mentor is critical to serve as a role model for the mentee not just in terms of academic accomplishments, but also in terms of defining personal goals,” she said. “It’s also about the personal relationship and having someone help guide you and focus you rather than it being about somebody telling you exactly what to do. A lot of what a mentor does is to provide encouragement and help the mentee figure out what they want to do so they have all the opportunities they need to be successful.”

When Samantha Jaglowski, MD, first met her mentor, she had some idea of what her interests were, but still needed help focusing on a research and career path that could put her in reach of her goals.

“I have a tendency to go off in a lot of different directions,” she said. Her mentor helped guide her toward chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and CLL transplants, as well as Phase I and II drug development.

“He really helped me streamline my focus,” said Dr. Jaglowski, who is currently doing a blood and marrow transplant fellowship, and is a 2011 recipient of an ASCO Young Investigator Award.

Although some fellowship programs have a formalized structure for matching fellows with mentors, many fellows find their mentors through a more casual approach. “Find someone who has a history of being a good mentor and who is conducting research in an area that you’re interested in and ask if they have a project you could work on, or if they could help you develop a project you might have,” Dr. Hershman suggested.

Dr. Jaglowski took a rather haphazard approach to finding a mentor. “Part of the moral of my story is that just showing up is so important,” she said. While doing an outpatient rotation during her intern year, Dr. Jaglowski simply wandered into the first hematology office space she found and asked of the doctor there, who happened to be a leading expert in CLL, “Hey, can I work with you?”

The 2 have been working together now for 7 years. “I wouldn’t have gotten the Young Investigator Award without him, and I wouldn’t have gotten the American Society of Hematology [Scholar] Award without him,” she said.

Dr. Jaglowski was fortunate to find a mentor with whom she was comfortable—an expert in what she wanted to do, with a track record of mentoring young oncologists and the time and energy to help her out. Most fellows, however, should not count on stumbling onto the perfect mentor.

“Often you see both residents and fellows working with the first person they talk to instead of really investigating who is doing the best research,” Dr. Hershman said. “You need to talk to a lot of people to make sure it’s the right fit. Somebody could be an outstanding researcher, but not necessarily be able to devote the time it takes to be a good mentor.”

Often it takes more than one good mentor to foster an oncology fellow in all the areas where they might need guidance. “Ultimately, no one person can be everything to someone else,” Dr. Hershman said. “You may need different mentors for different aspects of your career.”

A fellow may turn to one mentor for advice on grant writing, another for instruction on conducting a clinical trial, or for tips on being a better teacher or the best way to manage patients. Fellows may even identify a mentor to help them with personal issues. “You have to know who to go to for what type of guidance you are seeking,” Dr. Hershman said.

When Kevin Kalinsky, MD, began his fellowship, he sought a mentor for research and clinical work. Deciding he needed additional basic science experience, he spent an extra year of fellowship training in the breast program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, working with additional mentors who helped him with science research and patient management.

“They all very much shaped my direction and helped guide me to my current interests,” Dr. Kalinsky said. “I think by having several mentors, you are able to identify through them characteristics in yourself that you want to foster in order to develop your career and pass on to others in training.”

Now finishing his second year as a junior faculty member at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and mentoring fellows himself, Dr. Kalinsky recognizes the need for mentoring relationships even after fellowship. “It’s easy in the first few years to be swept into other things, and my mentor has helped me make sure I’m on the right path.”

The mentoring relationship clearly serves the mentee, but it is not a one-way street. “Mentees have to recognize that mentors do what they do voluntarily and it often requires a lot of work and time, so it’s important for the mentee to understand that and express appreciation,” Dr. Hershman said.

Mentees also can help set the stage for the mentoring relationship by identifying what their needs are early on (eg, meeting once a month, frequent email communications) and determining if the mentor can realistically meet those needs.1

“Often the process helps a mentee identify what it is they really want to do long-term. There are a lot of different pathways one can take and the fellow has to spend a lot of time thinking about what they want their career to be and how they envision their future,” said Dr. Hershman.


  1. (Jones_2011). Accessed June 6, 2011.
  2. (Albertini_2010). Accessed June 6, 2011.

DISCLAIMER - Oncology Fellow Advisor® is brought to you as a professional courtesy. This content is selected and controlled by McMahon Publishing and is funded by Lilly USA.