Choose your Mentor, not your Specialization


I recently read an interesting interview with Daniel Pink, bestselling author of “Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates US” and “A Whole New Mind”. In this interview, he gave some advice on what he thinks are key-success factors for an academic’s or student’s career. One thing he said totally rang true to me and was in complete accord with a long held belief of mine. He said: “Pick the professor, not the course. In the hands of a good teacher, every topic can be fascinating.“ I would like to take his statement a little further. I reckon that choosing your mentor will make you more successful and happier than choosing your field of specialization – in the hands of the right mentor, any clinical specialty will be a blast.

Let us examine how most medical graduates traditionally go about choosing their field of specialization. Most of them – myself included – identify a topic that they found particularly interesting during medical school. Lets say you like the brain and you think surgery is kind of cool. So you decide to go into neurosurgery. You tell everyone about your plans and soon every one of your friends as well as mom and dad picture you poking holes into other peoples’ brains. Very proud. Soon you cannot picture yourself in any other specialty and your own brain is rewired on a neurosurgery operating system. However, what you don’t know is: will you be lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time in order to find a senior neurosurgeon who:

  • will recognize your potential
  • will need you to advance her own goals and
  • will support you on your way to the top?

All three prerequisites have to be present in order for the mentor-mentee relationship to work. The second prerequisite is the driving force in this triad: The mentor has to need you just as much as you need her. As Jack Welch put it nicely in his autobiography “The purpose of your job is to make your boss look good.” I cannot stress this point enough. I have seen countless occasions where the mentee was let down in a situation of departmental turmoil just because he was not important enough to the ones in power. What I am talking about is a co-dependent relationship, not some formalized mentorship program where the mentor is supposed to babysit the mentee through residency. Now don’t get me wrong, those programs are better than no program at all but they can never hold up with the strong partnership I am talking about.

Now, some of you might tell me: “But I can’t specialize on something that I’m not passionate about.” And I tell you: “Yes, you can!” The thing is, you are just not passionate about it yet but in the hands of the right mentor, any clinical specialty can become your passion. I personally hated chemistry when I started pre-med and I loved it once I was knowledgeable, same for neuroanatomy, same for hematology. The interest for a subject increases with the understanding for it.

There even is scientific evidence on the importance of mentorship in academic medicine. Sambunjak et al. published a systematic review in JAMA on this topic. When they reviewed the existing literature on the issue, they found that the signal in favor of mentorship was strong but that the available evidence was scarce (i.e. not very many available studies on the topic). Irrespective of these sample-size issues, in my humble opinion, this study tried to answer a no-brainer: Will a mentor make you successful who:

  1. teaches you what she knows
  2. gives you access to her network
  3. gives you rear-cover within your organization
  4. serves as a role-model
  5. provides you with advice, encouragement and discourse and who
  6. might ultimately become a good friend?

You make up your mind yourself! My recommendation might come as a paradigm shift to some of you but I strongly encourage you to consider it next time you talk to your mom about neurosurgery!


  1. I partially agree with your point, although often finding a specialization appealing goes hand-in-hand with someone (a mentor?) giving you an unforgettable experience or insight which makes it appealing in the first place. Secondly I also believe that if you have chosen your specialty, go out and find your mentor out there in the wide world. There are some great people out there in every specialty!

  2. formula of success: chose what you’re passionate about AND find the right mentor(s) AND do networking, networking, networking… (and work hard)..until you are there, where you want to be…
    I personally believe that passion for something has to evolve inside yourself – the key of success. Passion gives you all the energy you need to reach your aim…and the right people need to help on your way there….cheers 😉


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