by Kyle Wilson, Grad Student Year 4, University of Maryland School of Medicine MD/PhD program

As summer approaches, it’s time to start considering how you’ll spend your time. Many students opt for a clinical or research experience during the summer between their first and second years. This choice is supported by match data: applicants who successfully matched into radiology during the 2011 cycle had an average of 2.8 research experiences, versus 2.0 research experiences for those who didn’t match.

Arguably, the most important decision you can make when embarking on one of these experiences is who your mentor should be. This decision requires careful consideration, lest you spend your time feeling miserable, or end it with nothing to show.

The best mentors don’t turn you into a carbon copy of themselves, but rather, into the person you want to be. Therefore, before you approach potential mentors, you should have a list of concrete, realistic goals that they can help you realize. Do you want to achieve technical expertise in a certain procedure? Be an author on a paper? Submit a letter to the editor of JVIR? Or a poster to SIR 2015? If the person you’re talking to doesn’t run a lab, they can’t help you learn how to work with animal models. But then again, they’ll never know you wanted to learn if you don’t tell them!

Once you have a goal in mind, you should talk to potential mentors. This, in my opinion, is the easiest box to check during this process. Unfortunately, it’s also the least informative (but necessary, nonetheless). In my experience, most mentors will be pleasant enough when you approach them. Most will also be willing to help you, assuming that they have funding, time and the expertise to teach you what you want to learn.

Assuming you’ve found a potential mentor who’s willing to help, your next task is to talk with the people that they work with (from their boss to the custodian). You need to get a sense of what it’s like to work with and for your mentor—especially when things go wrong! This is best accomplished when your potential mentor isn’t in the room. If anybody indicates that the mentor in question creates an unpleasant work environment, you must explore further! You discount their experience at your own peril. I hate to break it to you, but you are not special. Whatever you believe makes you unique (e.g. 4.0 GPA, AOA membership, 300 Step I score, delightful personality, beautiful face, and charming wit) is irrelevant! If your mentor treats other people poorly, you can expect them to treat you poorly as well. Suppress your hubris, ask real questions, get honest answers, and you’ll be much happier.

It is entirely possible that the first person you approach may not be the right mentor for you. This is perfectly fine. Persistence pays off. Don’t restrict yourself to your school. Consider people at other hospitals and universities in your region. The SIR Medical Student Council (MSC) has a list of interested mentors here You may want to start your search by talking with some of them.