By Dr. Mehmood Asghar
It was the year 2007. I was in the 2nd year of dental school; I was struggling. With a highly diverse set of subjects being taught – from dental anatomy to pharmacology and community dentistry and behavioral sciences – it was all new for me. I was drowning in all that information and couldn’t find a way to make sense of it. It was then that I got my first mentorship experience. One of my lecturers noticed my nervousness and asked me to stay back after class. They’d realized what I was going through, and what many dental students go through when they enter dental school.
Having a mentor during the early years of dental school was an absolute blessing. My mentors helped me realize where I had been wrong. Thanks to them, I learned about time management and, more importantly, how to better balance my academic and social life. As a result, my grades improved, and I started enjoying life in dental school.
Three years later, as the subjects changed from basic dental sciences to purely clinical ones, I needed another mentor. Walking in the hallways of our tertiary dental hospitals, one of the best and the largest in the country, I felt overwhelmed. While excited about treating patients, the extremely technical and conceptual clinical subjects like prosthodontics, restorative dentistry, and maxillofacial surgery made me think – at least initially – that I was not cut out for dentistry.
But then, I found another excellent mentor in one of the postgraduate residents in maxillofacial surgery. After classes and clinical rotations, I would enter the operatory room of my mentor and ask their dental assistant to let me assist. This allowed me to observe first-hand various clinical procedures while having the opportunity to ask questions, not just about maxillofacial surgery but about anything. I was allowed to talk freely and frankly, but I was humble and respectful. This led to the creation of a special bond that lasts even today. I still visit them whenever I need guidance or mentorship.
The need for mentorship does not end once you leave dental school. Instead, having a mentor becomes even more critical when one enters practical life – and I learnt it the hard way. Right after graduating as a dentist – fueled with passion and overconfidence – I believed I was unstoppable and had learned everything I needed to. I was wrong. In dental school, students are protected by a “bubble.” Any mistake you make will be covered by your seniors or teachers – but not in practice life. Now, you’re responsible for your own decisions and actions.
While undergoing a one-year internship in one of the best tertiary dental hospitals, I was still under that bubble. I believed that once I got out of there, plenty of jobs would be waiting for me; I was wrong, again. In 2012, when I was a fully licensed dentist, I realized how competitive the dental industry had become. At that time – which was undoubtedly my lowest – I felt I had entered a blind alley with no clear direction in sight. After much deliberation, I understood that I had three options. First, I would need to come up with some money to open a general dentistry practice. But that was easier said than done. The second option was to enroll in a postgraduate clinical program, which was highly competitive and virtually impossible to get into. The final option was to enroll in a research degree in dentistry that would ultimately take me to a Ph.D.
It was then I found my third mentor, one of my teachers from dental school. In those days, I would regularly visit them in their dental office and talk to them for hours whenever I had the chance to. They made me realize the most important lesson of my life; to understand my strengths and weaknesses. It took some time, but ultimately, it helped me understand my future path. I realized that I was better at academics and research than clinical practice. That is why I decide to pursue research in dentistry. Thanks to my good academic grades, I managed to get into a highly competitive master’s program in dental biomaterials. I believe that was the best decision of my life. Today, I am an Assistant Professor in Dental Biomaterials in one of the best dental schools in my country, and I am about to complete my Ph.D. in restorative dentistry.
My story highlights various essential aspects. First, it shows the importance of having a good mentor. Secondly, it shows that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. I was lucky enough to be blessed with mentors throughout life. But not everyone is so fortunate. Many bright and passionate dental students and graduates fail in practice life simply because they don’t get the right advice. That is why I try to be an excellent mentor to my students so they can become even better and more successful dentists than their teachers.
Why Mentorship Is So Important
Let us look at some statistics. In 2019, a survey by the Olivet Nazarene University explored professional mentor-mentee relationships and highlighted exciting findings. Among the 3,000 people surveyed, only 56% had ever had an experienced mentor. Unfortunately, the healthcare industry ranked the lowest (43%) among the industries with the most mentors, compared to 66% for science. The survey also showed that people who were mentored were happier than those who weren’t.
According to the CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness Survey of 7,940 participants, it was found that workers who had a mentor were more likely to say that their jobs were well-paid and that their contributions were valued by their co-workers, two significant indicators for overall workplace-related happiness.
And according to the National Mentoring Day Global statistics, 55% of businesses felt that mentoring had a positive influence on their profits, while 67% reported their productivity increased.
Mentorship: When and How?
As mentioned earlier, one can benefit from mentorship at any stage or phase of life. According to the Olivet Nazarene University survey, 61% of the respondents believed that their mentor-mentee relationship developed naturally, while 14% of mentees initiated the request. In comparison, in only 25% of the cases, the mentors offered to help.
What to Look for in a Mentor
According to National Mentoring Day Global, “A mentor is someone who provides support and helps the mentee to review their situation through a process of reflection, questions, signposting, challenge, advice, and feedback. Mentoring is undertaken this way rather than by advice to allow the mentee to come to their own decisions. A mentor is there to help the mentee on their journey.” So, a mentor is anyone who can help you realize your goals by understanding your strengths and weaknesses.
Should My Mentor Be from the Same Field?
Not necessarily, but it's preferable. Some of my mentors were dental professionals, while some weren’t. For example, one of my lifelong mentors, my father, is an engineer, but I always get sound advice from him. But when it comes to dental issues, I always consult my dental mentors. The Olivet Nazarene University survey showed that over 81% of the respondents had mentors from the same industry, while 61% just worked at the same company.
Like all other relations, a mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way street. You give respect, and you get respect in return. Therefore, always be polite and humble to your mentor. You can mutually set the boundaries of your relationship – whether it’s formal or informal – but it must allow you the opportunity to discuss your problems and concerns frankly. The goal is to learn from your mentor's experiences, knowledge, and wisdom and use it to make better educational and career decisions.
Mentors are all around us. If you are searching for one, you will indeed find one, like I did when I used to wander around nervously in the hallways of my dental school, trying to make sense of my new “dental life.” But it must also be remembered that today’s concept of mentoring is altogether different from the past; there is no more teaching or “direction” involved. Instead, modern-day mentors are “facilitators” who will show you the way, but you will be the one to decide and take responsibility.
I hope that we, who were lucky enough to be mentored, pay it forward by continuing to mentor our budding dentists to help them prosper and succeed.
Author: Dr. Mehmood Asghar is a dentist by profession and an Assistant Professor of Dental Biomaterials at the National University of Medical Sciences, Pakistan. Dr. Asghar received his undergraduate and postgraduate dental qualifications from the National University of Science and Technology (NUST). He is also currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Restorative Dentistry from Malaysia. Apart from his hectic clinical and research activities, Dr. Asghar likes to write evidence-based, informative articles for dental professionals and patients. Dr. Asghar has published several articles in international, peer-reviewed journals.