Choosing a career in medicine requires ‘a good dose of flexibility’, many mentors

April 27, 2022

4 minute read



Healio Interviews

Disclosures: Graff and Kumthekar do not report any relevant financial information.

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Committing to a medical specialty requires motivation and is strengthened by a personal connection, especially when choosing a specialty that can be emotionally draining like oncology.

Healio spoke with Stephanie L. Graff, MD, director of breast oncology at Lifespan Cancer Institute and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, and Priya Kumthekar, MD, a neuro-oncologist from Northwestern University, both board members of Healio Women in Oncology Peer Perspective, on the advice they have for those early in their medical career choosing a specialty, and more especially for those who plan to focus on oncology.

Know your interests

An underlying interest in science and nurturing relationships with patients can be two strong reasons for choosing oncology as a career path.

Graff said a history teacher she had in high school — someone she considers one of her earliest mentors — told her that “your job will be to read about your work” and that everything what she liked to read would be a good clue as to what career path would follow.

“That was incredibly true advice,” she said. “My job has been to read about my work. I have always loved math and science. At school, I liked pharmacology, physiology and biology, so cancer care was easy to integrate. Then, when I started clinical rotations, the humanity of oncology was totally in line with my interests.

She went on to say that oncology matches both her “nerdy, science geek side,” as well as the connection and depth of relationships built during patient care.

Kumthekar also shared that she found a calling in oncology after training in neurology and that patient care was a major factor in choosing her career path.

“I did a neurology residency that included a few neuro-oncology specialists,” she said. “I had the opportunity to work with them and I really felt an attraction, a real pull to the field. I felt like the patient relationships were really what attracted me, and I suspects it’s no different for most who choose oncology.There can be high stakes and high emotion moments.

Kumthekar said she “by nature is a holding hand”, and so a job in which she could perform this skill for patients and their loved ones during times of stress was as important as her love and interest in science. behind the domain.

Kumthekar added that no matter what field you are in in medicine, there is always a path to oncology and a way to help cancer patients. If you feel that attraction even after medical school, she said it’s “never too late” to move in that direction and find those who will help you get there.

Graff added that it’s important to remember that “nothing lasts forever.”

“Just because a job or project isn’t right for you doesn’t mean it has to be ‘forever,'” she said. “Use this opportunity for what it is and keep an eye on where you want to go.”

“Everything is going well”

Despite the many decisions that need to be made early in your career and the steep learning curve that comes with any new career, maintaining flexibility and getting effective mentorship can ensure you’re on the right path. .

Graff said one thing she wishes she had known sooner was that “in the end, everything turns out okay.”

Having been the first person in his family to go to college, let alone medical school, Graff’s knowledge of everything from how to apply to college and medical school, to getting into residency and scholarship programs, dealing with student loans, even what to wear and say, were all foreign. She often felt like she was stumbling through it all.

“There are so many competing vectors that are forcing us in one direction or another,” she said. “We have our biological families, and we have also found families that we have chosen for ourselves, who can push or pull us in different directions. The Residency Matching process is its own beast that pushes and pulls you in ways that are less in our control than we would like.

She noted that new doctors should begin their careers in medicine with “a healthy dose of flexibility” and accept what comes.

“There’s always a way to find your community and find your support system, no matter where you land and no matter the background,” she said.

Kumthekar said that as an intern, it seemed like everyone was looking for a “golden mentor,” but one thing she learned is that the key to success is having multiple mentors in different fields.

“Just like in real life, you have different influences for different areas of your life, and you don’t have to have it all in one person,” she said. “None of us is an ‘all-in-one’ human being. We can’t have it all, so how can we expect that from just one mentor? »

She added that it’s important to distinguish between a mentor who can help you with the scientific side of your career as much as a mentor who can help you with the emotional side.

“Basically, you can have a mentor for different areas of your career and your life,” she said. “To find one, you don’t have to be as rushed as it can sometimes seem, but rather look for positive influences and those who can help you in different ways.”

Graff added that women in general can also be more hesitant when seeking mentors for themselves.

“I get approached by men for mentorship much more easily than women,” she says. “I want to say to women, reach out to them if you need a mentor. You can also ask for a sponsor, someone who is specifically creating an opportunity for you – maybe to take part in a research project, get published or speak at a conference.If you look at your resume and see that you need to fill in some of these areas, don’t be afraid to go beyond your traditional boundaries and ask for those sponsors.

For more information:

Stephanie L. Graff, MD, can be contacted at

Priya U. Kumthekar, MD, can be contacted at

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