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PURPOSE: Identifying positive role models and emulating them is a significant component of medical education. This study sought to determine which characteristics were deemed most important by residents regarding their physician role models. METHOD: a 50-item questionnaire about role models was developed and pilot tested. The questionnaire was then administered in the spring of 1994 to 230 residents in various specialty programs at McGill University. RESULTS: A total of 195 residents (85%) responded. Most of the residents (144, 74%) were satisfied with the proportions of positive role models in their current residency training programs. Clinical skills, personality, and teaching ability were rated the three most important factors in selecting a staff physician as a role model. When the residents were asked to recall the positive role models encountered while in medical school, attending physicians in internal medicine received the highest scores. CONCLUSION: Knowing what residents look for in their role models should help to identify which staff physicians are excellent role models. These physicians should be selected to spend more time with medical students and residents, and they should be rewarded for improving medical education.