Medical school presents challenges at every turn, but the fourth year is particularly difficult, as students begin residency interview season while they’re completing their audition rotations and electives.
It’s a stressful time full of travel, introductions, making good impressions and preparing for an uncertain future. But two program directors and one DO who went through the process recently have all the tips you need to put yourself in the best position to succeed. Here’s their advice.
Communicate as much and as early as possible about travel for interviews
“If the clinic’s closed for whatever reason or your preceptor isn’t working, that’s a good opportunity to get away and do some interviews. But communicating up front is the main thing. What the preceptors hate is somebody not talking to them about it and then bringing it up at the last minute that they’ll be gone.” —Mark Rogers, DO, program director for the primary care sports medicine fellowship at VCOM at Virginia Tech
“You can be lining interviews up next to a weekend or offering to make up the time on the weekend. Offering that allows the rotation the ability to take you up on that if they choose.
“The stress and travel is very hard, but if you’re going out of state for an interview and you’re able to back it up with another one so that you’re traveling nearby, we understand and appreciate the advantages of doing that.” —Joanne Baker, DO, internal medicine program director at Western Michigan University School of Medicine
“When I needed to take time off, I’d let the program director know the very first day of the rotation. Most program directors understand what you’re going through.
“But if a program director gave me a really hard time about asking to go to an interview or asking to go to a meeting, that would tell me that this program wasn’t a good fit for me.” —Gregory Harris, DO, (UP-KYCOM) hematologist/oncologist at Harbin Clinic Cancer Center in Rome, Georgia
Focus on face time
Dr. Rogers: “If you can’t audition at a site you really want to look at, you might be able to do a rotation in another specialty, and while you’re there reach out to the program director and say, ‘I couldn’t get an audition with you, but I’m here with another program. Do you guys have didactics or rounds? I’m really interested in your program and I’d like to come over and visit.’
“With a little extra work and coordinating with who you’re rotating with, that can be a good opportunity to spend some time with residents, fellows and certainly the program directors.”
Aim for a healthy number of interviews, but don’t go overboard
Dr. Baker: “If a program you’re interested in is far away and you don’t have a large number of interviews, it’s worth it to go. Not matching is devastating and very limiting to your options. So if you’re going to go through this, don’t skimp on it. I mean, you’ve just invested $250,000 into your career, now’s not the time to say you can’t afford $200-300 for a plane ticket.
“The number of interviews are going to vary by specialty. I’d say 10 is the number you’re going to want to aim for if possible. If you’re doing a couples match or you’re going into a more competitive field, the data may be out there that you need more than that. But more than 10 usually ends up being too much. If you’re a candidate who has some blemishes, you may need to go on 12-14.”
Dr. Harris: “I probably did clerkship rotations with six different hospitals that had residency programs I was interested in. I applied to 20 or so programs and ultimately interviewed at around eight or nine.”
Never underestimate the power of connections
Dr. Harris: “My program director at [Michigan State University Genesys Regional Medical Center], where I ended up completing residency, helped me out a lot. When I interviewed there, there was clearly mutual interest, but she made it clear that if for whatever reason I wasn’t going to match with them or decided I didn’t want to, she would reach out to other program directors for me.”
Dr. Rogers: “Going to national meetings is a good opportunity to meet program directors and fellows. When an application comes across my desk from someone I met at a meeting, that interaction helps me remember them.
“Facilitating those relationships as a student when you are looking down the road at residency or fellowship programs is important, because those program directors have that memory of you, and that relationship is a little better than it would be if it was just on paper.”
Treat every day as an interview
Dr. Harris: “If the residents knew I was a hard worker, I’d hope that knowledge would trickle down to the program director. I was always at least 10 minutes early to every rotation every day.
“I was always asking if I could help with things. Even the question ‘is there any way I could make the day easier?’ can show that you’re interested, not just asking questions or doing things for the sake of doing them. It was all just to show interest while trying not to be too invasive.”
Take the time to evaluate programs as you observe them
Dr. Harris: “Be open and honest with yourself about what kind of training and program you want to be in. Don’t focus on the name or the prestige of a particular program. If the residents are happy, if they’re eager and teach and learn, then that’s the environment they’re fostering.
“But if everybody’s angry, if people aren’t enjoying being around each other, that’s a very bad sign. At Genesys, there was a good work balance with good colleagues to rely and lean on.
“Residency is arguably one of the most challenging times of anyone’s career in medicine. It’s super stressful and it can get pretty dark sometimes. Being able to have a group of people to talk to and get through it with is incredibly beneficial.”